Baltimore's Columbus Center soon will start mapping unexplored worlds, as teams of scientists begin moving this week into its gleaming new laboratories.
Like the Italian navigator whose name it bears, the $160 million marine research and education facility has overcome skepticism and funding problems in its pursuit of audacious goals. Like the explorer Columbus, the center is under tremendous pressure to succeed.
Designed to study the biology of the ocean's plants and animals, center laboratories are supposed to produce discoveries that lead to new medicines and other commercial products -- creating companies and jobs for the region.
In the fall, the center's education arm will begin trying to nurture an interest in science and technology among area high school and elementary school students. And when the exhibition hall opens to the public next year, the center must try to market biotechnology -- the science of designing commercial biological products -- as a tourist attraction.
"Are we pushing the envelope here? Yes," said Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive officer of Columbus Center Development Inc. "Has anybody ever done this before? No. Were there doubts? Yes." But, he added, "people are starting to think we are doing it in the right way."
"There's no question it will succeed," declared Rita R. Colwell, the internationally known scientist who is president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and who came up with the idea of the center in 1985. The center would be a "citizen-friendly science city that would really bring children and families to understand what science is," she said.
"I think it will be a tremendous boon to biotechnology in Baltimore," said Solomon H. Snyder of the Johns Hopkins University medical school, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist whose work has led to the development of new drugs.
"The bottom line is, it's going to enhance building the infrastructure, bringing industry and science together," said William Washecka, director of high technology for the accounting firm Ernst & Young. "But we've got to see execution. We've got to see something coming out of it. A product. A transfer of technology. A buy-in from business," he said.
"It will be one of the premier institutions in the world the day it opens," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and an early promoter of the center.
"It's a different kind of a tourist attraction than almost anything you can imagine," said Walter Sondheim, a founder of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a leader of the downtown renaissance. "But everything that's been done at the Inner Harbor has been a risk. The city would get nowhere if it didn't take some leaps of faith."
First to move in
The first tenants of the Columbus Center will be 92 scientists and other researchers with the Center of Marine Biotechnology, or COMB, part of the university's biotechnology institute. They will move from Baltimore City Community College.
Much of COMB's work is basic research -- an effort to answer fundamental questions about natural processes. But Madilyn Fletcher, COMB's director, said she and the other scientists are increasingly watching the bottom line.
"You can do something that's interesting, or you can do something that's interesting and has an ultimate application," she said. "More and more, we're going toward the latter."
Columbus scientists will work on developing high-tech fish farms, on using biological processes to clean up hazardous wastes at military bases and on designing devices using living tissue in electronic circuits. Here's a sampling of other research:
* Dr. Russell Hill is studying marine microbes called "actinomycetes," work that could aid the search for new antibiotics. That search is urgent, because disease-causing microbes are increasingly resistant to existing drugs.
* Dr. Frank T. Robb is studying micro-organisms that live in water heated to near boiling by deep-sea thermal vents. Heat-resistant enzymes produced by those creatures could have industrial applications.
* Dr. Kevin R. Sowers studies bacteria that live where there is no oxygen. His work could lead to ways to speed up the natural decay of pollutants in oxygen-free environments, such as those at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.
* Dr. Marianne Walch, a Navy researcher, is studying whether biological products can be used to make new, environmentally benign paint removers for use on the bottom of ships.
* Dr. Yonathan Zohar will continue his work on manipulating fish hormones to induce spawning. Several years ago, he discovered that one way to speed the delivery of hormones or drugs into fish is by putting the fish in a concentrated bath of the substance and then subjecting them to ultrasound.
Work on the center began in 1987, after Dr. Colwell met with Mr. Heuisler, Mr. Embry and lawyer Russell T. Baker.
Maryland's congressional delegation secured $54 million in federal funds. The state and city kicked in an additional $86 million, including the value of the precious Inner Harbor site. And at last count, the center has raised about $5.5 million of $20 million it is seeking in private funds.
Plans called for a four-part center: the COMB research labs; a Science and Technology Education Center; an exhibit hall; and a center for marine archaeology to be run by the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
But the state's recession, and a new cost-cutting mood in Annapolis, led to some pruning.
Archaeology center dropped
Last year, legislators rejected a Schaefer administration plea for $300,000 for the archaeology unit and most of $1.1 million more for hiring three more COMB scientists. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not included money for either request in his budget.
Plans for an archaeology center have been abandoned, said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC.
Biotechnology has been promoted as a key to revival of the Baltimore region's economy. Michael A. Conte, director of regional economic studies at the University of Baltimore, believes the Columbus Center could one day play a major role.
"If there's any marine biotechnology work to be done, or any wetlands research that involves biological process, the Columbus Center is going to come to mind as a place to go to have it done," he said. "It could help Baltimore go very quickly to the front of a pack. And that's where we need to be, at the front of some pack."
A large pool of biomedical researchers works at area academic institutions. But, Dr. Conte noted that their discoveries seldom lead to creation of new companies and jobs.
"Looking for biotechnology to become a major employer in this area by the end of the decade is, I think, unrealistic," he said. "We have to be looking for that over a 10- to 15-year period of time."
Dr. Conte said there were only 4,500 biotechnology jobs statewide in 1994. The state would do well to double that figure -- to about 10,000 -- by 2000, he said.
The industry lags behind expectations nationally, partly because a slump in investor interest. Mr. Washecka said there is a perception that biotechnology firms "have been selling us dreams but really haven't rought products to market."
While there are about 1,300 U.S. biotechnology companies, only about 10 are doing well, he said. They are marketing about a dozen successful biotechnology drugs. But if only a quarter of the 300 such drugs in the FDA's pipeline win approval, he predicted, investors will respond.
Part of Maryland's challenge in creating a biotechnology industry, Dr. Conte said, is "the federal lab syndrome." Scientists here, he said, are used to working on the basic, not applied, research typical of government labs. Their counterparts in California and Massachusetts, the founts of America's biotechnology industry, are more "entrepreneurial."
Dr. Snyder, though, thinks the region lacks just one thing: money. Not enough venture capitalists prowl labs here looking for good ideas.
Pension funds eyed
The state has a $20 million venture capital fund, a small portion of which is drawn from state employee pensions. Mr. Embry and others want to see that expanded.
By earmarking from 3 percent to 5 percent of pension funds for venture capital, as some other states do, Maryland could raise an estimated $310 million over 10 years.
"That's too much risk for the retirement system," objected Del. Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll, an influential member of the House subcommittee on pensions.
"Expanding the venture pool is absolutely a high priority," said James Brady, the state's economic development secretary-designate. "Especially when you're talking about a biotechnology thrust."
But, he added, "how it's done has to be looked at very carefully."