UMBC center plugs in Technology: UMBC's technology center is part of a nationwide trend of university-related research parks.


When Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health faculty member Dr. Paul Ts'o went hunting for office and lab space to launch a cancer testing company, he found the most agreeable spot across town -- at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville.

Ts'o's company, Cell Works Inc., is one of 21 small firms and training institutes that have taken up residence on campus as part of a gamble UMBC and the state are taking in developing a technology center and research park.

They aren't alone. States from Arizona to South Carolina are attempting the same feat. Some, such as Virginia, which recently floated a $32 million bond for a biotechnology research park at Virginia Commonwealth University, are spending millions in taxpayer dollars on the projects, though success is far from assured.

UMBC and the state have spent more than $10 million to purchase and convert a former Lockheed Martin research facility into a center for high-tech start-ups. It's been open about a year.

Now, armed with a $1.8 million U.S. Commerce Department grant and $1.1 million from the state and county, UMBC is forging ahead with development of a 41-acre site on the campus for a commercially oriented technology research park.

The goals of the effort: create an engine for high-tech job creation and fuel research contracts for departments and professors at the science and engineering-oriented university.

But the project faces a number of hurdles.

For one, note university research park experts, UMBC faces an explosion in competition nationwide for paying tenants.

Also, community opposition in the form of administrative appeals and court challenges has made companies reluctant to sign leases, county officials have said.

According to the Association of University Related Research Parks in Washington, the number of technology-oriented research parks connected to universities has ballooned to more than 150, up from a handful in the mid-1960s. And at least 18 new ones are planned.

The UMBC project, if successful, could prove an important magnet for job growth.

In Montgomery County, officials credit Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, a county-backed research park, for fueling new company growth and retention of expanding businesses.

More than 1,900 people are employed at 18 companies in the 300-acre business and education park oriented toward biotechnology.

As a result of its success, Johns Hopkins University has launched a similar health and science research and business park, the Belward Research Campus on 138 acres in Rockville.

Another Hopkins' venture, Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus near Highlandtown, has created about 2,500 jobs since Hopkins' real estate arm, Dome Real Estate, took over the campus in 1987.

The campus is home to eight private biotechnology companies and three research divisions of the National Institutes of Health, including the National Human Genome Research Institute. Also on the campus is the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where 2,000 are employed. UMBC hopes to forge a similar success with its research park.

With the help of state and Baltimore County economic development officials, it is attempting to get developers to lease land and build specialty space for technology research-oriented ventures in the park. UMBC hopes to have at least one building under way by June 1998.

Revenue from land leases is projected to cover university operating expenses for the park and pay back a $650,000 state loan.

Leases for some companies will include agreements to set up internships or other training programs for university students and tap university professors for consulting work.

No commitments have been made, but the university is in talks with several potential developers, said Ellen Wiggins, executive director for the UMBC Research Park and Technology Center. UMBC also is attempting to line up potential tenants.

Vision of mixture

The vision for the park, said Wiggins, is a mix of science- and technology-oriented start-up companies and fast-growth ones, as well as public policy research outfits and training institutes.

Currently, an estimated 231 are employed in the Technology Center, located in a hard-to-find nook south of the campus.

Tenants range from start-up, or "incubator" companies, such as Epitaxial Technologies, a developer of semiconductor wafers for wireless telecommunications with just two employees, to fast-growing Cell Works, which has landed financial backing from 130 investors in Asia and is seeking marketing partners for its breakthrough test for prostate cancer. UMBC does not have data on company revenues or payrolls.

As for the research park, plans originally called for 12 buildings on 95 acres. But after community opposition, the park was scaled back to five buildings.

Wiggins estimates that the project, if is fully built and leased, would provide employment for about 750 workers earning wages averaging more than $30,000. It would also generate annual property taxes of $750,000.

UMBC is modeling its plans for the park, in part, on the University of Utah Research Park in Salt Lake City, launched with virtually no public investment in the mid-1960s in an effort to stem a brain drain and diversify the state's mining-dependent economy.

Utah hoped to emulate Stanford University, which founded the nation's first university-related research park in 1948. It became a bedrock for Silicon Valley.

Today, Utah's park, with 40 companies employing more than 5,000, is widely considered one of the nation's most successful. Companies in the park generate a $220 million annual payroll and an estimated $500 million in sales and other economic activity, said Charles Evans, its director.

And thanks in part to its success, the Salt Lake City-Provo area rates as one of the leading regions in the nation for entrepreneurial growth companies, according to Cognetics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting and research firm.

"We've had visitors from every state in the nation come in here wanting to see how to do this," said Evans. "Quite often I tell them not to expect to see anything built in their park in their lifetimes."

The reason for the gloomy outlook, says Evans, is simple.

Slow growth

Technology research parks can take years to get off the ground and are "essentially specialized real estate operations." Therefore, said Evans, "location is absolutely critical."

Proximity to major hospitals, medical research institutions or major research universities is a factor that seems to bode well for success, said Evans.

Experience has shown that entrepreneurs are likely to emerge ++ from such institutions with promising ideas and technologies, he said.

Having a major airport nearby for product shipment and client traffic also is essential, said Evans.

David Hash, vice president of Dome Real Estate, concurred. "These research parks are springing up everywhere," he said. "To be successful, though, you've got to have strong research institutions as anchors. Cheap land in cornfield isn't going to cut it."

UMBC's park scores on these measures.

The university is less than five miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. A major road, Interstate 195, links the campus directly to the airport.

Two major life sciences research centers, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center in

Baltimore, are just minutes away.

Both institutions have active programs to license discoveries and inventions to industry. And Hopkins has launched a program in which companies based on university research receive seed and venture capital.

Strengths at UMBC

UMBC has its own technology research strengths, which the university is hoping will attract high-tech companies and research groups.

Among the strong programs at the university are computer science, information technology and bio-processing.

Wiggins, the executive director for the UMBC Research Park and Technology Center, believes these strengths will draw tenants to the research park as fledgling high-tech companies seek to minimize costs by collaborating on research with university experts.

Those are exactly the reasons Leye Aina, president of year-old Epitaxial Technologies, decided to set up operations at UMBC's Technology Center.

"We are able to interact with professors who understand our technology and use them on a consulting basis as needed," said Aina.

"If we were located in a business park in Gaithersburg, we wouldn't have this advantage. We'd probably have to hire someone," Aina said. That would bite into the company's tight budget.

Richard E. Lee, a founder of Direct Dimensions Inc., which provides digital measuring services for manufacturing and engineering design firms, said the firm chose UMBC because it afforded the company access to a library rich in high-tech material and proximity to a major airport. The company's engineers frequently fly off to take measurements, and items needing measurement are shipped in overnight.

Access to the university's library, availability of low-cost laboratory space and proximity to Hopkins were among the factors that drew Cell Works to UMBC, said Ts'o.

In fact, said Ts'o, Cell Works is so happy with the location, it hopes to move operations into the research park. The company has begun talks with UMBC about putting up its own building there next year.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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