Martha J. Connolly, the top biotechnology expert in state government, said yesterday that she is resigning to become a vice president of a start-up biotechnology company. Clarus Technologies Inc. will be a spinoff of Bethesda-based venture business Emerging Technology Partners LLC, which has made a name for itself over the past year by investing in genomics companies.
Clarus will work to license promising research performed at university laboratories and use it to create biotech companies. Work at universities across the country will be considered, but Connolly called the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore "obvious targets" because of the quality of work done at both.
"It's just the kind of thing I like to do," she said. "It's just another way to create jobs in Maryland."
Connolly, 47, said she will become vice president of licensing at Clarus, which will be based in the Gaithersburg-Rockville area.
Wei-Wu He, co-founder of Emerging Technology Partners and a former president of OriGene Technologies Inc., a genomic tools company, is the company's acting chief executive officer.
Connolly's departure from the Department of Business and Economic Development in the next few weeks follows a high-profile year for Maryland's biotech industry.
Rockville-based Celera Genomics Group drew international attention by sequencing the human genome, and companies such as MedImmune Inc. of Gaithersburg, a biopharmaceutical company, continued their highly visible growth on the heels of investment by the state.
In addition, Maryland's state-sponsored venture capital fund helped start a number of companies. Emerging Technology also invested in at least two of them - Avalon Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Psychiatric Genomics Inc. of Gaithersburg - through its new fund of about $40 million.
Connolly also sensed that, despite the state's success, plenty of promising research was languishing at universities. In some cases, scientists haven't known how to move discoveries out of the lab and into companies that could market them. In other cases, the discoveries needed some fine-tuning before they could be used for products.
To further develop such ideas, Connolly said, Clarus executives plan to run labs in space with inexpensive rent that has been set aside in Montgomery County for fledgling businesses.
Clarus executives hope that backing by Emerging Technology will give the new company the credibility and money it needs to do the deals.
"He was convinced the only way to find these opportunities for investment was to create them," Connolly said of Wei-Wu He, who came up with the idea for Clarus. "Basically, [the company] will be the farm team for his venture-capital fund."
He, a biochemist who was one of the first employees at drug developer Human Genome Sciences Inc., couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.
Connolly is a biomedical engineer who played a key role in helping state venture-fund managers evaluate investments in companies such as Avalon, said department Secretary David S. Iannucci.
During a November 1998 trade mission to Japan, Iannucci got another perspective on Connolly's value as they met with 16 companies in five days. Because of her scientific background, Connolly would "meet with scientists and have instant credibility communicating with them about Maryland's assets for their particular industry," he said.
Connolly earned her doctorate in biomedical engineering from Hopkins' School of Medicine. Later, she was a University of Maryland assistant professor and also worked for the university's Office of Technology Transfer, marketing and licensing discoveries made at the university.
Now she will be on the other side of those transactions.