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Baltimore should be investing more in ‘wet labs’ | READER COMMENTARY

Nam Nguyen, a scientist at the company he founded, 3DNamics, works Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in a Johns Hopkins wet lab. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun).

The critical shortage of “wet lab” space in Baltimore is an indictment of a city economic development strategy more concerned with real estate development than with job development (”Baltimore officials hoping to address shortage of ‘wet lab’ space to retain more innovators,” Nov. 15). Colin Tarbert, head of the Baltimore Development Corporation, warned that the shortage jeopardizes the city’s ability to retain existing life science companies, let alone attract new ones.

Wet labs are built to standards that allow research involving drugs, chemicals and biological materials to be safely performed. They’re essential to support the life sciences industry, which includes biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical products companies. The urgent need for more labs described by Mr. Tarbert is nothing new. Life science companies benefit from being close to major medical research institutions such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland that generate the research that the companies try to turn into practical applications.

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David Block is the CEO of Baltimore-based pharmaceutical company Gliknik. He told The Sun that “people at Hopkins and Maryland could have established many companies in town if there was enough wet lab space, but there simply has not been government money to back that up, and developers haven’t been willing to pull the trigger.”

Developers have been reluctant to build wet lab space in Baltimore unless it is fully leased before construction begins. Dr. Block proposes treating wet lab space as public infrastructure to prime the pump.

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The idea is sound. Baltimore County had the foresight to build the water and wastewater infrastructure for Tradepoint Atlantic, knowing that demand was there for distribution and other facilities. The county’s investment paid off, jump-starting private investment creating thousands of jobs.

Baltimore would not be the first place to apply the idea to wet labs. Montgomery County built the Shady Grove Innovation Center with 24 wet labs in 1999. In the following years, funding from local governments in the Interstate 270 corridor helped establish a life sciences industry hub based on proximity to the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. That hub now stretches from Bethesda to southern Frederick County and includes about 560 companies. More wet labs are being built there that will be able to accommodate startup companies that cannot find space in Baltimore.

Demand for space in Baltimore continues to increase. Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures was founded in 2014 to translate Hopkins research into commercial applications. From 2015 to 2021, JHTV helped raise $3 billion in venture funding, with approximately 40% remaining in Baltimore.

Giving massive tax breaks to developers to build office buildings that move office workers from one part of the city to another, as Baltimore has done, is not a viable economic development strategy. Helping expand the life sciences industry in Baltimore is.

David Plymyer, Catonsville

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