Marine biotechnology firms say they have set profitable course

October 15, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

Baltimore is pushing to become a more active player in marine biotechnology, an exotic-sounding field that three local companies believe will satisfy a rather commonplace goal -- making money.

Yesterday, the chief executives of Martek Corp., Adheron Corp. and Biotrax Inc. converged on the International Marine Biotechnology Conference being held at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel in downtown Baltimore through tomorrow.

Roughly 100 people attended the gathering, which is taking place at a time when the city's business leaders are striving for a local economy anchored by life sciences businesses. A centerpiece of that effort is the scheduled construction of a multimillion-dollar marine biotechnology center at the Inner Harbor, a project for which $20 million in federal funds were approved last week.

Buoyed by that bullish environment, David Manyak is optimistic about Adheron, a College Park firm of which he is president and chief executive officer.

The 3-year-old company uses a marine bacteria to produce polysaccharide adhesive, a brown, viscous substance that Mr. Manyak said has potential medical and industrial applications.

"We're at a stage where we think we can produce it commercially at a reasonable cost," Mr. Manyak said.

Polysaccharide adhesive could be used in orthopedics to glue broken bones together, or by surgeons trying to heal lacerated organs that can't be stitched, such as the liver and kidneys, Mr. Manyak said.

The bacterially produced glue is unusual in that it will set underwater, meaning it could possibly be used to repair boats or oil drilling platforms. Finally, polysaccharide adhesive has the property of being able to draw heavy metals from water, meaning it could be used to cleanse waterways, Mr. Manyak said.

Biotrax Inc., which is housed in a University of Maryland Baltimore County business incubator program, is a genetic engineering company. It's beginning to see the fruits of three years of work on a biosynthetic fish growth hormone, according to Santo L. Grillo, chief executive officer.

The powdered substance significantly stimulates fish development at commercial fisheries, shortening harvest time and lessening opportunities for disease and predation, Mr. Grillo said.

Biotrax has made its first major sale of the hormone and recently received funding from venture capital companies that brought in roughly $500,000, Mr. Grillo said.

The last and most established of the three young marine biotechnology businesses is Martek Corp., a 6-year-old Columbia company. Its president and chief executive officer is Henry "Pete" Linsert Jr.

Martek, which searches for specialized compounds and chemicals produced from seaborne algae, last month received three federal research grants worth $600,000.

The company is at work developing a class of antibiotics from algae, Mr. Linsert said.

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