State urged to focus on backing products as well as research


October 23, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's biotechnology industry is struggling with the paradox of a strong research base and a weak commercial/industrial sector, state officials told a Senate committee yesterday.

The way to bolster that commercial sector and help Maryland's economy, according to Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development, is explained in DEED's recently completed biotechnology strategy. Under the four-part strategy, Maryland must:

* Enhance the focus on products and the entrepreneurial support for biotechnology companies;

* Develop new approaches to exploit research that's being done by university and federal research laboratories in Maryland;

* Support work force development and training for the biotechnology industry; and

* Improve the state's tax and regulatory environment for such companies.

The biotechnology strategy is the result of the legislature's request that DEED study the best ways to help Maryland companies bring products to the marketplace.

The General Assembly in the past few years has spent several million dollars on a state-sponsored venture capital fund; on the Maryland Biotechnology Institute; and on the design of the Maryland Bioprocessing Center, which would provide lab and office space for small biotechnology companies that want to move past federal clinical trials and gear up for large-scale production.

Further funding requests for those projects will run above $135 million over the next few years, including federal funds and state revenue and general obligation bonds.

Despite Maryland's severe limits on spending, Mr. Wasserman told members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday that the state must continue to invest in biotechnology or risk losing the economic benefits of one of the most promising industries of the future.

"Even in the midst of the most difficult fiscal times," Mr. Wasserman said, "we cannot afford to let these opportunities pass us by."

He said that if Maryland only keeps pace with commercial biotechnology activity in the rest of the nation, the state will have between 72,000 and 130,000 employees in biotech companies within 10 years. Currently, about 3,300 people work for 53 biotech companies in the state.

Those figures rank Maryland third in terms of the number of companies and fourth for employment.

In the meantime, DEED's strategy calls for expanding its Challenge Grant Program, which provides early stage investments in the form of matching grants; supporting the already-established Maryland Venture Capital Trust; and completing the Maryland Bioprocessing Center.

The DEED strategy also calls for improving the links between the academic and federal institutions that conduct basic research and the businesses that could benefit from the products of that research.

One message Mr. Wasserman received from the lawmakers is that unless state funding goes directly to commercializing products, the money simply won't be made available.

"In the financial environment we're in, we don't have one bent farthing to invest in research," said Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel. "Although we do have a limited amount to invest in pushing products" to the marketplace.

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