Life-science push faces big hurdles

May 10, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

A year after the business community dubbed Baltimore the city where science comes to life, most residents still haven't a clue as to what the life sciences are.

But state and city leaders say that by the end of the century every school child, taxi driver, plumber and pinstriped lawyer will come to see life sciences as the city's economic engine, chugging out $150 million in new taxes for Maryland and 60,000 new jobs by the end of the decade.

At the heart would be science-based businesses and institutions -- everything from the Maryland Science Center to hospitals such as Johns Hopkins to companies that make genetically engineered plants or food additives from algae. But printers, lawyers, architects, restaurateurs, retailers, hoteliers -- the list is long -- would find their economic livelihoods linked to its vitality.

Every single citizen should see that the life sciences are a different way of thinking for this region," said William L. Jews, president and chief executive of Dimensions Health Corp. and ++ head of the Greater Baltimore Committee's life-science initiative.

Business leaders acknowledge that their vision has not yet trickled into the community consciousness, but they say the committee's year-old initiative has already begun to provide a focus for educational institutions, legislators and state officials as they seek to replace the city's fading industrial image.

"How the city sees itself and how it is seen is a critical component in how it grows," said Tim Baker, a lawyer who works with biotechnology investors. "Right now it is not important that people on the street know about it, but that decision-makers do."

After a year of work, the Greater Baltimore Committee can't point to any new buildings, a change in the city schools or a major biotechnology company that has been wooed to Baltimore. But it has been moving to get the initiative off the ground. In the past year, the committee has:

* Hired former Baltimore Development Corp. President David Gillece to market the region to life-sciences businesses that might come to the city. A task force headed by Alex. Brown & Sons President Mayo Shattuck has raised $100,000 toward the effort and will develop a strategy.

* Started an in-depth survey of business and educational leaders on what types of workers biotechnology companies and medical institutions will need. The survey will help schools and colleges build better programs to train workers.

* Completed a report that will be released soon on how universities and businesses can work together better to get inventions and discoveries out of the laboratories and into business.

* Worked to bring black churches and the American Association for the Advancement of Science together to promote science in church education programs. The effort is aimed at including minorities in life-sciences jobs and education.

In addition, the head of the GBC's life-sciences initiative is chairman of a committee appointed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to consider whether to establish a life-sciences high school. A preliminary report is expected this month.

In the next few weeks, the GBC plans to issue a high-tecscorecard that assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the area's high-tech industry, including budding biotechnology businesses.

The GBC has had some failures along the way. It lobbied hard in the General Assembly for the merger of the the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Melding those two would have instantly created a major research university with a strong life-sciences bent. The merger was blocked by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

And no progress has been made in evaluating Maryland's tax code to determine whether changes would encourage biotechnology growth.

"I think we feel like the first year has been some combination of getting the word out and planting seeds," said Thomas J. Chmura, GBC deputy director. "I don't think we have scratched the surface in dealing with the man on the street or the school children."

The failings of the Baltimore school system are at the top of the list of concerns. Company officials are already complaining that they can't find enough competent high school graduates to fuel a small work force.

"If the school system doesn't radically improve, the potential here gets greatly reduced," Mr. Chmura said.

Some venture capitalists and business leaders say the GBC just gave voice to a movement that was already under way and that no matter how effective its efforts, the GBC cannot control the course of economic development.

"The GBC thing is a nice promotion," said Charles Newhall, a venture capitalist with New Enterprise Associates. But "this is a 30-year program. There is no quick way to do it."

"Whether these people can make a difference I don't know," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation. "I think no one has the exclusive power."

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