Has Md. biotech institute fulfilled its promise? Business, campus critics say no

November 01, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

Back in the mid-1980s, when legislators dared to bet mone on a scientist's dream that Maryland could become the biotech version of Silicon Valley, the state government created one of the largest, most diverse biotech institutions in the nation.

Today, 76 scientists and 198 support staff members at the Maryland Biotechnology Institute's centers are using the tools of genetic engineering to design fast-growing fish, safer pesticides and new drugs. And MBI's $14 million budget is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade as its marine researchers move into the new laboratories of the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration at the Inner Harbor.

But MBI and director Rita Colwell, the visionary and political powerhouse behind it, are being challenged by business executives and academics who want to remake the institute. And, as state revenues grow scarce, legislators are asking whether Maryland should continue boosting the institute's financial support.

Business executives grumble -- some loudly -- that MBI hasn't met expectations for economic development. M. James Barrett, who heads one of Maryland's most promising biotech companies, charges that MBI has exaggerated its accomplishments, and he wants the state to take a hard look at its record.

"My issue with our state's investment in MBI is not that it exists, but only that any attempt to justify its existence on the basis of economic development is a fraud perpetrated by its management on the legislature, administration and the people of the state. Under current management, MBI's record of economic development is one of inefficiency and ineffectiveness," Genetic Therapy Inc.'s chief executive said in an October letter to Maryland's top economic development official.

Meanwhile, academics see MBI as siphoning off $7 million in higher education money that could be used to teach college students. The presidents of University of Maryland campuses at College Park and Baltimore have recommended in a confidential letter to the chancellor of the university system that three of MBI's four major research centers be put into their hands.

But Dr. Colwell, MBI's chief booster and scientist, defends it: "We are on a roll now. This is not the time to criticize us and knock us down. This is the time to get on board and help us."

If academics and businessmen are disappointed in MBI's record, it may be because the institute and its founders promised so much. When MBI was started in 1985, it was meant to be a research institution, as well as a way to build new companies and new jobs around biotechnology.

MBI was established as an independent academic institution under the University of Maryland System, and even critics say the quality of its scientific research is good.

Its four major centers -- marine, agriculture, Business, academic critics say biotech institute medicine and advanced research -- were to have their own faculty free of teaching responsibilities, although 32 faculty members have dual appointments at UMBC or College Park and MBI.

New companies would be founded around advances in the laboratory, the institute's promoters say. And existing companies could buy scientific expertise by financing a professor's research.

At a time when the state's manufacturing base was shrinking, Dr. Colwell had little trouble selling her vision of a world-class biotech center to the General Assembly. Since then, MBI's ambitions have continued to grow.

When the Columbus Center opens in 1994 and the Center for Marine Biotechnology moves in, it will have space to triple the size of its research faculty.

Dr. Colwell plans to ask the General Assembly for $40 million to $50 million more to renovate the Hutzler's warehouse in downtown Baltimore for the Center for Medical Biotechnology, which would include an incubator to help start-up companies and more space for clinical labs. And the largest center in Rockville, the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB), also wants to expand.

That last request galls Dr. Barrett, who points out that CARB has filed only one disclosure and no patents since it was started five years ago. Disclosing an invention is the first step a scientist takes in moving an idea from lab to marketplace.

Dr. Barrett calls that a "tragic record" of economic development.

He also points to several instances in which MBI has exaggerated its value. In a September report, MBI claimed its research had spawned five new companies in Maryland. In fact, it has spawned three.

After complaints that they exaggerated the spinoffs, MBI officials corrected the error, saying they made a mistake because they put the report together too quickly.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.