City celebrates its life sciences


October 04, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

With its eyes more on a dream than a reality, the Greater Baltimore Committee will kick off a monthlong celebration of high technology in Baltimore today.

Throughout October, the GBC's Technology Council will be coordinating a series of events spotlighting Baltimore's aspiration to join the elite group of metropolitan areas that are on the cutting edge of science, engineering and technology.

Starting with a dinner that is expected to draw much of the region's business and political elite to the Hyatt Regency tonight, the GBC's fourth annual Technology Month will attempt to focus Baltimoreans' attention on high-tech issues through seminars, exhibits, workshops and outreach programs nearly every weekday this month.

The emphasis will be on success stories, or as a GBC press release puts it, the "substantial evidence to indicate that this market is keeping pace with the best predictions of science fiction."

But if high technology is the Holy Grail of economic development, there is considerable reason to think Baltimore is not the place to look for it -- at least not yet. Economic development experts give the GBC high marks for consciousness-raising among local leaders, but they say increased awareness has yet to show much payoff in terms of jobs.

"The GBC's been doing a great job with the perception issues. However, it must be said that outside Baltimore no one yet perceives us as a technology city," said Michael A. Conte, director of the regional economic studies program at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business.

And it's not a misperception, he said. His blunt assessment: "We're not a technology town."

J. C. Weiss, chairman of the Technology Council, isn't equating Baltimore with the Silicon Valley or Boston's Route 128 corridor, but doesn't think the present is all that bad. While he admits Baltimore's business leaders were slow in jumping on the technology bandwagon, he said he's seen a lot of progress in the four years he's been involved in the GBC's high-tech efforts. The payoff will just take time, he said.

"Silicon Valley is a 40-year phenomenon. Route 128 is a 20-year phenomenon," he said.

Mr. Weiss cited expansion at such firms as Becton-Dickinson, Martek, Crop Genetics and Chesapeake Biological Laboratories. He said major law and accounting firms have created a professional infrastructure by setting up technology-related specialties. And he credited the region's universities with changing their rules to speed the progress of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Still, as this year's Technology Month begins, high-tech Baltimore still is feeling the sting of a number of highly visible reverses.

Its most promising biotech company, Nova Pharmaceutical Co., was acquired by Scios Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., last year. In July, a second company that was a candidate to run the planned Maryland Bioprocessing Center backed out, sending the state back to the drawing board yet again in its efforts to get the Baltimore facility up and running.

And just last week, Martin Marietta Corp.'s decision to close its Glen Burnie naval warfare plant capped several years of attrition in the area's once-thriving defense sector.

To spur the growth of high technology in Baltimore, the GBC has put a heavy emphasis on developing a "life sciences" and biotechnology industrial base -- including such fields as medical research, pharmaceuticals, marine science and environmental technologies.

The emphasis can be seen in the Technology Month program, which is heavily weighted toward life sciences and biotechnology events. Besides a few showy demonstrations, relatively little attention is being given such high-tech areas as telecommunications, manufacturing technologies or computing.

Like the GBC as a whole, Mr. Weiss is bullish on biotech as a potential job creator. Look at the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey, he said. "Biotechnology has all the potential to grow just as big if not eclipse the pharmaceutical industry," he said.

Mr. Conte said the GBC is on the right track.

"We're a health and health research town . . . . We're not a computer town," he said, noting that five of the region's top eight service sector employers are hospitals. "It makes sense for us to play this up."

But Charles Heller, director of the Michael Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, said the GBC is stressing life sciences at the expense of other high-tech industries.

He said that at Dingman he sees three times as many start-up companies in the telecommunications and information services field as in biotech and that they have a better record of survival.

"The activity is here, but the stress on the life sciences gives the perception that telecommunications and computer-related companies don't exist here," he said.

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