BioCenter will break ground for new firms INCUBATOR FOR BIOTECH JOBS

October 17, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Saccharin, Bufferin and the AIDS drug AZT all stem at least partly from research done in Maryland. But none of them is produced here.

Today, state officials and private backers break ground on a project they hope will change all that. Construction will begin on the BioCenter, a $21 million pilot manufacturing facility where fledgling, cash-strapped biotechnology firms can share costly small-scale manufacturing facilities.

Officials hope the center will help Maryland companies get the next Bufferin or AZT to market without having to turn to out-of-state companies for the millions it takes to bring a drug through years of clinical trials and U.S. Food and Drug Administration review.

"It's an important part of the strategy to keep biotechnology companies in Maryland," said Mary Lou Baker, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic and Employment Development. "This is one of the very important components of the bricks and mortar of biotechnology."

The facility will be built on land donated by Baltimore adjacent to Johns Hopkins' Bayview research campus in East Baltimore. The city contributed the land, the state kicked in $16 million, the U.S. Commerce Department gave a $1.5 million grant, and the center's operator, Bio Science Contract Production Corp., came up with $3 million in cash and expects to invest another $5 million.

The state stepped in to make sure the project got built because the center itself won't make enough money to attract private venture capital, Bio Science President Jacques R. Rubin said. He said the company was approached by other states about operating a similar center but chose to stay in Maryland, where it used to own a smaller, similar facility.

"Biotech companies can't borrow money anywhere, and you need a lot of capital to build a plant," Mr. Rubin said. "The return people can make out of this plant is not what you can make out of Martek or Univax. Univax could make $100 million."

Martek Biosciences Corp. of Columbia and Univax Biologics Inc. of Rockville are considered two of the most promising biotechnology companies in Maryland, though each is still losing money as it continues to develop products that have not yet reached the market.

Mr. Rubin said his company will provide the space and technical expertise to help researchers actually manufacture small amounts of the drugs they are developing, in a facility that meets strict federal standards for quality control. The center will be owned by a state-created nonprofit company, which will oversee Bio Science's work at the center.

The company will make its money from charging the biotechnology companies for equipment and staff supplied by Bio Science. Mr. Rubin expects to employ 35 to 40 people initially when the BioCenter opens late next year and 65 after the project gets established.

The idea is that biotechnology companies will use the center to make just enough of their product to get through clinical trials. After a drug is approved for widespread sale, its makers will do their commercial manufacturing somewhere bigger.

"When you want to go into [clinical trials], you have to make serious decisions about investing. Having this available delays that decision," said M. James Barrett, chairman of Genetic Therapy Inc. in Gaithersburg. DEED estimates that a company would have to spend $3 million to $10 million to build its own pilot plant, at a stage when most biotech companies are unprofitable.

Mr. Barrett said the need for money can force entrepreneurs to sell much of their companies, moving the ultimate product and jobs out of the state.

DEED estimates that Maryland biotech companies could reach $3 billion to $5 billion in sales, creating up to 40,000 jobs by 2000, if the state merely keeps its current share of the biotech market as the industry grows.

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