Biotech risk-takers a rare breed in Md.

October 23, 1994|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Sun Staff Writer

GAITHERSBURG -- Invite Steve Turner to lunch and you can end up watching across his office desk as he peels aluminum foil from a powerhouse sandwich his wife packed a few hours earlier.

"I just have to stay close to the phone right now. We can send out for any kind of sandwich you like," he told his visitor.

Lunch tied to the phone, two or three trips a month to Wall Street, and the mountainous paperwork of public stock offerings are not the life work Stephen Turner had in mind when he majored in music at Stanford University 25 years ago.

But Mr. Turner's harried work style is part of being the founder and president of Oncor Inc., a company that is pioneering the use of DNA to detect cancer earlier than existing methods, and to monitor it less painfully than existing methods. Just two weeks ago it announced it had acquired an exclusive license from Johns Hopkins Medical Institute for a new DNA-based test being developed to detect cancer cells from bodily fluids.

He also is one of a handful of biotech entrepreneurs who are into their second or third biotechnology start-ups along Montgomery County's Interstate 270 technology corridor.

In other leading technology centers -- California's Silicon Valley and suburban Boston's Route 128 corridor -- the emergence of such "second-generation" and "third-generation" entrepreneurs was one of the key signs that a culture of high-tech risk-taking was beginning to blossom.

"In my seven years in Silicon Valley, what was most striking was the way business people would start a company and then, almost no matter whether they succeeded or failed, after some years they would spot another technology opportunity, leave the company they had started and open a new one to pursue the new idea," said Lewis J. Shuster, executive vice president of Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville and chairman of the Suburban Maryland Technology Council.

Biotechnology entrepreneurs and managers have long been a big part of what Maryland has lacked, even though it is rich in Ph.D. scientists, economic development experts say.

"What we are out to correct is Maryland's long history of seeing important medical products, which were invented here, move away to other states, in effect, once they reached the point of being ready for manufacturing, which is the point where they begin to produce larger numbers of jobs. One of the elements we have to nurture is the entrepreneurs and managers who can carry an invention all the way to production," said Mark L. Wasserman, the state's secretary of economic and employment development.

Many biotech business leaders agree that the scientists who are Maryland's strong point are only one part of the equation.

"The scientists are critically important, but they are the smallest part of the business. Since we opened up here, I have had to recruit from other states to get a chief financial officer, a vice president for operations and several other key people for the business side of the company, because in our business Maryland just does not have that kind of talent," said Craig R. Smith, president and chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Guilford Pharmaceutical Corp.

Maryland is betting hundreds of millions of dollars on facilities and inducements in a drive to make itself a leading national biotechnology center.

If that economic development strategy is to succeed, the state has to have a pool of entrepreneurs. They are the ones with the skills at spotting the products that can make money, organizing the company, assembling the talent, working with venture capitalists in the initial stages and convincing Wall Street once the time comes to take the company public.

The problem is that there is no tested way to recruit or train a pool of biotechnology entrepreneurs.

"If you need a molecular biologist, you know which schools are likely to turn out the great ones, but there is no school for entrepreneurs, and even if there were, there would be no way of guessing which graduates would turn out to be the great ones," Mr. Shuster said.

Biotechnology also requires much bigger risks -- and far higher levels of management skills -- than some of the other high-tech industries that line the I-270 corridor.

"You can bring, say, an innovative software package to trial marketing with a clever idea and a few hundred thousand dollars, but for biotech, you have to go through tens of millions of dollars of testing under strict Food and Drug Administration guidelines before you ever get to use your product on a human being," said Charles O. Heller, director of the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. "So you have to attract a lot more capital and you have to manage tens or hundreds of millions of dollars so that they get used to good effect, so entrepreneurship and management are critical skills."

Mr. Turner, the Stanford music major of 25 years ago, is a case in point.

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