In one of the Columbia laboratories of Martek Biosciences, Steve Dubin proudly displays the company's collection of more than 2,000 types of microalgae -- considered the second-largest such collection in the world.
Many of the green, blue and red aquatic plants are no larger than a thumbnail, but they may hold the key to developing drugs to treat drug-resistant bacteria and perplexing neurological disorders, Mr. Dubin, Martek's financial officer, says.
The tiny plants also represent a small part of a much larger body of industrial research that is turning Howard and Montgomery counties into one of the nation's leading areas for pioneering biotechnology and high-technology research.
The Howard-Montgomery area now has an estimated 90 percent of all such companies in Maryland -- a concentration of industrial research efforts that, observers say, already puts the area just behind California's Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128 corridor. And many say the Baltimore-Washington corridor boasts some advantages over the two better-known bastions of high-tech research.
"When you look at where we are on the map and located in terms of some of the most important regulatory agencies and research institutions in this business, this is really Central City," Henry "Pete" Linsert Jr., a co-founder of Martek and its chief executive officer, says from his Columbia office.
Another magnet drawing research firms to the area, he notes, is its highly educated and experienced labor pool -- one that began with such long-standing local institutions as Martin Marietta Corp. near Catonsville, AlliedSignal Inc. in Columbia and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel.
Altogether, the two counties are home to about 200 high-tech and biotechnology companies. Howard has about 90, many of them in Columbia. Montgomery has about 110, most along the Interstate 270 corridor near Rockville and Gaithersburg.
They range in size from Rockville-based Life Technologies, which employs more than 500 people, to Columbia's Martek, which employs fewer than 100.
Growth is expected
More companies are coming.
"The bottom line is 10 years from now this area will be awash" in bio-technology and high-tech companies, says William Washecka, the Rockville-based director of life sciences and high technology for Ernst & Young accountants.
One reason is the growing interest among businesses in moving the two counties, local economic development officials say.
"I would say a week has not gone by in the past year and half that I haven't been talking with at least one [high-tech] company about their interest in moving to Howard County," said Richard Story, director of the county's Economic Development Authority, private organization that spearheads job growth and retention efforts.
Mr. Story believes another trend driving the area's high-tech growth is continued downsizing of defense industries and the federal government. That's forcing more scientists and researchers to strike out on their own. His agency has set up a Small Business Resource Center with an eye toward helping them stay in the area.
"There's an enormous pool of talent and ideas at many of the area's defense companies," he says. "These people aren't just going to sit around when the next wave of downsizing hits. They are going to use that opportunity to launch their own high-tech and biotech ventures."
Among such entrepreneurs: former Martin Marietta engineer Victor J. Norris Jr., who works out of his Ellicott City home as he tries to develop a system -- dubbed "FogEye" -- to help airplanes and ships to navigate through fog.
Mr. Washecka, who is co-author of a yearly report on industry trends in biotechnology, also expects more high-tech growth in the two counties as high-tech and biotech industries
One example is the acquisition of Columbia-based Crop Genetics International by Biosys Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., last month. The new company -- which will develop and sell pesticides and herbicides that use biological agents rather than chemicals -- will shift its entire Palo Alto operation to Columbia.
Edwin C. Quattlebaum, Biosys president and chief operating officer, says he found Crop Genetic's Columbia site very appealing. The cost of living is cheaper than in California and the location is closer to markets, he said.
Among some of the region's other attractions for high-tech companies:
* The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where key government researchers and research grants are concentrated.
* The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital, both in Baltimore, and the university's Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel. The three institutions have some of the nation's top high-tech and bio-technology researchers.
* The Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, a key regulator of biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, and other important federal regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Patent Office.