The tycoon trail starts at NIH Alumni going places: Many scientists and managers have left NIH to start, help start or work for a biotechnology company in Maryland.

March 03, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

You'll find Dr. Randall L. Kincaid, a former National Institutes of Health research chief, in a converted Rockville warehouse toiling away on a scientific frontier called protein expression.

The erudite and affable Dr. Kincaid gave up his well-equipped high-tech laboratory at the federal government's National Institutes of Health in Bethesda -- not to mention the prestige and salary of working at the sprawling life sciences hub -- for these stripped-down quarters in an industrial park.

Why? He wanted to move into private industry and launch his own biotechnology company, Veritas Inc.

Today, the company's employee roster has all of two people -- Dr. Kincaid and another scientist he just hired. And Veritas' lab equipment is of the hand-me-down variety. But the scientist and the entrepreneur in Dr. Kincaid are ever hopeful.

He's not the first, nor likely the last, NIH scientist to start a biotechnology company in Maryland. And many, it turns out, have become success stories.

In fact, some experts say that without NIH's presence in Maryland, the industry, which is trying to unlock nature's secrets to treat and cure diseases, improve crop yields and control environmental contamination, might be a shadow of what it is today in the Free State.

"NIH is the engine that's driving biotechnology in Maryland -- indeed in the country," said Dr. Michael M. Gottesman, the deputy director for research at the NIH campus, who has studied NIH's effect on Maryland's biotechnology industry.

By launching Veritas, Dr. Kincaid joined a list of prestigious NIH scientists and high-level managers who have left the world-class institution to either start their own firm or join forces with others to launch a biotechnology company in Maryland.

And there are even more scientists and managers -- no one's sure how many exactly -- who have been hired from NIH by Maryland biotechnology companies.

Drs. Scott Koenig and Robert Hohman, for example.

Dr. Koenig was lured to Rockville-based MedImmune Inc. and is now director of research at the vaccine and drug developer.

Dr. Hohman, a former NIH scientist, is vice president for research and development at Oncor Inc., a Gaithersburg-based company developing genetic tests.

The experience of working at NIH before launching a biotechnology company can be pivotal, say some who have done so.

"What you learn working at NIH, in the larger sense, is the absolute breadth of possibilities available in the world of biotechnology," said Dr. Kincaid, whose protein expression work could one day draw clients from the bio-pharmaceuticals and biotechnology industries working on gene therapy.

The field of protein expression involves seeding bacteria with DNA so it will produce, or "express," in large amounts the protein for which the DNA is coded. The field is considered promising because it may offer a way to mass produce therapeutic genes.

"If I had worked at an institution that had a narrower view of what's possible, I doubt I would have thought that starting my own company and seeing it become a success was possible," said Dr. Kincaid.

As a result of the ripple effect on Maryland's economy from scientists such as Dr. Kincaid spinning out of NIH, some biotechnology experts believe that the institution has emerged as the single most important "fuel" driving Maryland's growing biotechnology industry, which generates an estimated 13,000 jobs in the state.

By the end of the decade, as more products are approved for marketing, that could rise to 20,000, predict some experts, including Dr. Gottesman.

That would make the industry a larger employer than NIH, the world's largest center for life-science research with 16,000 employees.

No one is certain just how many people have left NIH to start or help launch one of the 176 biotechnology companies in the state, said Dr. Gottesman. But he's documented at least 10 companies.

Marsha Schachtel, director of technology development for the state, said that historically the vehicle that has helped scientists with the entrepreneurial urge leave NIH and start a new venture is what's known as the CRADA -- cooperative research and development agreement. Under that deal, NIH pays a scientists to conduct research projects NIH needs completed.

"If you look at the largest biotech companies in Maryland, most are NIH CRADA babies," said Ms. Schachtel.

These ventures include what many consider the first biotechnology company in Maryland, Bethesda Research Laboratories (BRL), which was founded by NIH scientists in the late 1970s thanks to a research agreement with NIH. The company evolved to become Life Technologies Inc., a $270 million publicly held concern now based in Gaithersburg.

One of the top executives of BRL, M. James Barrett, a former NIH director, helped launch another company, Gaithersburg-based Genetic Therapy Inc. in 1986. Dr. Barrett is now Genetic Therapy's CEO and is often introduced as "the father of biotechnology in Maryland."

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