UMBC center plugs in Technology: UMBC's technology center is part of a nationwide trend of university-related research parks.

December 14, 1997|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

When Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health faculty member Dr. Paul Ts'o went hunting for office and lab space to launch a cancer testing company, he found the most agreeable spot across town -- at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville.

Ts'o's company, Cell Works Inc., is one of 21 small firms and training institutes that have taken up residence on campus as part of a gamble UMBC and the state are taking in developing a technology center and research park.

They aren't alone. States from Arizona to South Carolina are attempting the same feat. Some, such as Virginia, which recently floated a $32 million bond for a biotechnology research park at Virginia Commonwealth University, are spending millions in taxpayer dollars on the projects, though success is far from assured.

UMBC and the state have spent more than $10 million to purchase and convert a former Lockheed Martin research facility into a center for high-tech start-ups. It's been open about a year.

Now, armed with a $1.8 million U.S. Commerce Department grant and $1.1 million from the state and county, UMBC is forging ahead with development of a 41-acre site on the campus for a commercially oriented technology research park.

The goals of the effort: create an engine for high-tech job creation and fuel research contracts for departments and professors at the science and engineering-oriented university.

But the project faces a number of hurdles.

For one, note university research park experts, UMBC faces an explosion in competition nationwide for paying tenants.

Also, community opposition in the form of administrative appeals and court challenges has made companies reluctant to sign leases, county officials have said.

According to the Association of University Related Research Parks in Washington, the number of technology-oriented research parks connected to universities has ballooned to more than 150, up from a handful in the mid-1960s. And at least 18 new ones are planned.

The UMBC project, if successful, could prove an important magnet for job growth.

In Montgomery County, officials credit Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, a county-backed research park, for fueling new company growth and retention of expanding businesses.

More than 1,900 people are employed at 18 companies in the 300-acre business and education park oriented toward biotechnology.

As a result of its success, Johns Hopkins University has launched a similar health and science research and business park, the Belward Research Campus on 138 acres in Rockville.

Another Hopkins' venture, Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus near Highlandtown, has created about 2,500 jobs since Hopkins' real estate arm, Dome Real Estate, took over the campus in 1987.

The campus is home to eight private biotechnology companies and three research divisions of the National Institutes of Health, including the National Human Genome Research Institute. Also on the campus is the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where 2,000 are employed. UMBC hopes to forge a similar success with its research park.

With the help of state and Baltimore County economic development officials, it is attempting to get developers to lease land and build specialty space for technology research-oriented ventures in the park. UMBC hopes to have at least one building under way by June 1998.

Revenue from land leases is projected to cover university operating expenses for the park and pay back a $650,000 state loan.

Leases for some companies will include agreements to set up internships or other training programs for university students and tap university professors for consulting work.

No commitments have been made, but the university is in talks with several potential developers, said Ellen Wiggins, executive director for the UMBC Research Park and Technology Center. UMBC also is attempting to line up potential tenants.

Vision of mixture

The vision for the park, said Wiggins, is a mix of science- and technology-oriented start-up companies and fast-growth ones, as well as public policy research outfits and training institutes.

Currently, an estimated 231 are employed in the Technology Center, located in a hard-to-find nook south of the campus.

Tenants range from start-up, or "incubator" companies, such as Epitaxial Technologies, a developer of semiconductor wafers for wireless telecommunications with just two employees, to fast-growing Cell Works, which has landed financial backing from 130 investors in Asia and is seeking marketing partners for its breakthrough test for prostate cancer. UMBC does not have data on company revenues or payrolls.

As for the research park, plans originally called for 12 buildings on 95 acres. But after community opposition, the park was scaled back to five buildings.

Wiggins estimates that the project, if is fully built and leased, would provide employment for about 750 workers earning wages averaging more than $30,000. It would also generate annual property taxes of $750,000.

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