Two biotech executives, Lewin clash on Md. aid

Secretary rejects claim industry gets little

January 29, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Top executives of two fast-growing Montgomery County biotechnology companies told Maryland legislators yesterday that the state should be doing more to foster their industry's growth and help it expand beyond the booming Interstate 270 corridor.

Charles M. Fleischman, president of Digene Corp. in Gaithersburg, said that, unlike some states, Maryland has no specific programs to encourage biotechnology development.

"The state does not recognize the difference between a life sciences company and a corrugated cardboard manufacturer," Fleischman told the House Appropriations Committee.

While acknowledging that his company received assistance from Maryland's Sunny Day Fund, Fleischman said the state needs to formulate a plan to keep its position as a leader in biotechnology.

His view was echoed by John W. Holaday, chief executive officer of EntreMed Inc. of Rockville. "To fail to support our industry would be like leaving ripe apples in the orchard," Holaday said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan urged legislators to support more state funding of business "incubators."

Duncan said biotechnology has reached "critical mass" in the I-270 corridor between Washington and Frederick, but has not expanded as successfully in other parts of the state.

Michael Lewin, secretary of business and economic development, seemed puzzled by the criticism. He said Maryland has "a very energetic, pro-active and enlightened" policy on biotechnology and has spent as much on that industry as any other.

"I would argue that our programs are better than any programs in the country in support of biotechnology and have been for a decade," Lewin said.

Lewin said that, within the next month, Maryland expects to announce that two foreign biotechnology companies, with 500 jobs between them, have decided to base their U.S. operations in Montgomery County.

"They didn't see any problem with the transportation," he said.

Holaday, whose company is working to develop cancer treatments, said the state could help biotechnology firms by investing pension fund money in the industry, as is done in Wisconsin.

And, he suggested that Maryland could allow start-up companies that incur large operating losses -- as almost all do during their early years -- to "sell" those tax losses to profitable companies to use as deductions from state taxes. He said Connecticut and New Jersey allow such deals.

Fleischman, Holaday and Duncan also put in a word for construction of the Intercounty Connector, the long-planned east-west highway that Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to scrap.

Fleischman called the connector, which would link I-270 with Interstate 95, "an integral part of the solution" to his company's problem of retaining employees who work in Baltimore, Howard and Prince George's counties.

"We don't want to lose our longtime employees because of traffic," said Fleischman. His company makes a federally approved diagnostic test for cervical cancer.

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