West-side biotech park planned

UMB seeks to transform 2 to 3 blocks next to its downtown campus

Some questions remain

Privately owned companies would be clustered at the site

May 23, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland, Baltimore is taking steps to transform a swath of land west of its downtown campus into a cluster of privately owned biotechnology companies, a move that comes as the city simultaneously seeks to develop an east-side biotech park.

The west-side business park, planned for a two- to three-block stretch west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and north of Baltimore Street, so far is little more than a shaded area on a map. But, unlike the project planned adjacent to the Johns Hopkins University medical complex on the city's east side, UMB's plan involves land that is largely city-owned, and much of it is now vacant.

"I sort of reached the conclusion some years ago that it was the right thing to do," said UMB President David J. Ramsay, who ascended to the presidency in 1994 with a vision of transforming the university into an institution as well-known for research as it was for education and medical treatment.

The university plans to present information on the park today at an on-campus meeting of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. The state university system's Board of Regents has signed off on a 10-year facilities master plan for the downtown campus that includes it. And last week the state of Maryland committed $105,000 toward a feasibility study and plan for the park, while the city promised $15,000 for the study, said James L. Hughes, the campus' vice president of research and development.

The next steps include the hiring of a consultant and more discussions with residents of the Poppleton neighborhood, where the bulk of the park would go in a grassy area bordered on the south by Baltimore Street warehouses, boarded-up buildings and an auto-body shop and on the north by the homes along West Fairmount Avenue.

But it remains to be seen whether the major steps Ramsay has taken over the past eight years have sufficiently primed the pump for a biotech park. The university has ratcheted up research funding and patented more ideas, which it is beginning to license to companies. But as a recently completed report shows, its efforts are still young and its superstar researchers - to whom companies tend to gravitate - are few.

Another unknown: whether Baltimore, a city that has lagged behind a national trend toward building biotech space to feed a growing industry, can fill both parks at once.

"It all depends on the timing," said Trammell Crow Co.'s Bruce Lessler, who is preparing a study of available biotech space vs. the need in Maryland.

Statewide, ready-to-occupy space is tight. Up to 1.5 million square feet is needed in Montgomery County and only 250,000 square feet is available, Lessler said. While he has yet to come up with specific demand and supply numbers for Baltimore, he said the couple of biotech companies actively hunting for available space in the area have found none.

That means they will have to build the highly specialized space, which can require specially vented "clean rooms," extra-clean water supplies and laboratory sinks.

With both Hopkins and Maryland apparently focused on pushing more scientific ideas out the door into products, Lessler predicted that long-term demand to build in both parks should be good. But in the short run, the UMB project could sprint ahead as the Hopkins one is slowed by the need to acquire and clear homes, he said.

"Hopkins - that's so far away," Lessler said. "I think Maryland will happen faster."

The case for such parks began cropping up years ago outside research universities in North Carolina, Boston and San Diego. The thinking is that the businesses add to a university's prestige by bringing an on-campus discovery to market; add to its pocketbook by contributing research money, licensing revenue and sales royalties; and bolster its faculty by attracting top-notch researchers who want to work where their ideas are put into action.

They create jobs

The parks also are viewed as engines of job creation.

"The connection between higher education and economic development has never been so strong as during the global technological economy in which we now find ourselves," said David Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

The state pledges to promote both parks to businesses worldwide. It also will offer a range of incentives to help the parks grow. Those include job training, tax credits and venture capital, he said.

Ramsay believes that the maturation of the state's biotechnology industry means the time is ripe in Baltimore for such a park. A number of Maryland's nearly 280 biotech companies have begun human testing of their drugs. Some are now moving drugs into advanced phases of testing that require dozens if not hundreds of patients.

That means they need access to large hospitals, where there are large numbers of patients available to participate in the clinical trials, Ramsay noted.

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