BALTIMORE STANDS to cash in on the booming commercialization of biotech research with a privately run, $800 million biotech park near the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
But even as plans for the proposed park progress, the Brookings Institution warns of the difficulties of achieving the dream.
In a report released last week, the think tank identified the Washington-Baltimore region as one of only nine clusters in the nation that are having success with biotech commercialization. Unfortunately, research prowess is not enough in the risky world of biotech business. Nothing happens without adequate venture capital.
This is where the Washington-Baltimore region, which includes Virginia and West Virginia research centers, runs into trouble.
Even though it's extraordinarily good at getting government grants, it has been the least successful of the nine leading clusters in attracting risk capital. The bulk of the private money has gone to Boston and San Francisco, which pioneered biotech research, or San Diego, Seattle and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
The Brookings report has a ready explanation: "Venture capitalists strongly prefer to invest in and work with firms located next to their offices" so that they closely monitor what's going on. And many have offices in the Boston-New York or San Francisco-San Diego corridors.
If Baltimore wants to make good on the plan to build the East Baltimore biotech park, it must win over private financiers. They not only provide cash, they also offer advice on a variety of issues ranging from marketing to product development.
Most of Maryland's biotech industry is now concentrated in the I-270 corridor, which runs from the Washington beltway through Germantown to Frederick. The Montgomery County government has systematically promoted that area. It can cite many successes, but can also list a number of start-up companies that went elsewhere after emerging from the incubator stage. Volatility is a characteristic of the rapidly developing field.
Baltimore, by comparison, has scant identity as a biotech center. That's why the Johns Hopkins link is so important for the East Baltimore research park to succeed. But only venture capitalists can give the project ultimate credibility.
The Brookings report states flatly that success is unlikely for dozens of cities that have lately been infected by biotech fever. Baltimore, being part of a viable existing cluster, has a chance -- if it gets its act together. That's why the City Council should quickly approve the proposed park's zoning.