City lacks `critical mass' of biotech companies

Venture capital network is needed, experts say

October 22, 2003|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's biotechnology sector has undergone tremendous growth over the past decade, but it won't evolve into a major economic engine unless some key challenges are addressed, industry experts said yesterday.

Overcoming those hurdles will be critical to the success of multimillion-dollar biotechnology parks planned for Baltimore's east and west sides, about 350 people attending a Greater Baltimore Committee "business outlook" conference were told.

Walter H. Plosila of Batelle, the institute that operates a research center in Harford County, said Maryland is one of the top states in the country when it comes to the biosciences, largely because of the concentrations of companies in Howard and Montgomery counties.

But Baltimore isn't known nationally for its biotech sector despite the smaller but growing presence of that industry locally in recent years.

A key reason is that although a great deal of biotech-related research is being conducted here, little of that work is translating into new products, jobs or companies, he told his audience at the Wyndham Baltimore.

The Baltimore region "has a critical mass of [biotech] research, but not a critical mass of companies, yet," said Plosila, who through Batelle has been working on a marketing study for the biotechnology park project planned for the area around the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore. The GBC also is involved in the decade-long project, which backers say could create as many as 8,000 jobs.

The University of Maryland at Baltimore is working to develop a park that would house privately held biotech businesses near its campus on the west side of town.

Although Baltimore doesn't have the full range of companies, financing and services needed to generate a "critical mass," the region has its strengths, said Plosila, vice president of public technology management at Batelle. Commercial research and testing is one strength, with a concentration 25 percent higher than the national average, Plosila said.

The region also has a strong presence of companies that manufacture drugs and medical devices, and the number of hospitals and medical labs is 44 percent greater than the national average, he said.

During the past five years, Baltimore has received more than $700 million in research awards from the National Institutes of Health, the fourth-highest total in the country. Industry support for research at Hopkins and the University of Maryland also is growing, according to Batelle.

But better ways must be found to translate lab research into technology that can be commercialized, said speaker Anna B. Barker, deputy director of strategic sciences initiatives for the National Cancer Institute.

Cities such as San Francisco and Boston have shown themselves capable of bringing new bioscience technologies to market, and they might have to be looked at closely.

Barker and Plosila said Baltimore could transform itself over the next five years into a well-known participant in the biotech sector. Because such transformations demand huge amounts of money, the successful biotech regions have major venture capital networks, something Baltimore lacks.

Between 1996 and the third quarter of fiscal 2002, Baltimore received about $300 million in biosciences venture money, about the same as New Haven, Conn., and Chicago, according to Batelle.

During that period, leader Boston received about $2.3 billion and No. 2 San Francisco received about $1.7 billion, Plosila said.

"That means Boston invested about eight times more" than Baltimore, Plosila said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.