Artful phrasing is used to sell areas

Word Games

July 03, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Maryland is the "global hotspot for biotechnology," the state's secretary of business and economic development told a group visiting from India last month.

"I made it up this morning," Aris Melissaratos acknowledged, shortly after the meeting in Montgomery County. But it could be true, he added, if you use the right justification.

Building a biotech economy sometimes seems more about artful articulation than actual science. Competition for the industry is stiff, and state and country officials aren't above manipulating details to improve their home turf's place on the biotech battlefield.

During a global biotechnology conference in Philadelphia last month, carefully stacked and fanned literature declared each region's superiority with little regard for supporting facts.

Greater Phoenix has "rock star scientists," one handout proclaimed. Bangalore is a "biotech hub." Pennsylvania is a "global leader." Maryland is "BioCapital of the World." New Jersey, also apparently known as "the cure corridor," claims it's where "life science lives." The cheese state offered a plaintive plea: "Wisconsin wants you, and you'll love Wisconsin."

"It's money, it's the future," said Cathleen Davies, president of BioTech Primer Inc., a company that offers crash courses in the discipline for nonscientists. "Everything is tied to biotech - what you wear, what you eat, the drugs you put in your body, cosmetics. ... It's all biotech."

And governments are willing to say just about anything to get it.

"There are a lot of `Hail Mary' passes being thrown," said Rob DeRocker, executive vice president of Development Counsellors International, a economic development company that helps communities market themselves. At the conference, DCI helped Puerto Rico; Raleigh, N.C.; San Diego and Sacramento set up media interviews.

DeRocker likened the attention-getting lines lobbed at the trade show to the "siliconia" craze of the late 1990s, when officials couldn't attach some form of the word "silicon" to their regions fast enough, all in an effort to make them sound more tech-savvy - like Baltimore's attempt to create a "Digital Harbor."

"This has exactly the same feel to it," DeRocker said. "I think that the difference, though, is that ultimately the stakes are much higher in biotechnology and the amount of money being spent pursuing it - whether ill-advised or otherwise - is much bigger."

The war of words often plays out in the various surveys areas choose to hype.

Maryland used to cite Ernst & Young's annual global biotechnology report - that is, until last year, when the document dropped the state to fourth place from third behind North Carolina in company concentration.

And, sure enough, at North Carolina's conference booth in Philadelphia, a prominently displayed sign declared that state third-best in the nation for biotech.

"You can never tell with these surveys," dismissed Lawrence C. Mahan, Maryland's business development director of biosciences and technology strategy. He's waiting for the federal government to come up with a one-stop-shop assessment, supposedly in the works.

Until that appears and achieves some sort of acceptance from the scientific community, Maryland officials will have to use the best of what they've got: a second-place ranking in biopharmaceutical innovation from the Milken Institute, and the irksome fourth place from Ernst & Young, accepted with some grumbling about the methodology used to count companies.

According to the EY report, Maryland has fewer than 100 biotech companies, though the state prefers a more relaxed definition that counts about 350 businesses - conservative by other estimates. New Jersey's literature says it has more than 1,000 biotechs, but Ernst & Young says it's more like 80. Pennsylvania likes to factor in biotech-related businesses - which could include patent attorneys and cleanup crews - to come up with an employment figure that's more than 80,000 people strong.

Over at Idaho's booth at the trade show, representatives didn't bother to flash figures, because the state, new to chasing the industry, hasn't set guidelines.

"We're trying to define it," said Julie Howard, a business development consultant within the Idaho Commerce and Labor Department.

"I mean, are we free to count all kinds of companies? We could be huge," she asked, eyes wide, before innocently adding: "What's everybody else doing?"

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