Life sciences key to state's future

December 24, 2006|By Frank Burch and Dan Morhaim

Aquaculturists growing blue crabs that might help restore the Chesapeake Bay and fish that could help feed the world. Doctors and scientists collaborating on vaccines that will help future generations live without the fear of AIDS or Alzheimer's. Skilled workers crafting contact lenses with micro-detectors that measure blood sugar and medication levels, eliminating the need for repeat blood tests.

Maryland's burgeoning life sciences industry brings more than just economic development. As these examples show, it offers opportunities to benefit all humanity by curing illness, cleaning the environment and providing food for millions.

But the state is at a crossroads. We've been an industrial and manufacturing success, and some of that will continue. But it's not enough to sustain us in decades to come. As we look to the future, one clear choice emerges: the life sciences industry.

For a host of reasons, Maryland is uniquely poised to become the Silicon Valley of biotech. We are already home to the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. These institutions attract more than $1 billion annually in federal research grants. That research sponsors medical discoveries that can stimulate major economic growth. Moreover, Hopkins is building a biotech park, while UM's new life sciences center is open and ready for business on the west side of its downtown Baltimore campus. In addition, its research dynamo, UMBI (the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute) has just opened a new building in Shady Grove.

Our proximity to the nation's capital gives us another leg up on the competition. We are home to National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, as well as a number of established and emerging biotechnology and life sciences companies. These companies employ thousands, with payrolls in the millions. As biotech expands, they will provide jobs, invest in the state's tax base and spin off growth in related sectors. Their employees will contribute to the culture and vitality of their communities.

Will we choose this bright future? Or will we just hope that somehow things will work out?

We've done well, but we can do better. Our growth has been part luck, part planning. It is time to recognize the opportunity before us by making a clear, conscious choice to develop our biotech industry to the greatest extent possible. This means focusing on several areas.

First, we must comprehensively assess our existing resources: research institutions, venture capital, private and public funding sources, and the contributions that can be made by Maryland's strong corporate leadership. Using this assessment, we can create a vision that each stakeholder will adopt.

We must encourage collaboration among all stakeholders. This will help attract and keep the best and brightest in our state. Such collaboration will lead to the development of new opportunities for financing basic medical research as well as moving those research ideas from the lab bench to Main Street.

We must also accelerate the improvement of infrastructure, including laboratories, office space and manufacturing facilities. This could involve tax credits and other incentives, as well as a marketing program to highlight Maryland's achievements and goals.

The life sciences industry will need a capable work force, ranging from lab technicians to research scientists. Science and technology education - from kindergarten through 12th grade to community college to advanced degree training - must be promoted. For example, we can borrow an idea from North Carolina, where its Academy of Science encourages young people's interest through science fairs and programs. Local school systems could be supported by the State Department of Education to create magnet schools for the sciences, as has been done successfully for the arts, foreign language and the environment.

Government at every level, from state to local, needs to work together to develop life sciences in Maryland. The O'Malley-Brown campaign outlined an excellent strategy on biotech. It proposed creating a "Maryland Life Sciences Authority" that would coordinate a comprehensive strategy for developing the industry. We urge elected officials to build on these ideas.

The window of opportunity for us to act is open only a brief time. The life sciences industry is taking off in other states and globally. Already, Maryland competes for professionals with California, Massachusetts and other states. Another rising competitor is Dubai, where focused state investment has quickly created a world-class life sciences academic and commercial community, including a large, state-of-the-art biotechnology and research park.

All the essential ingredients and tools for success are here. It is up to us to see the future and seize the opportunity before us. We can redefine Maryland as the life sciences state and be the world leader in this growing field. This race will only be won by the fleetest and most adept.

The challenge is before us. Can we act now and claim the promising future that should be ours?

Frank Burch is co-CEO of a Baltimore-based law firm whose clients include some life science-related companies. His e-mail is frank.burch@dlapiper.com. Dan Morhaim is a physician and member of the House of Delegates. His e-mail is dan. morhaim@house.state.md.us.

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