Md.'s bioscience strengths called underrated

December 14, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

Maryland has key competitive advantages in the nationwide race to be big in bioscience but must get better at translating its research into business successes, speakers at a gathering of politicians, business leaders and educators said yesterday.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who organized the Maryland Life Sciences Summit in Columbia, used the opportunity to call for more state funding of startup companies, for more of the state's pension fund to be invested in biotechnology and for more collaboration among government, academia and industry.

He also released a new economic impact study that argues that Maryland is not properly recognized for its bioscience muscle because many state-by-state rankings look only at the results of commercialization.

Including government and university bioscience work, Maryland's sector "is among the nation's largest, if not the largest," the report contends.

Of the state's approximately 60,000 bioscience jobs, half are with government agencies such as the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health or with academic institutions, according to the report.

Maryland has nearly 90 federal labs and research universities, the report says.

"The only two states that could possibly compete would be, not surprisingly, California and Massachusetts," said Baltimore economist Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, which prepared the report.

The report wasn't actually a ranking of states, but Franchot drew his own conclusions: "We're No. 1," he said.

Jockeying to be recognized as "The Nation's Bioscience Leader" - which just happens to be the title of the Maryland report - is a nationwide pastime for states and regions that want to attract more companies and investment.

"It is interesting just how many places can be No. 1," said Ross DeVol, director of regional economics at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.

He agrees that Maryland has key strengths in research. But he said there's a reason to base rankings on the number and size of businesses turning research into marketable products: That's the part of bioscience that can make money.

"It's great to be a research center, but ultimately it depends on how successful you are in converting that research to a commercial application," DeVol said.

"Massachusetts, California are light-years ahead of Maryland in terms of commercializing that research. ... I would even say North Carolina's probably ahead," DeVol added.

The life sciences summit yesterday, which drew about 120, touched on that problem.

"We have not yet spun a spirit of entrepreneurship in this state," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who thinks the state "could be the Silicon Valley of the life sciences era" with more effort.

When companies do start up in Maryland, they often end up moving, added Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University. "The technology is flying off to other parts of the country," he said.

Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research with the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, who was not at the conference, said the good news is that Maryland has been steadily improving its track record on both counts - commercializing research and holding on to startups.

All hullabaloo about rankings aside, he said, local leaders are right to focus attention on the industry.

"This is Maryland's future," Clinch said.

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