Baltimore biotech parks grow despite recession

Some setbacks, but existing lab buildings in Hopkins and UM campuses are filling up

  • Dr. Marco A. Chacón, founder, CEO and president of Paragon Bioservices Inc., walks in space recently leased at the University of Maryland BioPark.
Dr. Marco A. Chacón, founder, CEO and president of Paragon… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
November 28, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

While some sectors of Maryland's economy struggle to shake free of the Great Recession, the biotechnology parks adjacent to Baltimore's two top teaching hospitals stubbornly continue to add laboratories, offices and — most importantly for the city — jobs.

The gains have been both large and small, and not always along the path or at the pace envisioned when the parks were created. But the growth is unmistakable, fueled by the critical mass of expertise, resources and discoveries at both the Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland Baltimore medical campuses.

Among the most recent arrivals is Frank Diehl, chief scientific officer at Inostics, a German company seeking to perfect a new diagnostic tool for cancer patients. He hopes to have a small lab running next year on the city's east side, at the Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins.

The technology was invented at Hopkins, and Diehl says it was always in the cards to bring it back to Baltimore as it matured. "You want to interact with the brightest people," Diehl said by phone from Hamburg. "In oncology, the brightest people are in Baltimore."

Across town, Marco Chacon, CEO at Paragon Bioservices, signed a new lease this fall for 45,000 square feet on two floors at the University of Maryland BioPark, more than doubling his space just a year and a half after locating there.

By late next year he expects to expand his work force to 75 people from 50, doing contract research and preclinical drug production work for clients in Baltimore and beyond.

The region, he said, is a good location for biotech companies because of its "wonderful universities" and the proximity to agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense. "The future bodes well," he said.

Together, the biotech parks have attracted nearly three dozen tenants, with more than 900 employees. But it hasn't all been easy.

"The drug business is a very risky business," said Dr. David Block, president and CEO of the drug discovery startup Gliknik, at the UM BioPark. People who invest in new jet planes or nuclear power plants know it will be expensive, with delays and cost overruns. "But you also know at the end of the process you're going to have your jet or nuclear power plant."

"What makes drug discovery so challenging is that it's equally expensive, equally as time-consuming, but at the end of the project 90 percent of the projects fail," he said. Getting a successful new drug discovery to market can take 10 to 15 years, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes in the bioparks say they've been able to attract millions in investments in spite of the recession, in part because of state and federal biotech tax credits offered to investors.

But the recession has tightened construction financing. There is a big hole in the ground on West Baltimore Street where UM BioPark developer Wexford Science + Technology was preparing to build a third lab building without first signing an anchor tenant. The 2008 financial collapse halted the excavation. Bankers now want most of the space pre-leased before they'll put up the money.

Tighter money has left both bioparks near capacity in their existing buildings, with developers at pains to assemble the new tenants the banks demand before they can build again.

Christian S. Johansson, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, sees the glass half-full. "If you look at what the overall economy has been through over the last few years, the fact that you have buildings nearing space limitations, I would call that a pretty encouraging sign."

Maryland's biotech industry got its initial footing elsewhere, especially on Montgomery County's Interstate 270 corridor, closer to the FDA and NIH. "Where we really had untapped assets in this state was in the research institutions in Baltimore," Johansson said. And that's where the growth has finally come.

Both bioparks have had to grapple with community issues. The developers at Hopkins' park spent years relocating, compensating and providing other assistance to people who lived in the park's footprint. They are still wrestling with what kind of housing and amenities to build on the cleared land beyond the labs.

To address some of the needs of its own West Baltimore neighborhood, the UM BioPark last year invited Baltimore City Community College to establish a Life Sciences Institute, which is now training an estimated 500 students for laboratory jobs or careers in biotechnology.

Unexpected path

Hopkins' biopark, just north of the university's medical campus, is part of the larger redevelopment project being run by the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. The park's developer is the Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership.

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