Turn life sciences research into jobs

Maryland gets billions in high-tech investment, needs to do more to commercialize it

October 04, 2011|By Michael Knapp

The Dow takes another tumble, there is one more lackluster report on unemployment, and attention in Maryland turns once again to how to improve the local economy. There have been well-intentioned efforts to stimulate the economy, but there is also an element of wishful thinking in many of these efforts — the thought being that enough bailing twine and chewing gum can hold things together long enough for the economy to improve.

However, the situation in Maryland requires a fundamental change in how we do business. Yes, the economy will improve one day — but in the meantime, we must make important changes now to grow the economy and provide jobs in fields that will increase our competitiveness.

The Baltimore-Washington corridor has vast, untapped assets to serve as the foundation to diversify and grow our economy, but we have never needed to use them in this fashion. Life science research is one such asset. The life sciences already receive a significant federal research investment. The National Institutes of Health conducts nearly $3 billion in research locally; Johns Hopkins University is awarded $1.2 billion in federal research funds annually; the Food and Drug Administration has nearly completed a consolidation of its many branches onto a single campus; and the University of Maryland-Baltimore and University of Maryland, Baltimore County continue to expand their life science research capacity and are among the nation's leaders. In addition, many of the nation's best hospitals are located in the region, treating one of the nation's most diverse populations, and we are home to almost unparalleled information technology assets. This is an invaluable research infrastructure — a fertile engine for innovation with the investment already made.

We must move the current, almost exclusive, focus on pure research to one that also includes an emphasis on commercializing that research. On average, a new business is formed with every $100 million in federal investment. On the basis of NIH research funding alone, this would mean that 30 new companies should emerge each year, but there are nowhere near that many formed. There are a few high-profile commercial successes with humble beginnings in the region, but there is a precipitous drop in the ongoing formation of new companies and potential products.

With an increased focus on commercialization, we can add just a few missing ingredients to the mix that will drastically improve the results of our research investment, while at the same time expand the economy.

Reports from the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Chesapeake Crescent Initiative, the Montgomery County Biosciences Task Force and BioMaryland 2020 are unanimous in recommending that a growing commercial life science sector in this region requires several key components:

• First, local governments and the private sector must partner to recruit seasoned entrepreneurs to the region who can identify technologies with market viability and provide them with seed funding to support initial efforts.

•Second, federal and academic institutions must embrace entrepreneurs and collaborate to improve access to and licensing of research.

•Third, the federal government must provide flexibility for researchers to use a portion of their research funds for commercialization of promising new technologies.

•Fourth, federal conflict-of-interest policy is onerously strict and prohibits scientists from effectively interacting with industry. This policy must be modified to encourage, not hinder, industry cooperation.

•Finally, there must be local funds raised in the form of "angel" investors and venture funds for early-stage technology development.

Adding these ingredients to the existing investment will create a change toward more market-driven innovation, the creation of jobs, the creation of new cures for disease, the improvement of health care and systemic improvement of our regional economy for the future.

Michael Knapp is president of Orion BioStrategies Inc., a life science and technology consulting firm. He was a member of the Montgomery County Council from 2002 to 2010. His email is mike.knapp@orionbiostrategies.com.

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