Center Maryland: Regional cooperation is key to levering biotech strength

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on April 27, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

We live and work in one of the top regions in the U.S. for biotech development. But even with all of its biotech assets, achieving its full potential as a driver of economic growth will depend largely on regional cooperation between Maryland, the District of Columbia and northern Virginia.

That reality was evident at the recent Maryland Regional Biotech Forum, a two-day event held in Gaithersburg to highlight the economic importance of the biotech industry in the region.

The goal of the forum was to chart a path toward branding the region as one of the top three biotech hubs in the country.  The region, defined as Maryland, northern Virginia and D. C. has the assets to have captured a top three designation by now.  There are 800 life sciences companies and 70 federal labs located within the region.  Our world class academic institutions capture the lion’s share of federal research dollars. The biotech industry has accounted for one third of all the job growth in Maryland over the past decade.

Whether or not all three segments of the region can work cooperatively to drive an agenda remains to be seen.

The panel that I served on entitled “How Policy Can be Used to Support Growing Biotech Ecosystems included Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin; Martin Briley, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership; and Brian Darmody, associate vice president of corporate and foundation relations at the University of Maryland. Our mission was to look at and recommend current and future legislative initiatives that support the biotech industry in the region.

Panelists discussed existing policies as well as policies they would like to see implemented in the future.  Biotech advocates in the region, and particularly Maryland, can be proud that the Maryland General Assembly passed and continues to fund the biotech tax credit.  And local jurisdictions like Montgomery County have moved forward to create a piggy back credit on the state tax credit.

Maryland also broke ground with the Invest Maryland initiative that created an online auction in which 24 insurance companies bid for tax credits they wanted to receive in the future.  In its initial auction, the state raised $84 million which was used by the Maryland Venture Authority to invest in startups in the life sciences and other areas.

Future solid policy proposals should definitely include some measures to address the lack of capital for startup and early stage bio companies.  Whether that takes the form of increasing efforts to provide capital for a fund for biotech companies (e.g. – the Propel fund that TEDCO administers) or introducing venture capitalists who have invested in local companies to additional viable  funding candidates, this step needs to be done.

One panelist proposed the creation of an organization similar to the structure of the State of Maryland’s Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) to help fund the commercialization of technologies out of our federal labs.  It would be a federal organization working in the entire region, perhaps pulling the disparate entities closer together.

The formalized use of commercialization as a factor in determining tenure at area colleges and universities would also send a strong message to the national biotech community that commercialization is a top priority in the region.

All panelists agreed that a regional marketing strategy would be optimal with the three entities working cooperatively to market a broader geographical area.  The challenge to that approach clearly lies in the implementation of such effort. Although our region is divided by political boundaries, no one disputes the fact that the national or international bio communities do not perceive northern Virginia, Maryland or D.C. as three separate bio communities.

To the larger world, the combined bio communities are defined as the Capital region.  It may be time to market ourselves accordingly.

Regional cooperation was a recurring theme from putting forth new legislative initiatives to creating an optimal business climate in which biotech companies could flourish.  High quality transit, quality school systems, and affordable housing were all cited as necessary attributes in addition to business training for entrepreneurs and researchers.

The most successful outcome of a regional cooperative effort would be for the three jurisdictions to coordinate efforts to further enhance the existing biotech ecosystem and then “plant a flag” and market the region as a top tier biotechnology hub promoting the region’s critical mass, quality education institutions, unmatched research capabilities, and exemplary workforce.

The pieces are all there – we need the political will to make it happen.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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