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Bio bounces back from downturn: Montgomery, Baltimore eye new growth in industry

by Kevin James Shay | Staff Writer at The Gazette

The future of Maryland's bioscience industry is bright, officials say, as Montgomery County gave the green light this week to the massive "Science City" project, while bioparks in Baltimore and elsewhere continue to fill with growing ventures.

"Biotech has rebounded from the recession faster than just about all other industries here," said Christian S. Johansson, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development, who was among those who attended the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual International Convention in Chicago this week.

"It's a huge industry in Maryland that will only get larger," Johansson said. "About 8 percent of the biotech companies in the country are based in Maryland, while we only have about 2 percent of the nation's population."

The Montgomery County Council's approval this week of the potential $10 billion Great Seneca Science Corridor Plan solidifies the county's position as the dominant place for life sciences development in Maryland, said Steven A. Silverman, the county's economic development director.

The plan calls for a life sciences research development that could rival Palo Alto, Calif., with a proposed 17.5 million square feet and 40,000 new jobs in the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center in Rockville and Gaithersburg west of Interstate 270. The project would include retail and housing — thus the "city" aspect.

"We have been the epicenter for life sciences in Maryland for the past 20 years, and this will allow us to continue to have that designation," Silverman said.

The Great Seneca project has the potential to elevate the county's bioscience status even beyond what it already is, said H. Thomas Watkins, president and CEO of Rockville biotech Human Genome Sciences and chairman of the Maryland Life Sciences Advisory Board. "Montgomery County is a leading biotech center not just in the state and country, but in the world," he said.

Life sciences community

The plan builds on what officials have been developing in that area for decades, said Georgette "Gigi" Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. "If we can be the home for life sciences and technology advancement for the human race, then it stands to reason that we will be the home of a life sciences and technology community."

While some have questioned the size and impact of the new plan, Ken Green, president of software development and information technology company Prestige Technologies, which is in the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center in Rockville, said he is looking forward to the massive project.

"We believe it will be positive for the region and give us more opportunities," Green said.

The project will need federal and state funding to build the needed infrastructure, Silverman said. "It can't just be locally funded," he said.

In approving the plan this week, the County Council agreed to require that half of the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway be completed before the second half of the project is built. The 14.1-mile mass-transit line is planned to connect Shady Grove and Clarksburg.

Biotechs such as MedImmune, which has offices in Gaithersburg and Frederick, and Human Genome Sciences in Rockville continue to expand in Montgomery County. MedImmune is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in expansions in Gaithersburg and Frederick, and is committed to the area, said Peter Greenleaf, the company's president, who also spoke in Chicago.

"In Montgomery County, MedImmune not only has access to a skilled and educated work force, but also to an array of strategic partners in the public, private, academic and institutional arenas," he said. "It's also a great place to live and raise a family. That gives us a strategic advantage in recruiting and retaining talent."

Competition from Baltimore?

In Baltimore, the number of bioscience companies has grown considerably in the past few years, with the development of bioparks near Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore campuses. The Greater Baltimore Committee has a list of 130 biotechs in the Baltimore area, up from 85 about a year ago.

But none of the companies approach the size of MedImmune and HGS in Montgomery and Frederick counties. Montgomery officials say their county is home to nearly 300 biotechs.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore has two buildings in its biopark, a 120,000-square-foot building that opened in 2005 and was fully leased by the following year, and a 240,000-square-foot structure completed in 2007 that is almost 85 percent full.

A third, $43 million, 120,000-square-foot building that will house a new Maryland Forensic Center is expected to open this summer, said James L. Hughes, vice president for research and development at University of Maryland. Officials also are finalizing plans for another building and hope to start construction on it this year, he said.

Leasing activity has picked up this year in the second building, with companies such as PharmaJet of Golden, Colo., opening an office there. Most of the companies are homegrown from University of Maryland or Johns Hopkins, Hughes said. The largest tenant, SNBL Clinical Pharmacology Center, came from Japan, while another significant one, Biomere, came from Massachusetts, he said.

In the past three to five years, the Center of Vascular and Inflammatory Diseases and the Institute for Genome Sciences moved from Montgomery County, where they were under different names.

Montgomery County's Great Seneca plan is a big plus for the state, and  University of Maryland expects to be part of the project as it expands its presence at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Hughes said.

"The stronger Maryland gets for biotech, the better for everyone," Hughes said. "There should be spillover to Baltimore that will help attract life sciences companies here."

The Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, developed by the Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, also has a biopark. It is the first of several planned buildings near medical giant Johns Hopkins opened in 2008.

Like Hughes, business and economic development officials don't view the situation as a competition between Baltimore and Montgomery.

"We're here to create a community to attract the best talent in the world. We have to think big," Godwin said.

The competition between Baltimore and Montgomery is more political in nature than commerce-driven, Johansson said.