Debated Montgomery County biotechnology incubator officially closes its doors Monday


Empty lab spaces at the Shady Grove Innovation Center. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

The laboratory that once occupied Room 163 has been reduced to rubble.

Glass-doored cabinets have been ripped from the wall and carted off. Countertops have been lifted off the work benches they covered. Fume hoods that stretch floor to ceiling sit dormant in the corner, the only equipment too heavy to haul off.

Most of the offices and wet labs at the Shady Grove Innovation Center were in the process of being dismantled last week as the incubator’s remaining tenants prepare for the facility to officially close Monday at 5 p.m. after 15 years of housing young biotechnology companies.

The $9 million facility will soon be gutted to make way for a national cybersecurity center that the federal government agreed to locate in Montgomery County if state and local officials could find a building to house it.

But the decision to close the biotechnology incubator and displace nearly 40 companies with workers there was met with greater opposition than county officials expected. Tenants met with congressional representatives, they linked arms with former county executive Douglas M. Duncan, they took their appeals to the county council. They ultimately won promises of help with the move.

Now, as discarded science journals sit piled in an otherwise empty hallway and brown boxes are stacked to the ceiling in some offices, a deep sense of confusion, disbelief and bitterness still simmers among some of the tenants.

“That incubator was the heart of the biotech start-up space here in Montgomery County, and it is terribly unfortunate that political decisions have to have such a negative impact on our industry,” said Aprile Pilon, whose company, Clarassance, has been at the Maryland incubator seven years.

“It’s been a big hardship on every single company that has been displaced, not just in terms of cost but an enormous amount of stress on management and time taken away from running their businesses when they really didn’t need that distraction,” she added.

David Beylin, the chief executive at Brain Biosciences, had barely begun packing up his office at the incubator last week. Plastic bins full of files sat on his desk, with even more papers strewn on top of it. The latest prototype of the device he built to screen patients for dementia and other mental illnesses sat on a massage table.

On Wednesday, he was preparing to spend the next two days at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore to conduct a clinical study on about 20 volunteers. Packing, he said, would have to wait for the weekend.

“I have things indefinitely more important than moving,” Beylin said.

Beylin has been among the most vocal in speaking out against the incubator’s closure. The decision, he said, seemed to be made without an understanding that biotechnology is an expensive and time-consuming industry, or an appreciation that the work comes with both economic and health benefits.

“We’re not looking for handouts,” Beylin said, adding that the start-ups pay rent for their space in the incubator. “The reason we’re fighting the closure is because we believe it’s bad for the community.”

For Steve Silverman, Montgomery County’s director of economic development, there was no better option. He said officials considered leasing space in a private building, but the cost would have been twice as high as taking over the incubator.

To quiet the tenants’ discontent, the county has offered to pay the start-ups’ moving costs, as well as some of the build-out expenses for companies whose new locations lack the features that made the incubator conducive to running a biotechnology company.

“We’re in the process of finalizing a subsidy program because some of the tenants had to move into larger space than they had at the incubator, so we want to help defray some of those [rent] costs,” Silverman said.

“We said we were going to help these companies have a soft landing, and we’ve accomplished that.”

For many companies, the landing has indeed been soft. Ten companies were relocated to other county-owned incubators in Germantown and Rockville. Others have found commercial space nearby that was designed with the needs of life-sciences companies in mind.

But displacing a few dozen companies is just one issue, tenants said. The incubator’s closure could mean future companies don’t get their start here because they can’t find short-term, low-cost space where they can nurture a business in its early years.

“We would not be a company had incubator space not existed,” said Scott Grindrod, the lead chemist at Shuttle Pharmaceuticals, as he packed up last week.

“You’re working with other small companies who are doing small-company stuff and dealing with small-company problems,” he said.

Grindrod might find a similar environment when Shuttle Pharmaceuticals relocates to the county’s Germantown incubatory, though there are fewer biotechnology companies there. As movers rolled off his last cart of equipment — an automatic chromatography machine, centrifuge and balance — a move months in the making was became final.

“It really has a dorm-at-the-end-of-the-semester feel,” Grindrod said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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