Business and education leaders in Northern Virginia are working hard to lure biotechnology companies. They've landed a major medical research institute, and they're expanding university programs in the field. But for a daunting reminder of how far they need to go, all they have to do is look across the Potomac River at neighboring Maryland.
"In the short term, we're not going to rival Maryland in biotech, but within 20 years, I can see this area approaching what Maryland has," said Charles L. Bailey, executive director of the biodefense center at George Mason University's Manassas campus and a former commander of the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
What would Virginia need to do to rival Maryland, which ranked fourth among the states in accounting firm Ernst & Young's most recent survey of the nation's major biotech centers?
Start with a magnet like the National Institutes of Health. Since the 1930s, Maryland has been home to the NIH, around which have grown dozens of biotechnology companies such as MedImmune Inc. and Celera Genomics Group.
The closest Northern Virginia may come is the research operation that Maryland's Howard Hughes Medical Institute is building. It will bring 300 scientists and postdoctoral and graduate students to 700 wooded acres in Loudoun County.
"Us being there makes Northern Virginia more attractive to biotech companies," said Gerald M. Rubin, a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley who will run the new Janelia Farm research campus. "But whether that's enough to make a company want to go there, rather than San Francisco or Boston, is an open question."
The Hughes Medical Institute decided in October that the farm, scheduled to open in a year and a half, will first focus on using computers and imaging to measure how the body's nervous system processes information.
That is the kind of research that spins off new ideas and new companies to exploit them, good news for Northern Virginia. "The National Institutes of Health has been criticized as too risk-averse in the research it funds," Rubin said. "But since we have our own funding, we can do more that's analogous to venture funding in the business world, where you may have three successful projects and seven failures, and you make your profit on the three."
Rubin, who founded Exelixis Inc., a San Francisco-based cancer-drug developer, predicted that "some of our people will certainly start companies."
The question is whether they'll put their start-ups in Northern Virginia. The researchers at Janelia Farm will be hired on six-year contracts. Some will probably stay in the area longer, but some will leave, taking their ideas to start biotech businesses with them.