Prince George's weighs biotech center that could bring 1,900 workers

Kwasi Holman leads county economic development efforts.
Kwasi Holman leads county economic development efforts. (Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A biotechnology research and development center in Prince George's County could employ more than 1,900 workers and generate as much as $23 million in state and county taxes each year, according to a feasibility study recently released by county planners.

Prince George's is trying to diversify its economic base, and officials hope the study will help to attract, develop and keep biotechnology companies in the county.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Prince George's County Planning Board commissioned the study after County Council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) asked them to explore developing a biotechnology center. The study analyzed the potential economic impact, identified possible locations and evaluated the county's technology assets.

"We are trying to use this study to compete more effectively," said Kwasi Holman, president and chief executive of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp.

Prince George's founded the state's first technology incubator in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland at College Park, but it has not been able to retain the companies, in large part, because it lacks suitable complexes of office space where such companies could cluster. Meanwhile, many of the companies have relocated to Montgomery County.

"There's a concentration of biotech companies in Montgomery County, and we're trying to reverse that trend," Holman said.

Only 2.4 percent of Maryland's 377 biotech companies are in Prince George's, according to the study. Fifty-three percent, or 201 firms, are in Montgomery, the report shows. Prince George's had the fewest bioscience employees, too, with 1,573. Montgomery had 12,115 workers.

Gül Güleryüz, a county planner and the project manager for the study, said Prince George's wants to move out of Montgomery's "shadow."

Companies are being nurtured at U-Md., she said, but they leave once they "graduate" from the Technology Advancement Program, which provides start-up bioscience firms with business support, funding, infrastructure and other expertise. Each year, an average of three life science companies graduates from the program.

For example, Innovative Biosensors relocated to the Red Cross's Jermone Holland Laboratory in Rockville after graduating in 2007. The study quotes the company's chief executive as saying the move allowed the firm "to expand [research and development] programs and to expand the firm's manufacturing capabilities."

The study also cited the lack of a university medical school in Prince George's as a weakness.

The report recommends implementing a bioscience development plan in stages. Initially, the county would set up an accelerator facility, then a biotechnology research development center and finally a large-scale technology park.

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