Montgomery tries to incubate resurgence in biotech industry

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Senthil Saravanamuthu studies eye biology at the National Institutes of Health. But in a classroom one night last week, squeezed between a tray of carrots and a whiteboard 10 miles from his Bethesda lab, he was there to listen.

Academics and state and local officials had gathered Thursday at the Montgomery County campus of Johns Hopkins University to try to recruit biotech entrepreneurs, and Saravanamuthu was gathering data the way he tackles questions about lens development and blinding diseases.

He considers himself entrepreneurial. "But I would like to, at first, know the special skills you need and evaluate myself and how well I fit that," Saravanamuthu said. "It's a completely different thing. I'm not trained for this. I don't have the business background. I have the science."

As communities across the country try to recover from the recession, the promise of a happy marriage of those disparate skills is even more alluring, and it's not just the province of economic boosters touting the prospect of 21st-century jobs: Scientific investigators say the emerging era of personalized medicine -- in which it is increasingly possible to discover the genetic drivers of each person's illnesses -- depends on tying together the work of researchers, manufacturers and doctors.

But the challenges are daunting, the competition is great and places seemingly flush with advantages, such as Montgomery County, have struggled to keep their edge. A study of top U.S. biotech communities by the California-based Milken Institute ranked the Washington region 10th, behind areas such as Philadelphia, the Raleigh-Durham region in North Carolina and Chicago.

"The perception that we're right behind Silicon Valley and Boston may have been accurate 10 years ago, but isn't accurate today," said Steve Silverman, Montgomery's economic development director. "We've got to play catch-up ball."

Fairfax County, Virginia and the Inova Health System announced last month that they are making a major investment in the Ignite Institute, a Herndon initiative geared toward personalized medicine.

Coming up short

Planning decades ago helped spur a vibrant life sciences sector in Montgomery, which is home to about 250 of the state's 400 biotech companies. Clusters of technology companies -- including powerhouses such as MedImmune and smaller firms such as Cellphire and Adlyfe -- have sprouted up near Shady Grove, where Hopkins located its Montgomery campus.

But officials, executives and academics say Montgomery has come up short in at least three areas.

First, they say, the county has been unable to take advantage of the NIH, one of the world's biggest research assets -- partly because of tight rules on collaboration between NIH scientists and private industry.

There is also a strong emphasis on basic research that doesn't necessarily translate to product ideas. But even existing set-ups for transferring technology to the private sector are underused.

Second, some start-ups say they haven't had the benefit of the free-flowing, risk-taking venture capital that flows more easily in places such as Silicon Valley.

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