A new federal agency should be created to help American companies maintain their world leadership in the commercial use of biological processes, an industry spokesman said yesterday.

Japan and other countries are pumping government money into their biotech firms and "are gaining on us," Ronald Cape, president of the Industrial Biotechnology Association, said at a national conference on biotechnology.

"The race is on," Cape told about 800 delegates of Biotech '84 at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. "The U.S. invented it, is leading it and is shooting itself in the foot and is not going to win the race."

Cape, chairman of Cetus Corp., of Berkeley, Calif., compared the competition in biotechnology to the space race stimulated by the Soviets' Sputnik satellite, and said U.S. biotech firms need "a supporter" like the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.

The biotechnology agency would be a "proponent" of the industry, helping to fund basic research, Cape said, but should not be responsible for regulating research or product development.

Cape said that the agency should provide funds primarily to universities, while private industry raises the capital for applied research.

Since 1976, private venture capital has financed the startup of more than 100 U.S. biotech firms, providing more than $350 million in equity investments between 1977 and August 1983, the Office of Technology Assessment said in a study released in January. Research-and-development limited partnerships in biotechnology should total $1.5 billion this year, it said.

The OTA report said the United States was the world leader in the application of biological processes and organisms for commercial purposes.

More than 200 U.S. companies use techniques such as fermentation, cell fusion and genetic engineering to produce items that include pharmaceuticals, food additives, chemicals and agricultural products.

Meanwhile, the report said, the Japanese government has "targeted biotechnology as a key technology of the future, is funding its commercial development," and is likely to be America's strongest competitor.

"They did it to us in cars," Cape said later, referring to Japanese success in the auto industry. "They did it to us in tape recorders and TVs. Now they say they're going to do it to us again in biotechnology."

The National Institutes of Health plans to spend $4.2 billion this year on all biological research and development, up 12 percent from last year, and 33 percent more than in 1980.

But Cape said that NIH has a "fragmented agenda" and too many "turf problems" to continue as the major sponsor of basic biomedical research. He said a "totally new" agency should double government spending on basic life science research.

NIH's communications office declined to comment on Cape's remarks.

Robert F. Johnston, a venture capitalist who helped found Genex Corp. of Rockville and other biotech firms, agreed that more federal money is needed for basic research. "We need more to stay competitive," he said.

Johnston is the president of Johnston Associates Inc., of Princeton, N.J., a firm that arranges financing for new biotech companies. He said that venture money is available for new companies and that R&D partnerships, public offerings and corporate alliances can help finance mature companies.

But private capital cannot replace the government as the primary supporter of basic, university research, he said.

Additionally, "it is more appropriate" that government pay for basic research because it is information that "ought to be part of the public domain," he said.