The Washington area is rapidly achieving a "critical mass" of high-tech firms that is expected to make it easier to attract additional high-tech companies, observers say.

"The Washington area is a great place for emerging high-tech companies," said Albert G. Pastino, who is in charge of emerging and fast-growing companies at Deloitte, Haskells & Sells, a New York accounting firm. "It doesn't have the maturity of a Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Boston , but it's starting."

The area is attracting the right combination of technological talent and venture capital, says Pastino, and an economic infrastructure has been created because of it.

"When you have the expertise and venture capital, bankers perk up, lawyers pay attention, and accounting firms set up speciality segments," he said.

"The area now has a critical mass of technology-oriented firms that will attract others," according to a report released last week by the Greater Washington Research Center. "Critical mass" occurs when enough companies locate in one area to attract others.

The area is fast becoming a magnet for firms specializing in biotechnology, telecommunications, and computer software development. The Greater Washington Research Center report counted roughly 1,200 high-tech firms in the area, employing about 105,000 employes on a $4.2 billion payroll.

Venture capital investment is increasing in the area, according to Don Christensen, president of Washington Investors Inc., a venture capital firm with $25 million to invest. "There's a lot more of it than there's ever been before," he said. The area still lacks "real entrepreneurial teams" experienced in starting new companies, but will attract them eventually, he said.

David Sarnoff, professor of technology management at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, said high-tech companies in the area are primarily government-supported research and development firms. "I don't think one builds a high-tech community that has growth out of study firms," Roberts said. "You have to have the opportunity to transfer R&D results to manufacturing."

That is not altogether bad, according to Robert Gulledge, chairman of Fairfax County's economic development authority.

"We were directed by the county board of supervisors to look for diversification in an environmentally clean and acceptable manner, to enhance the quality of living," he said.

Fairfax County already boasts 525 high-tech companies, including Satellite Business Systems, AT&T Communications Corp., Nippon Electric Corp., and MCI Communications. The county's location near Dulles and Washington National airports and the Pentagon is a major drawing card.

Maryland sports a cluster of biotechnology firms drawn to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, both located in Montgomery County.

The state has a high concentration of telecommunications, computer software, electronics, and defense firms linked to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.