Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said Tuesday that Xceleron Ltd., a small British life sciences company, has chosen Gaithersburg for its U.S. headquarters, as it expands its business helping biotechs more quickly develop drugs.

Duncan made the announcement as part of a larger push by county and state officials to showcase the growing international reach of the region's biotech cluster to the more than 18,000 people gathered at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the biotech industry's annual conference.

"We have to attract companies from all over the world," Duncan said. "We think we are perfectly positioned to help international companies establish a foothold."

Several international companies, including digital camera maker Canon Inc., have recently decided to pursue biotech businesses in the county, listing among its chief attractions the proximity to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

Xceleron, founded in York, England, in 1997, will initially employ just two people in a small Gaithersburg office. The company hopes to expand to at least 50 employees within a year after building a facility to house a large mass-spectrometry device.

The machine, which is the size of two tennis courts, allows the company to break down blood into minute particles and analyze the effects of trace amounts of a potential drug. By administering harmless, microscopic doses, Xceleron can take compounds directly from the lab to human test patients -- bypassing less accurate predictive tests in animals and shortening the lengthy and expensive drug development process.

"We are rapidly changing the way drugs are developed," said Xceleron chief executive Colin Garner.

The Xceleron announcement was part of the effort to market Maryland and Montgomery County as a biotech center. The state ranked fourth among biotech clusters in recent industry surveys -- behind California, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

More than 60 companies and organizations set up displays in 40 booths at the state's pavilion on the exhibition floor, forming one of the largest presences for any region in the country or world. Florida, nearby, had six booths, as did Malaysia. Virginia, on the other side of the expo floor, had 10.

Maryland economic development officials handed out flimsy yellow Frisbees promoting the state with the slogan, "Where bioscience is contagious!" On an exhibition floor filled with free candy bars, pens, tote bags and scientific journals, the Frisbees seemed to be a hot item, though no one was throwing them.

The marketing efforts also extended to fashion. The state's life sciences proponents encouraged the region's biotech executives to wear red, gold, and black Maryland neckties to a gala party that the state and county helped sponsor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Women were given similarly colored scarves.

Decorated to re-create the look and feel of a European piazza, the gala featured unicyclists, jugglers, street musicians, mimes and fire eaters.

In the morning, Duncan was the U.S. representative on an international panel about government efforts to spur local biotech growth. In front of about 45 people in a chilly 180-seat conference room, Duncan detailed the history of biotech in Montgomery County.

State and county officials promoted Montgomery County as a biotech center at an industry conference.