Twenty years ago, Montgomery County economic development officials convinced a Japanese pharmaceutical firm to do something risky: locate its U.S. operations in an area that most recently had cows as tenants.

The county was launching the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, its bold effort to jump-start a biotech community by converting nearly 300 acres of county-owned land into an industrial park for life sciences firms.

Searching for a first tenant, county officials made Otsuka Pharmaceutical a now-familiar promise: unparalleled access to the nearby National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. The prime location, officials said, would spur scientists and investors to follow Otsuka's lead.

Otsuka executives liked what they heard. They dispatched a Shinto priest to bless the site and opened their doors with 12 employees. This month Otsuka America Pharmaceutical Inc. celebrates its 20-year anniversary -- with 400.

"I grew up when this area was farmland," said Brian Harris, an Otsuka facilities manager. "To see this area change, and to be a part of it, is really amazing."

Dozens of biotech companies, along with satellite campuses for Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, now operate in the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, forming the backbone for the county's more than 200 biotech firms.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said Otsuka "is truly one of the county's great pioneers."

"They saw what we were trying to accomplish with the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center and shared our vision of Montgomery County as a world-renowned hub for biotech," Duncan added.

Otsuka, which has three divisions and now occupies several other buildings in the county, is privately held and has a lower profile than MedImmune Inc. and Human Genome Sciences, two other long-standing firms in the county.

The Japanese firm has brought three products to market, including Abilify, a treatment for schizophrenia. Otsuka is in the advanced stages of human studies on several other product candidates, including treatments for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases.

"We haven't asked for instant success and instant sales," said Mukesh Patel, executive vice president for commercial development and planning. "The idea in coming here was to take the long-term view."

Deer Park Facelift Complete

Scheer Partners Inc. has completed a $7 million renovation of the 52,000-square-foot Deer Park Professional Centre in Gaithersburg.

The description may be a slight understatement. The Rockville commercial real estate services firm gutted the two buildings from top to bottom, replacing the roof, windows, heating and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical wiring, elevators and parking lot.

The idea behind the project, Scheer officials said, was to offer small new suites in an upscale building. The smallest suite is 850 square feet; the largest is 17,000 square feet.

"We refused to compromise quality anywhere in the project," said Joe Sutton, executive vice president of Scheer's investments division.

"From the new base building systems to our interior marble and granite finishes and the revamping of the exterior landscaping, this site has undergone a complete transformation and is truly a Class A suburban office space."

Fifty percent of the project has been sold.

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