The battle to keep a Montgomery County biotechnology incubator open took a political turn Thursday when Doug Duncan, a candidate for county executive, and a slate of entrepreneurs from the facility gathered to criticize the pending closure.
The biotechnology start-ups inside the William Hanna Innovation Center at Shady Grove were told earlier this year that they must vacate the facility by June 30 to make way for a national cybersecurity center officials plan to house at the site.
The decision has angered the tenants and others in the local biotechnology community who say the 60,000 square-foot location and its 24 wet labs are a critical resource where young ventures with promising technology can conduct research before going to market.
The facility opened in 1999 during Duncan’s previous tenure as county executive. At a press conference Thursday, the now-candidate said there is no reason one of the region’s wealthiest counties cannot find space to locate a cybersecurity center elsewhere.
“Why is the county making this an either/or situation?” Duncan told reporters. “We’re calling on the County Council and state legislature to step in and say ... ‘Let’s make both happen. Let’s not tell the world we’re stepping back from life science.’”
Steve Silverman, the county’s economic development director, said the answer is simple. Officials looked for affordable, privately owned office space to house the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, but ultimately decided the Shady Grove incubator was the fiscally responsible option.
“This was a last resort, not a first resort, in terms of space,” Silverman said.
The national cybersecurity center was created with $15 million from Congress and nearly $1 million in state and local funds. It will house a small federal agency that falls under the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as some private and start-up companies focused on civil cybersecurity.
Montgomery County aims to attract cybersecurity companies large and small in its effort to become a hub for the fast-growing industry. Still, Silverman said that doesn’t detract from its long-standing commitment to biotech.
A separate incubator in Germantown houses 15 biotechnology companies, and the county has doled out economic development grants and tax credits to biotechnology companies over the years that add up to millions of dollars, Silverman said.
“There needs to be a discussion of the facts. When people say we’re turning our backs on life science, nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Joining Duncan at Thursday’s press conference were nearly a dozen current and former tenants of the innovation center who said its closure would disrupt their companies and be a blow to the county’s reputation as a hospitable place for the biotech industry.
David Beylin, the chief executive at Brain Biosciences, moved his company into the incubator at 9700 Great Seneca Hwy. in May. Since that time, the company has expanded to 400 square feet from 200 with plans to reach 2,000 by year’s end.
Beylin said it would be impossible for the company to gradually expand as it hires in another venue because any commercial property that’s equipped for a biotechnology company would be too large and expensive.
“We can’t grow like that anywhere else unless we break the lock on a vacant building in the county,” Beylin said.
Hyacinth Ntchobo relocated his company, MagBio Genomics, to the Montgomery County incubator from North Carolina because of this area’s proximity to federal researchers and the hub of biotechnology companies.
If the site closes as planned, Ntchobo said he may be faced with once again relocating his family and company, a situation that he said would be both a distraction from conducting business and difficult to explain to customers.
“We cannot tell them, ‘We have some real estate issues. We don’t know where we’re going to be next month,’” he said. “We can’t tell them that."
Duncan said during the meeting that he plans to pen a letter to the County Council asking them to reconsider the facility’s closure. The tenants, meanwhile, plan to host council members and state legislators at the incubator in hopes of changing their minds.
Follow reporter Steven Overly on Twitter: @StevenOverly