Tami Howie, CEO of the Maryland Technology Council, kicked off the 2018 BioHealth Capital Region Forum Monday with a poll question: What are the things that the local biotechnology ecosystem still needs?
The more than 1,100 forum attendees and biotech industry players texted their answers to poll. Two words stood among the answers: "funding" and "collaboration."
The annual BioHealth forum brings together biotech industry stakeholders from across Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. This year, the forum focused on the mission of making the region into one of the top three biotech markets in the nation. Currently, according to rankings by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, the region is fifth, based on factors including National Institutes of Health funding — Maryland brings in the fifth highest proportion of NIH funding in the country — venture capital activity, patents, lab space and jobs. Boston ranks at No. 1.
Rich Bendis, who heads an organization focused on accelerating the growth and commercialization of biotechnologies, said the region has made a lot of progress over the past several years. More local biotech companies are getting funded and seeing successful exits.
Bendis, CEO of BioHealth Innovation Inc., pointed out that from 2007 to 2017, the number of biotech companies to earn venture capital funding grew nearly 200 percent from 32 to 92. He also pointed to recent examples of big exits like the $1.2 billion acquisition of Rockville's Sucampo Pharmaceuticals Inc. and the $100 million acquisition of Baltimore's Harpoon Medical Inc. But the top three title is still far off, and Bendis said there are a few things the region needs to focus on to get there.
First, it will take more funding, Bendis said. As forum-goers pointed out, biotech firms and startups are always in need of more funding to bring new drugs, medical devices and health products through clinical trails and commercialization. Bendis hopes some of the major exits seen recently will attract more investment attention to the region, to help with that need.
The BioHealth forum is also aiming to help with the problem directly, by launching a new investment conference in October. The invite-only event will help connect funding-seeking firms with relevant investors from organizations like New Enterprise Associates, Maryland Technology Development Corp. and J.P. Morgan.
Secondly, Bendis said it is important to start breaking down barriers and eliminating silos across the region in biotech. Several years ago, he said he heard the drive between Montgomery County and Baltimore described as the "longest 35 miles in the world." Those two areas serve as hubs of regional biotechnology activity, with big-name firms like MedImmune LLC operating in Montgomery County and major health research institutions like University of Maryland, Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But there are few public transit options that serve to traverse the gap between the two, which has served to create silos, as opposed to a truly interconnected biotech industry in Maryland, Bendis said.
"We've got to start bridging those kinds of gaps, breaking down the barriers that are cities, counties, rivers," Bendis said. "Greater connectivity will help us bring everything we've been working on in our own spaces together."