By Morgan Eichensehr – Reporter, Baltimore Business Journal
The head of Maryland’s Tech Council is looking to unite state firms and legislators around the goal of becoming the top destination for biotechnology businesses in the country — not just among the top three.
For the past several years, the Maryland biotechnology industry has been vying for a “top three” ranking on the Top 10 U.S. Biopharma Clusters ranking by Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. The state’s biotech community is part of what’s been deemed as the BioHealth Capital Region, which includes parts of Virginia’s and Washington, D.C., and has been ranked at No. 4 on the Top 10 list each year since 2015. The region trails Boston, San Francisco and New York/New Jersey metropolitan areas.
Maryland biotech companies and executives have largely coalesced around the goal of helping the region climb up in the rankings in the coming years. The collective effort has yielded an industry marketing effort and corresponding slogan: “Top three by 2023.”
Marty Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, takes issue with that perspective, though. He said while taking over the No. 3 or even No. 2 title might be admirable, there’s no reason why Maryland shouldn’t be aiming to take the No. 1 spot.”Why would you shoot for No. 3? It’s a catchy slogan. I think it’s brought focus and attention to the community and it’s served a good purpose,” said Rosendale, whose organization represents the interests 464 members companies operating within the state’s tech and life science industries. “But I think it’s time to look again, focus in on areas we’re already doing very well in, and aim for No. 1.”
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News evaluates five categories to calculate its Top 10 rankings. The BioHealth Capital Region’s characteristics include third place overall rankings for number and size of venture capital deals, as well as for amount of National Institutes of Health funding and number of patents earned. It also ranks fourth overall for amount of lab space, and ninth overall for biotech employment, with about 41,322 sector jobs.
Rosendale said Maryland has several other assets that provide advantages to biotech companies that choose to operate in the state, most notably proximity to several of the federal institutions focused on health care, tech and the life sciences, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in White Oak, and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Many biotech companies must work closely with such regulatory agencies while developing new pharmaceuticals or medical technologies, Rosendale said.
As a two-time Maryland biotech CEO himself, he said he has experienced first-hand how the ability to have face-to-face meetings with regulators can expedite the development and commercialization process.
So what is keeping the state out of the running for No. 1? Ken Mills, CEO of gene therapy firm REGENXBIO Inc. in Rockville, said the elements Maryland is still missing are more capital and more veteran biotech leaders.
“We absolutely win on the science side. The NIH is one of the richest sources of untapped science in the country, and having access to new science coming out of places like that has been a key factor in our own interest to stay here,” Mills said. “But capital is probably the one area where Maryland is most deficient.”
There is a “gap” in venture money available from local sources, Mills said. Early on, biotech firms often get grant funding from organizations like NIH, he said, but later on many companies end up having to look to places like Boston, New York and San Francisco — its Top 10 competitors — to find the kind of capital needed to scale.
As many investors aim to invest in and attract firms they believe can positively contribute to growing economies their own regions, this can present an obvious problem. Mills said he would like to see more local investors and organizations raise funds aimed specifically at supporting local biotech companies.
Maryland’s biotech ecosystem could also benefit from a larger pool of experienced local company leaders, Mills noted. He said executives who have already seen a successful exit or two can help build other successful companies, and could also serve as investors to help close the funding gap.
“People who have experienced some success in the industry need to stay here and be the foundation for investing in new opportunities in biotech,” Mills said. “We’ve started to see some of that, but we need to have more of those cycles, of small companies growing into larger entities, then the people behind them staying to help grow the next generation of companies.”
As CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, Rosendale said he hopes to play a key role in uniting his organization’s member companies around the goal of achieving the No. 1 rank, and becoming the top U.S. destination for growing biotech firms. Part of that role will include crafting a concise message or “story” about the region’s industry assets, and making sure that story is heard by local legislators, and by investors and industry players outside the region. There will have to be a collective, organized effort by local company leaders, government officials as well as supporting entities like developers and investors, Rosendale said.
Some tech council member companies are already onboard with pushing the “No. 1” narrative. Kristen Valdes, CEO of Baltimore health technology firm b.well Connected Health, also touted Maryland biotech firms’ ability to access and collaborate with regulatory bodies.
“We sit in the center of where all health policy is created. We have the opportunity to meet with federal regulators who are shaping the national environment for health care,” Valdes said. “If you’re in the health care space, I think this is really the only place to be. Our location gives us the ability to help drive change in health care, and we are able to move ahead with our own work much more quickly.”
Valdes said companies like hers also benefit from proximity to renowned health care education and provider institutions like Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland, Baltimore, which provide access to resources like researchers willing to collaborate, and talent pools of well-trained tech and health workers.
These assets create a “cohesive environment” for health-related tech companies to grow, Valdes said. Plus, she pointed out it is generally cheaper to live and build a business in Maryland, compared to places like Boston or San Francisco.