Md. Biotech Industry Celebrates Successes, Warns of Challenges
By: Tim Curtis Daily Record Business Writer
NORTH BETHESDA — Amid hopes for cures to chronic illnesses like diabetes and HIV, Maryland life science companies and their boosters wondered Monday what it will take to make the state No.1 for cell and gene therapies.
At the Maryland Life Sciences Bio Innovation Conference, leaders touted successes and announced next steps towards long-awaited cures. But they also pondered stubborn issues like access to capital and attracting strong executive teams.
Martin Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, which includes Maryland life sciences, repeated Monday his goal of making Maryland the top state in the country for life sciences. “Now, we aren’t and probably will never be No. 1 for everybody and in everything, but in cell and gene therapies, I think we’re already there. In immunotherapy and vaccines, I think we’re already there,” he said. “My view is, we focus where we’re strong and we get stronger.”
Some events at the conference suggested evidence to back up Rosendale’s hopes. Jeff Galvin, founder and CEO of American Gene Technologies, announced his company had filed an investigational new drug application for its HIV therapy, which will allow the company to begin patient trials soon. He believes the company will produce a cure for HIV within the year.
Another CEO of a company working on a cure for chronic disease – in this case diabetes – William Rust of Seraxis said Maryland has momentum in the cell and gene therapy field. But what remains is the need for educated investors, he said. “It is really just bringing awareness to the opportunities for investment here and bringing people who understand how biotech investment is different from other types of venture capital … so that investors will take a serious look at the opportunities that are here,” he said at a panel on Maryland’s cell and gene therapy industry. “I think that it is already happening, I just hope that it continues so we can push forward with the momentum that is already here.”
But the field has also encountered challenges, including attracting strong executive teams to its startups.
Kimberly Noonan, founder and chief scientific officer of WindMIL, a Johns Hopkins startup working on a cancer treatment, said on the same panel that she struggled to find an executive team to come to Baltimore. Now she is the company’s only executive in Maryland with the rest of the executives based in Philadelphia.
Part of the struggle, she said, was a barrage of stories about crime in Baltimore.
“It hurts me that I couldn’t recruit an executive team to Baltimore,” she said. “And I tried, I really tried, to explain that we have great schools, that we have beautiful neighborhoods, that the city is not just crime. And I did not win this battle.”
At the same time, other factors make recruiting that strong executive team difficult. Last year more than 100 companies were founded in immuno-oncology, the same field WindMIL is in. That is 100 companies looking for their own executive team, increasing competition. Another challenge facing Maryland will be connecting the clusters it has developed in Baltimore, Montgomery County and Frederick. Each cluster has companies and access to research universities and government agencies, like the National Institutes of Health. But on panels and in interviews, executives expressed frustration Monday with traveling between these places.
“I would say that there is a little bit of a chasm in location between the D.C. Metro area and the Baltimore area, how to connect that a little bit better,” said Kathy Dimeo, president of Rockville based contract research organization KAI Research. “I think just pure traffic. I know it’s sort of funny, but seriously, getting from here to there is a challenge.”
When it comes to another challenge, executives also see an opportunity. Workforce demands in the field are growing, particularly as a manufacturing industry develops around cell and gene therapies.
Thousands of jobs are opening in the field, with averages salaries above $70,000 a year. “Certainly from an R&D point of view, the talent coming out of the universities locally is second to none,” Emily English, CEO of Gemstone Therapeutics, said on the panel. At a roundtable discussion about workforce development for the industry, industry leaders and students discussed how to find and train talent.
“We really can’t put the onus on the young people to come to us,” said Joseph Sanchez, associate director of learning and talent development at AstraZeneca. “The biotech industry needs to do a better job of getting access to these young people.”
Suggestions from the participants in the roundtable included more internship and apprenticeship programs and getting into schools earlier to make students aware of opportunities in the biotech industry.