Montgomery County officials say a plan to build a cybersecurity center at a Gaithersburg facility — currently home to several bioscience companies — doesn’t signal decreased dedication to the that industry.
The county’s plan would convert the William Hanna Center for Innovation at Shady Grove into a home for the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore has secured $15 million in federal money to fund the cybersecurity center, contingent on an annual commitment of about $750,000 from the county.
The new center will help make Montgomery a national hub for the nonmilitary cybersecurity industry, said Steven A. Silverman, head of the county's Department of Economic Development.
"Civil cybersecurity today is where life sciences was 35 years ago in our county," Silverman said.
He said the county tried to find private-sector space for the facility in the Gaithersburg and Rockville areas, but rent would have cost close to $3 million a year rather than the $750,000 a year at the Hanna Center.
“Economically, it was very straightforward,” Silverman said.
The move would force the bioscience companies to move to other locations, including a site in Germantown.
County executive candidate Douglas M. Duncan met Feb. 6 with the heads of several bioscience companies concerned about the change.
David Beylin, CEO of Brain Biosciences, said at the meeting that the county’s plan to move bioscience companies out of the Hanna facility is “not a friendly message” that those types of companies are welcome in Montgomery.
Duncan, who was county executive from 1994 to 2006, is challenging incumbent Isiah Leggett and Councilman Philip M. Andrews (Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg for the Democratic nomination for county executive in the June 24 primary.
Duncan sent letters Feb. 10 to the County Council and Montgomery’s delegation to the General Assembly, asking them to block any money that would be used to carry out the transition.
“This does not have to be an either/or situation,” Duncan wrote. “Maryland should absolutely be a leader in the cybersecurity industry, and Montgomery is well positioned to play a critical role in this area. However, this should not come at the expense of our biotech and life sciences industry.”
But county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Feb. 11 that the county’s plan doesn’t mean a retreat from its commitment to the bioscience industry.
He cited the Great Seneca Science Corridor, the White Oak Science Gateway and a tax credit for biotech investment as examples of the county’s continuing focus on the industry.
Montgomery has always had bioscience companies, while Virginia historically has been home to the information technology and national security industries, Lacefield said. The cybersecurity center is an opportunity for the county to “spread our wings a little bit,” he said.
“It kind of gets us into the national security game,” he said.
Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) of Garrett Park, who chairs the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, said the county is seeing understandable resistance to change from bioscience companies that have to adjust and think differently.
But she said the county remains committed to its small businesses and a future in both bioscience and cybersecurity.
“We’re not abandoning our commitment to biotech at all,” Floreen said.
The cybersecurity center can help the county become prominent in a different industry.
“I think it’s only smart for us to be nimble as we move forward,” Floreen said.
The county is trying to move many of the bioscience companies from the Hanna facility to a site in Germantown. Silverman said about 15 bioscience companies are housed at a business incubator on the campus of Montgomery College and the county is looking at converting other nearby office space into lab space.
Silverman said he’s confident that the county can help most of the companies from the Hanna facility have a “soft landing” in the private sector.