Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Belward is key to county’s role in future of biotech

Planning for Johns Hopkins research campus is underway in earnest

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After nearly two decades of waiting, the wheels are beginning to turn on plans to build a biotech and science research hub at Johns Hopkins University’s Belward Research Campus, 100 acres of open farmland near Shady Grove.

‘‘We can’t afford to stall in looking for the applications of what we can do,” said Elaine Amir, executive director of Johns Hopkins’ Montgomery County campus, a stone’s throw from Belward. ‘‘We need something that will make a difference, to put us on the map. Belward will be a centerpiece to that.”

In 1989, Johns Hopkins bought the property, where Darnestown and Muddy Branch roads meet, for $5 million from Elizabeth Banks, a former schoolteacher living on what was then her family’s farm. They promised to wait until she died before starting the project

That day came in 2005, and Johns Hopkins is now moving with a ‘‘sense of urgency,” Amir said, as major centers of industry are sprouting in Asia, India and the Middle East — not to mention closer to home in Philadelphia, North Carolina and New Jersey.

With Belward’s build-out is still years away, Johns Hopkins is in the early stages of expanding a 1.4 million square-foot preliminary plan approved 10 years ago into a world-class facility that will compliment the growing hub of research and development nearby, which includes the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, the Universities at Shady Grove and scores of private biotech companies.

Johns Hopkins has commissioned a transit and transportation study — to be completed this year — which will help determine the scope of what Belward can hold.

The area is expected to see major development in the coming decades, including the Intercounty Connector (the 18-mile highway linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will have its endpoint nearby) and the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed light rail or bus line that will connect the Shady Grove with the upcounty. Belward is also within easy reach of prime real estate like the Kentlands in Gaithersburg and King Farm in Rockville, as well as high-profile projects on the horizon like Gaithersburg’s Aventiene, formerly known as Crown Farm, and the redevelopment of 2,000 acres around the Shady Grove Metro.

The county is already home to more than 200 biotech companies — the third largest cluster in the nation, behind California and Massachusetts — and employs more than 100,000 technology workers, according to the county’s Department of Economic Development.

Added to the mix, Belward would ‘‘double or even quadruple that presence in terms of actual output and potential,” said Pradeep Ganguly, the DED’s director.

‘‘It gets us a step closer to where we need to be... What Hopkins brings to the table in not only state-of-the-art knowledge in [research and development], but the wherewithal to turn those ideas into new products and new processes,” Ganguly said.

This growth, coupled with plans to consolidate the Food and Drug Administration in eastern Montgomery, will go a long way in establishing the county’s role in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, he added.

But in that push toward the future, leaders of the county’s biotech community must be not content to rest on their laurels if the area is to remain a first-rate destination for the best and the brightest, said Georgette Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

‘‘There’s nothing worse than believing your own PR,” she said. ‘‘On the one hand, Montgomery County is home to some of the most incredible research done on the planet Earth... But in order to keep competitive, we have to keep moving, we have to create better opportunities for our young people and secure our place in the knowledge economy... We have to continue to evolve.”

As such, Belward will focus on fostering what Amir called the ‘‘commercialization of discovery” — matching researchers with venture capitalists, investors and companies with marketing and business savvy to usher innovation out of the labs and into the marketplace. The goal, she said, is to create 10 ‘‘small syndicates” of such ventures every year for next 10 years at Belward and elsewhere in the county.

‘‘If we collaborate, we will succeed,” she said. ‘‘If we don’t, we’re going to end up like the Rust Belt.”