Beyond the Beltway: Biotech Equals Jobs

For state and local governments, promoting biotechnology is all about creating good-paying jobs and fostering sustainable economic growth.

Although many governments are vying for biotech dollars, two counties in Maryland and the state of Rhode Island have gone so far as to appoint commissions to look into what it would take to entice biotechnology companies to set up shop.

Of the two Maryland counties, Montgomery is already home to more than 250 of the state’s 380 biotech companies. A local task force in the county recommends that Montgomery take an equity investment interest in biotech companies that receive county funds.

Conversely, a study commissioned by Prince Georges County, Md., found that building a biotech incubator in the county could generate as many as 1,900 jobs and $4.4 million in annual tax receipts. The study calls for long- term plans to build a technology park for biosciences.

Maryland already has such incubators throughout the state, though not all related to biotech. The Prince Georges study also points out that several other states have established technology corridors, including California, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“It’s smart for the government to step in and nurture biotech companies through incubators,” says Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO. He adds that the most successful states are those that provide seed money, incubator space, favorable tax policies and incentives for first-class researchers.

Help Wanted

Meanwhile, a report from Rhode Island biotech industry group Tech Collective points out that although Rhode Island has a growing biotech industry employing 4,700 people, it has a shortage of qualified workers to fill industry positions.

The report says about 56 percent of the Ocean State’s biotechnology companies identified the lack of skilled workers as a top workforce challenge. Thirty-three percent reported that it takes up to six months to hire entry-level workers; 86 percent reported that it takes up to six months to hire midlevel workers; and 85 percent say that it can take up to a year to hire senior level workers.

“This is a significant problem for Rhode Island because it forces companies to draw from outside talent pools such as Massachusetts and Connecticut or begin a competitive recruitment process vying for each other’s hired talent,” according to the report. “Ultimately, decreased talent and increased competition can cause a company to not locate into or relocate out of the state.”

On a more positive note, Kathie Shields, Tech Collective executive director, estimates biotech job growth in Rhode Island at 10 percent to 12 percent through 2012, translating into about 500 jobs. Shields says that although biotech is not a major portion of the workforce, it represents “high-wage, high-impact jobs” that are an important component of the state’s high-technology sector.

Looking for Traction in Maryland

The Prince George’s study recommends that the county’s biotech industry could tie into local resources such as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. It says the county should work with real estate brokers of existing wet-lab space over the next six months to develop a system for meeting the needs of biotech companies for lab space.

The Montgomery County task force says the county should court venture capital firms that have investments in Montgomery County-based companies. Much like in Prince George’s, the task force recommends leveraging the county’s federal and academic assets. The task force also suggests that the county consider passing an investment tax credit by the summer.