Monday, October 12, 2009

A Life Sciences and Technology Economic Development Strategy for Montgomery County


As the nation begins its emergence from the most difficult economic downturn in 70 years, Montgomery County has the potential to lead the coming economic resurgence with a focus on innovation opportunities for the knowledge economy. However, this leadership role will require that we take clear and decisive steps to build upon the technology assets that exist in our County. As in the past, a part of our County’s strategy must include appropriate land use designations and incentives. However, we must look further than land use. We must recognize that other jurisdictions have also been successful following our lead in developing strong programs to identify emerging technologies and create new business opportunities. We must do more.

In the mid-1980’s Montgomery County made a strategic decision to establish the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center which was the first location in the nation zoned exclusively for life sciences. In the coming weeks, the County Council will begin its review and revisions to the Gaithersburg West Master Plan and the White Flint Master Plan. Simultaneous to this, it is imperative that the County also establish the economic development framework that will not only help make these land-use plans successful, but more importantly, establish the framework for our County’s broader economic growth.

There can be many elements to an economic development strategy, but following is an outline of key components to reinvigorate our County’s efforts in the life sciences and emerging technology arena. There will be recommendations coming from the County’s Life Sciences Task Force sometime later this year. Those recommendations will supplement/complement these concepts to make an even more dynamic economic development strategy.

These 10 elements can establish a pipeline to provide access to new technologies, creating synergies between federal labs and academic research to make these technologies more robust, establish commercial opportunities for these new technologies, provide space and a location for new companies, and enhance a workforce to allow these new companies to grow locally. There are a number of ways to achieve these objectives, but it is vitally important that we establish this strategy in order for the Gaithersburg West Master Plan or any other land use plan focused on economic development to be successful. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the County Council and with the County Executive to achieve economic prosperity for today and generations to come.

Build Upon Existing County Assets

(1) Establish Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) for partnerships to increase academic research – Montgomery County is unique for counties of its size and wealth in that it is not home to a major academic institution. Fortunately, there are efforts underway within the University System of Maryland at the Universities at Shady Grove to increase academic programs and particularly, academic research. Johns Hopkins University has an emerging academic presence and, as the owner of one of the largest parcels in the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, has the opportunity to increase its world-renowned research in the county. It is critical in the coming months that the County seeks to establish memoranda of understanding that outline how the County and these institutions will partner to establish a long-term plan for academic research growth.

(2) Work to refine federal conflict of interest requirements – One of the most significant aspects for the success of the technology industries in California and Massachusetts is the transfer of technology and ideas from researchers in some of the nation’s leading research institutions like MIT, Harvard and Stanford who are funded in part by the federal government. Montgomery County has a number of institutions that rival these fine institutions, yet we don’t see the same number of new businesses being formed. Part of the reason for this is the conflict of interest requirements placed upon researchers in federal institutions. Clearly there must be guidelines to ensure that the taxpayers receive the financial benefit of federally-funded research, but we must come up with a better way to ensure that breakthrough technologies are developed commercially and made available to improve the human condition. We must work quickly and diligently with our federal representatives to strike the appropriate balance that allows for this to occur.

(3) Establish strategic partnerships with federal labs – While Montgomery County is home to numerous federal labs including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to name a few, there are no broad-based partnerships in place to aid ongoing research activities or for the commercialization of technologies. Other jurisdictions with federal research institutions have established strategic relationships to accomplish similar objectives that benefit local economies and help achieve the research institution’s federal mandate and mission.

Implement Economic Development Initiatives

(4) Develop a plan for attracting/allocating life science/technology firms at the county’s signature sites (White Oak, Shady Grove, Germantown, Bethesda, Silver Spring) – The County has a number of attractive land use initiatives underway that provide unique opportunities for attracting new technology firms and locating emerging firms. Each of these areas provides different qualities for different types of organizations. For example, the FDA expansion at White Oak provides a location for regulatory affairs organizations, but as the era of personalized medicine becomes more of reality it will be important for many life science firms to be located near the FDA in order to keep up with evolving technologies and regulations. The County must assess the types of opportunities that exist at each of these locations and work with property owners and businesses to establish a process that locates firms in the best locations for their needs.

(5) Establish a technology pipeline with federal labs and county incubators – One of the most significant elements to Montgomery County’s success in the life sciences has been the number of federal scientists who wanted to start companies and didn’t want to leave the area. As a result, Montgomery County is home to MedImmune, HGS and the JC Venter Institute. Montgomery County has a strong incubator program that can be leveraged in conjunction with the federal labs to provide the space to start the next generation of companies with local scientists. Working in conjunction with our federal institutions we can continue to retain this international expertise residing in our local jurisdictions, as well as find ways to encourage those scientists to turn their research into science the general public can use.

(6) Establish a local biotechnology tax credit – Maryland State Delegate Brian Feldman of Montgomery County sponsored legislation three years ago that established a statewide biotechnology tax credit that has been an incredibly successful program, resulting in companies waiting in lines overnight to apply. The Council should establish a similar local biotech tax credit in the coming year.

(7) Re-introduce a green tape approval process for qualified technology firms – In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the County utilized a “green tape” approval process for life science firms in an effort to make the establishment and/or expansion of these firms easier and more user-friendly by expediting County review and permitting processes. Montgomery County should re-initiate this green tape process for firms in the priority technology areas that have already been identified by the Department of Economic Development, including life sciences, information technologies, health care and telecommunications.

Invest in People

(8) Increase access to management talent and provide in-depth support and mentoring from people with experience in starting and growing companies - Having access to exciting new technologies and scientists is not in itself enough to make for a thriving technology economy, It also is vital to have the management expertise that knows how to make technology commercially viable. Through the County’s incubator system, we have an opportunity to provide support and mentoring for companies as they are starting out, but we must also recruit successful managers to aid in this process. There are a number of ways to achieve this by using both public and private sector support. We must explore these options and move quickly to put a program in place.

(9) Ensure workforce development – Montgomery County is already among the most educated jurisdictions in the nation with more than 55 percent of our adult population holding bachelor’s degrees, and having the highest number of doctoral recipients of any county in the nation. Nevertheless, it is important that we build upon that foundation to ensure our workforce has the skills necessary to work in a knowledge economy. We must enhance programs at Montgomery College, the Universities at Shady Grove and Johns Hopkins to ensure that employers can re-train employees, but more important make sure that our residents have access to programs that will make them eligible for employment in current and emerging technology firms.

(10) Enhance career pathways for Montgomery County students – Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) by any measure are among the finest in the nation at making students college-ready. One of our challenges, as well as one of the challenges for our nation, is to make sure that our students understand the career opportunities that are available to them in a knowledge economy. It is important for students to understand the relevance of the courses that they are taking to a series of career pathways. There is already a nascent effort underway within MCPS and Montgomery College, but this needs to be enhanced and made more robust by working with our four-year institutions and the private sector.

1 comment:

Donna Baron said...

"...establish the framework for our County’s broader economic growth."
I hope this means you plan to shift some of the 40,000 jobs now proposed for the "Science City" to other locations throughout the county. This might alleviate some of the overwhelming traffic congestion that will result from the proposed Gaithersburg West Master Plan.