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Montgomery County Looks To Grow Talent Pipeline To Bolster Life Sciences Market

Montgomery County's I-270 corridor features a growing life sciences market with federal anchors such as the National Institutes of Health, but county leaders and stakeholders say the area is missing one key piece that can help support its growth: a major research university. 

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich

A September ranking from biotech magazine GEN pegged the D.C. region as the No. 4 biopharma cluster in the nation, JLL's 2019 report ranked the D.C. area as the No. 5 life sciences market, and CBRE's February Life Sciences report ranked the region as No. 6. These reports each identify the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County as the engine driving the region's life sciences growth. 

While it consistently ranks among the country's top life sciences and biotech markets, Montgomery County lacks an academic research institution that could help grow its talent pipeline and compete with national leaders like Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard and MIT, local leaders said. 

"We're the No. 4 biotech region in the country, it's amazing that we're No. 4 without a major educational research facility," said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, speaking Tuesday at Bisnow's I-270 Life Sciences and Biotech Corridor event. 

The county has community college Montgomery College, including its Pinkney Innovation Complex in Germantown where Tuesday's event was held. It also has the Universities at Shady Grove, an arm of the University System of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University has a Montgomery County campus along I-270. But Elrich said those are not enough to support the research and talent development that one of the country's top life sciences markets demands. 

Elrich said he is speaking with the state's university system about bringing a major research facility into Montgomery County. He alluded to the role Virginia Tech's new Innovation Campus played in bringing Amazon to Northern Virginia, and he said Maryland needs to pursue a similar strategy. 

"If what's happening in Virginia does not wake Maryland up, I don't know what will," Elrich said. "We cannot sit by and not make the public investments in education that other people are willing to make."

Facility Logix's Patricia Larrabee, Johns Hopkins University's Christy Wyskiel, Kite Pharma's Brian Stamper, BioHealth Innovation's Judy Costello and Coakley & Williams Construction's Greg Harraka

A larger talent pipeline in the county would help provide a skilled workforce for companies like Regenxbio, which signed on last year for a new 132K SF space in Rockville, and Kite Pharmaceuticals, which last year leased a 26K SF facility in Gaithersburg. 

Kite Pharmaceuticals Director Brian Stamper said the company already has about 50 employees in the facility and plans to hire at least 100 more people by the end of next year. He said Kite, a California-based company that engineers cell therapies for cancer patients, needs its new employees to have specific skills in that field. Because of that, he said it is working with local universities to make sure the incoming workforce is educated in cell therapy.  

"There is a broad spectrum of talent we need, so to do that we're going to partner with local institutions to develop the talent of tomorrow as well as to see how we can leverage the talent," Stamper said. 

In addition to providing a talent pipeline for existing companies, having an academic research institution can spur the creation of startups that can grow into large companies down the road. Johns Hopkins Senior Advisor Christy Wyskiel said the university spends a lot of time thinking about how it can support its researchers in launching startup companies. 

"You think back to the origins of great companies, many were started out of a university research idea," Wyskiel said. "At the heart of so many of these things start with one good idea and the passion of a very small team. And as long as they are supported, in five, 10 or 15 years that will become the next large company."

MCEDC's Lynne Stein Benzion, Scheer Partners' Matthew Brady, DPR Construction's Raj Vora and Stonebridge's Kent Marquis

The hiring needs of life sciences companies in the Montgomery County area are not fully satisfied by local graduates, Scheer Partners Senior Vice President Matthew Brady said, so it is increasingly important to pull people from other markets. But he said top markets like Cambridge are more appealing to young workers than I-270 because they are more walkable, transit-oriented and filled with amenities. 

"Companies are faced with how do you pull people from these other markets?" Brady said. "How do you pull people from Cambridge, where that live-work-play environment is a natural occurrence, and not something that's forced in a suburb?"

Part of the solution, he said, is to build life sciences facilities in more amenity-filled markets like Downtown Bethesda. His firm is working on leasing a project that is doing just that: Stonebridge's Bethesda Bio. 

Stonebridge's project at 8280 Wisconsin Ave. NW will deliver 165K SF of lab space in the summer of 2021. Stonebridge principal Kent Marquis said the developer saw a need in the market for life sciences projects in urban, walkable areas that can attract younger workers. 

"When you consider how these folks thrive in the industry, it's all about talent," Marquis said. "There are a lot of talented people, and we think these folks want to work in a heavily amenitized submarket."

Montgomery County Economic Development Corp.'s Lynne Stein Benzion, who leads the organization's work with life sciences companies, said developing a workforce with skills in the life sciences field can help the county attract more companies and continue to grow the market. 

"It’s talent, talent, talent; that’s what I hear from companies every day: This region must mobilize talent at every level," Stein Benzion said. "On every level from high school to Ph.D., if we can manage to mobilize that talent in a really directed way here, [companies] will come to us."