Business

Landscaping the DMV Region: A Hotbed for Innovation

This ecosystem is a fundamental player in the biotechnology revolution

Michael Nestor
Mar 11 · 7 min read

If I asked you, “Where in the United States is biotechnology innovation occurring at a record pace, what states or cities come to mind? You probably thought of Boston, San Francisco, or even New York immediately.

These are not bad guesses, but what if I told you that the Washington, D.C./Maryland/Virginia (DMV) region is one of the country’s best places to engage in the biotechnology sector?

Maryland is the #2 most educated state in the US, Virginia #6, and Washington, DC has the highest percentage of people with advanced degrees within the US. Together, the DMV region is an educational and economic powerhouse. The scientific sector within the DMV is highly diverse and dynamic. As an example of this strength within the DMV, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) produces more Black MD and PhD graduates than any other US school.

Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute (via Unsplash)

This ecosystem is a fundamental player in the biotechnology revolution and not only encapsulates traditional approaches in pharmacology, medical devices, immunology, neuroscience, and digital health-but now includes biomanufacturing, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, quantum computing, and biocomputing. All these areas of research are represented in the DMV region, and the DMV region is now poised to become a top 3 biotechnology hub by 2023.

The region is unique in that it is a major point of convergence between science research and innovation within the federal government. Examples include the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the NIH, DOD, NSF, and DOE amongst others. In addition to federal agencies conducting research, the region is rich in top academic and medical research centers including: Johns Hopkins University, The University of Maryland, George Washington University, Georgetown University, The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and many others. Privately funded research is booming in the region, supported by active and robust trade and economic development groups. Maryland alone has seen a 700% increase in venture capital funding for life sciences since 2018.

From: https://open.maryland.gov/industries/biohealth/

This ensures that this region will be at the front seat of what McKinsey & Co. suggests is a multi-decade multi-trillion per year economic impact. Indeed, Johns Hopkins is #1 in the National Science Foundation’s total R&D expenditures and The University of Maryland ranks #14, outpacing well-known research universities such as MIT, Yale, Columbia, and UC Berkeley.

Larger players in the life science industry have gotten the message. Deeper regional investments have been made in commercialization, clinical development, and biomanufacturing, and venture capital has flooded the region. Examples of this growth include Kite Pharma, Paragon Bioservices, Emergent Biosolutions, Precigen, and the presence of GSK and AstraZeneca. Indeed, Maryland plays a pivotal and outsized role in the manufacturing and production of vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The convergence of large pharma, small biotech, academia, and government research has created a dynamic environment in the DMV region where deep engagement and collaboration is not only possible, but necessary.

Cooperation between large players like GSK, AstraZeneca and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies within the DMV region and convergence with federal and local government as well as state-supported biotech agencies can help to set the stage for this engagement. Great examples of this are Maryland’s Life Science Advisory Board, TEDCO, BioHealth Capital Region, Maryland Tech Council and Virginia Bio.

Future problems in biomedical science are becoming increasingly complex and necessitate the need for more public-private partnerships.

The proximity between Children’s National Health System (Children’s National), and Johnson & Johnson Innovation at the new Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus (CNRIC) provides an opportunity by which academic and private institutions can cultivate an engagement-rich and convergent environment with the aim to quickly advance and commercialize innovative research.

Johnson & Johnson Innovation will be opening JLABS @ Washington, DC, a unique no-strings attached incubator and hub of the BLUE KNIGHT™ initiative, bringing the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies together with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a component of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to identify and support startups focused on shared strategic areas with the aim to address certain public health interests, such as emerging infectious diseases and improving health preparedness and response. In addition, Children’s National will be moving their Research Institutes to include their Center for Genetic Medicine Research and Rare Disease Institute onto the CNRIC campus.

Artist rendering of the CNRIC (From: https://childrensnational.org/about-us/our-health-system/childrens-national-research-and-innovation-campus/driving-discoveries)

While at the NIH in 2009, I wrote a post for Nature Network in which I argued that the future utility of the US scientific enterprise lies in its ability to collaboratively solve the really difficult and forward thinking problems in biomedical science. I suggested that solving these large problems would rely on developing centers of excellence buttressed by the convergence of private, academic, and government research expertise.

My voice was of one of many calling for a shift from research that is often siloed into a convergent-yet openly collaborative-model that bridges what is often referred to as the “valley of death” and speeds up the commercialization of basic research. More than a decade later here in the DMV region, JLABS @ Washington, DC together with Children’s National are providing the opportunity to pipeline and fast track innovation in this way.

This represents in my view an unprecedented opportunity to get involved in the biotechnology sector in this region. Calling all venture capital, do not miss out!

How can we continue our growth?

The key for advancement within our region is active engagement. Developing strategic relationships between spheres of influence will help all of us, as in the aphorism, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

What might active engagement look like? Below are a few examples, at different layers within the DMV biomedical innovation ecosystem, to help deepen the conversation.

Students:

· Use regional tools at your disposal like BioBuzz or BioHealth Capital Region resources to network and develop relationships in academia, industry, and government.

· Do not just seek out mentors but develop relationships that lead to support from advocates and allies.

· In academia: ask about options that allow you to combine basic research with business experience. See how you might work with your mentor to think about commercializing your research or take classes in business development as you obtain education in life-sciences.

· In industry: as you complete internships or take on full-time positions, ask about options to develop research collaborations with academic or government partners.

· Know that many jobs in both academic and industry research do not require a PhD.

· Understand a bit about state and federal science policy. Get involved in policy and advocacy. (I was an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, and it changed the trajectory of my career as a traditional Principal Investigator at the bench, running a grant-funded research lab).

· Help to actively promote diversity and inclusion in our region, creating a richer and more dynamic ecosystem.

Academic Centers:

· Actively engage with small biotechs, venture capital, and the industry to develop opportunities to develop more connections between business schools graduating young entrepreneurs and biomedical research departments to support new academic spinouts.

· Engage in active development of courses and seminars centered on the bioeconomy, bio business, and science policy as it pertains to business development and integrate these into the curriculum developed for PhD students pursuing basic and applied research.

Industry:

· Develop ways to deepen collaborative efforts between companies in the context of regional partnership in the DMV.

· Work with academic centers to help foster innovation talent pipelines that increase opportunities for both research scientists and non-research science business units with an emphasis on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

· Engage with local associations and other pools of vested interest to highlight and showcase pathways to roles in small, medium, and large biotechnology companies in the region.

Government:

· Continue to encourage commercialization with funding mechanisms and opportunities to support early-stage, high risk- basic research.

· Develop more initiatives with industry and academic partners to mentor and develop early-stage companies within the SBIR/STTR pipeline.

· Work with academic centers to increase crosstalk between business schools and biomedical departments, and foster discussions to explore options to introduce more biomedical business and policy coursework into basic science curricula at all levels of post-secondary education.

In the DMV region, the future of biomedical research and innovation is bright. Fostering an environment — that highlights and deepens the unique capabilities of an ecosystem built on the talent and diversity of this region — requires us to take responsibility for ensuring our continued success by participating in active scientific engagement.

We need to continue the conversation about what engagement looks like at the ground level and put policies and structures in place that encourage active engagement and deepen collaboration between the public and private spheres within our region. There are many new programs sprouting up that aim to do this, some of which I have highlighted here.

It is important to create actions that will water those green shoots and develop our future biomedical workforce. This will require forward-thinking and horizon scanning from all sectors. In the new bioeconomy, scale, speed, and innovation will require us all to engage in this way if we are to hold and expand our status as a powerhouse of innovation.

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