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New CEO of Md. Tech Council Eyes Improved Ties With MdBio; More Clout, Breadth for MD Life-Sci Effort

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This is an updated version of the original report, published July 31, correcting a transcription error. A quotation should have read: "I do not dislike my job at TEDCO by any means, and it still has plenty of challenges."


By Alex Philippidis

The Tech Council of Maryland's new CEO told BioRegion News this week her group will continue to oversee the state's life-sciences association, but will also work to improve the bumpy three-year marriage of the tech council and its MdBio division, and to raise the profile of life-sci and other tech industries with state lawmakers and others.

Renee M. Winsky said in an interview that her tech council will strengthen its relationships with state lawmakers with the goal of improving how the life-sci industry can withstand the state's ongoing fiscal squeeze.

To date, the economic doldrums have resulted in four budget cuts in the past 15 months for Maryland's stem-cell program, and has frozen spending for biotechnology tax credits despite the program's growing popularity with life-sci entrepreneurs.

But Winsky warned that the ongoing economic upheaval that has caused Maryland's revenues to slip the past two years is likely to keep state spending on life-sci initiatives below levels originally envisioned by Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has committed the state to spending $1.3 billion on life-sci programs through the year 2020.

That sum includes $200 million on stem cell research funding, which O'Malley initially envisioned setting at $20 million annually.

Instead, O'Malley and two other elected officials approved a $3 million cut to the state Stem Cell Research Fund earlier this month, leaving it with $12.4 million [BRN, July 24]. Since the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, Maryland's stem cell budget has fallen from $24 million to $19 million, then $18 million, then up slightly to $18.4 million, then down to $15.4 million in the budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.

Part of the problem with state stem cell funding, Winsky told BRN, was President Obama's March 9 executive order lifting restrictions imposed by predecessor George W. Bush on creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines.

"To the minds of many in the Maryland General Assembly, they thought: 'Okay. The federal government is going to fund it. Now we can get out of this business.' Well, that's not quite the case," Winsky said, due to the difficulty hESC researchers have encountered in securing funding from the National Institutes of Health, which is only now developing rules to streamline its award process.

"Our investigators are far more poised and prepared to be competitive with those dollars when they do become available. They'll have data. They won't be jumping into stem cell research for the first time," she added. "The tech council, at a much higher, broader level can really educate the governor's office as well as the legislators in Annapolis."

Winsky, now the president and executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corp., known as TEDCO, will take the helm of the 15-employee tech council Sept. 1, after the tech council's board appointed her earlier this month.

Winsky will succeed Julie Coons, who resigned last November to become the president and CEO of the Electronic Retailing Association in Arlington, Va. [BRN, Nov. 3, 2008]

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Under Coons, the tech council expanded its umbrella to cover life-sciences businesses, merging with MdBio in 2005. The merger was designed to bring Maryland's life-sci industry some of the clout with officials enjoyed by the state's software and information technology sector — as well as end a competition to serve the state’s life-sciences companies.

Less than two years later, MdBio's longtime president and CEO C. Robert Eaton resigned, turning up a few months later at his current position as president and CEO of the Arizona BioIndustry Association. Eaton's successor, Ric Zakour, holds the title executive director and runs what is now just a division of the tech council.

Zakour's job and duties will not likely change, Winsky said: "I don't plan to go in and rattling any changes. The Tech Council of Maryland has a great staff, and I don’t intend on making any sweeping changes. But I would like to enable them, and whatever they need to be enabled, I'm going to try and provide that to them."

Speaking with BRN, Winsky acknowledged that the tech council's union with MdBio needed improvement, but said MdBio would remain a division of the council: "I don't see any need to change the parts. I think they just need to jell a little better."

"Part of the challenge still stems from the merger, and I'm not sure, perception or reality, that they truly have gotten to the place where they are the voice for technology in the state," Winsky said. "The MdBio side and the tech council side, while internally they certainly embrace each other in the day-to-day operations of the organization, I'm not sure that that is so much the case on the outside, on the part of members and non-members.”

Asked why the two groups have not completely meshed, Winsky replied: "They both brought tremendous assets to the organization, and I'm not sure that [MdBio] feels they've gotten value out of the relationship. I think they have. I just don’t think it has been proven to each side yet, if you will."

The tech council will move to unite the groups, Winsky said, in part by consolidating "the accounting and fiduciary mechanisms" and tracking spending more closely, emulating policies applied at TEDCO. The agency, according to Winsky, has been able to "keep everything straight.

"We know every dime in stem cell [research]. We know every dime in tech transfer. You bill by the hours people work. I think we can implement the same sort of things, and just prove to everybody at the tech council, whether they're on the MdBio side, in the [MdBio] Foundation, or whatever, that everybody is winning in this," Winsky said. "I think that will just sort of blossom, all the way up to the elected leadership of the organization, and everyone will see that we really are creating value for all technology in this state."

Stronger ties between the tech council and MdBio, Winsky said, would best ensure that the council can more consistently achieve results that benefit life-sci and other tech companies.

The tech council's biggest such triumph came last year, when life sciences leaders teamed up with their software and IT counterparts in successfully lobbying state lawmakers to roll back a 6-percent sales tax on computer services before its scheduled effective date of July 1, 2008.

O'Malley initially embraced the tax given its projected $200 million in revenue over five years, but later agreed to replace the tax with a three-year, 6.25 percent surcharge on residents with taxable incomes of more than $1 million, set to generate $110 million, plus $100 million in spending cuts [BRN, April 14, 2008].

"The technology community came together very quickly to take on that battle. The momentum that came around that – that's a perfect example of how the technology community should be al the time," Winsky told BRN. "We shouldn’t have to have a catastrophe in Annapolis or a challenge on Capitol Hill to bring us together. We ought to all be together all the time, and I think that is definitely possible."

"The thing about Maryland is, when the [dot-com] bubble burst many years ago, Maryland survived because we have such a diverse technology community. And we've all just come together.

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Such triumphs have been overshadowed, though, by concerns aired publicly by life-sci CEOs that the tech council doesn't seem to have the clout it ought to have with lawmakers given the industry's success since the 1980s in creating jobs.

According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, Maryland's life-sci sector employs 28,065 people, supports 61,610 additional jobs in other sectors, and generates $14.4 billion in direct and indirect economic activity, as well as $86.4 million in state taxes and $537.4 million in federal taxes. Those figures come from The Biopharmaceutical Sector's Impact on the Economy of Maryland, a 2006 report prepared for PhRMA by Archstone Consulting.

"The organization needs to considerably ramp up its advocacy efforts both in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill. To date this has not been a high enough priority for TCM," Jonathan Cohen, president & CEO of 20/20 GeneSystems of Rockville, told Maryland Community Newspapers.

One way that challenge could be addressed, Winsky said, would be by locating a second office in the state capitol of Annapolis. That's one of two locations where she said the council should look into opening new offices; the other is Baltimore, where the University of Maryland, Baltimore and a partnership led by Forest City Science+Technology Group are developing large life-sci campuses at opposite ends of the city. Whether the tech council expands to one or both locations, and how quickly, will depend on the group's ability to afford them, she added.

A second office would help the tech council achieve one key goal identified by Winsky: Broadening its support to life-sci and other tech businesses well beyond the group's home base of tech-stronghold Montgomery County.

"I don't think [the council] has ever fully gotten out of that," Winsky said. "We also need to be the voice of the tech companies in [Patuxent or] Pax River down in St. Mary's County, or for the small and medium technology companies that are on the eastern shore, they're not a big membership base, if you will. I'd like to bring them in. I'd like to advocate for them," Winsky said.

By doing so, she said, the council could build support among legislators across the state, and not just rely on lawmakers representing tech-heavy districts. Another source of potential new members: Tech companies expected to move into the Aberdeen Proving Ground once it loses its Ordnance Center and School to Fort Lee, Va., in 2012, among changes wrought by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission reorganization of military facilities.

"I don't know that legislators in St. Mary's County know about the tech council and what we represent. But you get constituents in the region to join the organization, and then you've got a local connection too," Winsky told BRN. "If we're going to be the voice of everyone, and be the educators to the Maryland General Assembly, you've got to have members in all their districts, too. I'd love to see the day when an issue comes up in Annapolis and Capitol Hill, and the Tech Council of Maryland is the first phone call that the committee chairman makes, to have someone come in and talk about the issue.

"We're not there. We're not there. But I see the day, and I know that it can happen," Winsky declared.

Another reason for CEO discontent surfaced in a report released in 2007, just four months after Eaton's resignation, by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. In that report, Biosciences in Greater Baltimore – available here with registration -- several CEOs complained that Maryland's array of state and local government agencies was confusing and hard to navigate, thus discouraging them from creating new jobs in the state [BRN, July 9, 2007].

Maryland officials contend they have begun addressing that problem through the creation this year of BioMaryland, an offshoot of the state Department of Business and Economic Development created to grow the life-sci industry by assisting companies seeking to relocate to Maryland or expand within the state.

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BioMaryland is the centerpiece of the 17 recommendations included in the 28-page strategic plan released by O'Malley and other state officials in May, at the BIO 2009 International Convention in Atlanta. The strategic plan, BioMaryland 2020: A Strategic Plan for the Life Sciences in Maryland, was developed by Maryland Life Sciences Advisory Board, a 15-member panel appointed by O'Malley and state legislative leaders.

"I think that the difficult challenge for the state, in terms of implementing the life science advisory board strategy, as well as the BIO 2020 initiative, and the Maryland Biotechnology Center, is going to be the desire to serve all. It's very hard for a state agency to serve all, especially in life sciences. You small companies have certain needs, while your medium and large companies have different needs," Winsky said. "It's going to be hard being everything to the entire biotechnology community when your budget is being cut, and your staff is being cut. It's going to be difficult, but I think everything is going to come around

One program Winsky singled out as needing more state funding: The Maryland Venture Fund, which serves life-sci and other tech startups, has warned it could run out of money by next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2010 since its traditional avenue for making money, exit events via initial public offerings or mergers and acquisitions, has dried up with the economy in recent months. This fiscal year, the fund has $2 million for its two programs, the Challenge Investment program and Enterprise Investment Fund.

"If the money's not there, the companies are going to leave the state," Winsky warned.

She added that she hopes to incorporate in her new position knowledge of state government gleaned from her near-decade at TEDCO, a state-created agency that promotes economic development through the development, transfer and commercialization of technology. Winsky joined TEDCO in 2000 as deputy executive director, and was promoted to CEO in 2007.

Winsky said TEDCO has named its vice president and chief operating officer, John Wasilisin, as an interim successor, and will conduct a search for a permanent CEO.

TEDCO and the tech council have had a close relationship for many years – made closer over the past year and a half as Winsky served on the tech council's board of directors as well as its executive and audit committees.

"When Julie left, I thought about it a little bit, and hemmed and hawed. I do not dislike my job at TEDCO by any means, and it still has plenty of challenges," Winsky said. "I really believe in the organization, and I wanted to look toward being able to speak from a broader voice in the technology community. TEDCO's mission is pretty finite: We deal with startup companies. The tech council has everything from a startup to a Human Genome Sciences or a MedImmune or an IBM.

"To be able to go to Annapolis and go to Capitol Hill, and advocate, and work with all tech companies, I really am looking forward to that challenge," Winsky added.

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