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Newly Appointed MdBio Chief Ric Zakour on Priorities for Guiding Biotechs in Maryland


Richard (Ric) Zakour
Executive Director
Tech Council of Maryland/MdBio, and MdBio Foundation
Maryland’s statewide biotech organization tapped a professional familiar with both the organization and the state’s life sciences industry when it named Richard Zakour as the new head of the Tech Council of Maryland/MdBio and the MdBio Foundation on Aug. 6.
Zakour recently ended an 11-year career with what is now Fisher BioServices, the last six as general manager of a 300-employee unit with government and commercial business divisions that provided pharmaceutical and biological support services. For most of his tenure the company was known as McKesson BioServices, and was renamed two years ago after being acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific. Before McKesson, Zakour held positions at DynCorp and Cambridge Biotech Corporation.
After launching a consulting business, Zakour in addition volunteered to help TCM/MdBio, where he served on both its board and the board of the MdBio Foundation from 2003 to earlier this year. The organizations have faced convulsive changes in the two years since the original MdBio merged with the tech council, creating one of the council’s two divisions (the other is the high-tech oriented Tech Alliance) and both agreed to a separate board for the foundation.
During a six-month period ending last March, the new TCM/MdBio lost three staff members as well as Zakour’s predecessor, Robert Eaton, who said he left to pursue private sector opportunities that he would not discuss in an interview with BioRegion News’ sister news outlet GenomeWeb Daily News.
“We saw our role as using the resources we had at our disposal to be able to develop programs that would make people more aware of what was going on in bioscience in Maryland, to help individual companies with their financial needs,” Eaton said in the interview [GenomeWeb Daily News, April 2].
In merging, MdBio and TCM had hoped to erase the biotech group’s red ink. According to its most recent publicly available Form 990 filed in 2005 with the US Internal Revenue Service, MdBio lost $516,099 on total revenues of $2 million — three-quarters of which came from “program services” and another $173,010 from direct public support, including from the Baltimore city government and the state. Eaton was paid $153,500 that year, according to the tax document.
TCM/MdBio is supposed to subsist on membership fees, yet membership has not climbed as high as expected when the merger took effect. Its previous revenue source — rental income from a 54,000-square-foot Baltimore bioprocessing facility opened in 1991 — was shifted to the foundation. And the future of that money is uncertain because the company renting the building, Cambrex, last month completed selling its bioproducts and biopharma segments to Swiss-owned Lonza Group for €354.2 million ($460 million).
Today TCM/MdBio has five dedicated employees within the tech council’s staff of 17 — as well as ambitious plans to move forward on several initiatives for promoting Maryland’s biotech industry and the needs of the state’s life science companies. Those plans will emerge once TCM/MdBio completes a strategic plan later this year.
BioRegion News spoke with Zakour about TCM/MdBio’s strengths and challenges as it reviews its mission and programs over the next several months.
Why did you decide to pursue the presidency of TCM/MdBio?
I had been with McKesson-Fisher for 11 years, the last six as general manager. I had grown that business very nicely, felt that it was in very capable hands, and just decided I’d reached the point in my life and career where I wanted to try something else. Being a board member, and knowing that there was a critical need, and I had some time available, I approached [Tech Council CEO Julie Coons] about helping out on an interim basis. I volunteered to help on a consulting basis. I’ve done some good things for them, and it’s helped me to get to know more of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, what’s going on
What do you consider to be TCM/MdBio’s strengths and challenges?
I’d say MdBio’s strength, clearly, is its merger with the Tech Council of Maryland. And the merger was, on paper, a marriage made in heaven. What we did was bring a longstanding reputation of excellence and working in the biotechnology field and promoting biotechnology education and advocacy that MdBio had had for 13 to 14 years of its existence to the strength and membership that the Tech Council of Maryland had brought to what had been the Maryland Bio Alliance, where I served on the steering committee … I was also on the board of the MdBio Foundation. You bring together this expertise and reputation in terms of promotion of the industry, combine it with the membership organization, and I think it’s a dynamic combination.
You say the merger was ‘on paper, a marriage made in heaven.’ What have the bumps been, and can it survive into your tenure?
Like with any merger, there are some changes that go along with it, changes in culture and discipline. And because of that, there’s been a little bit of a staff turnover. Any time you lose an experienced and dedicated leader, there’s always a little bit of a growing pain. And clearly we recognize the achievements and accomplishments of Bob Eaton. But I feel that with my knowledge and experience I bring from running businesses and having worked with the tech council, it should be a smooth and easy transition.
What do you consider Bob Eaton’s most important accomplishments as president of TCM/MdBio?
I think the obvious one was the development of the whole education program, the MdBio mobile lab [called MdBioLab, an 18-wheel truck converted into an industry-standard laboratory that has visited nearly every high school in the state]. I don’t think it was only Bob, but he certainly led the charge on that. He really did a fine job in terms of some of the assistance he gave to a number of Maryland companies. There’s a clear legacy there that is well-known.
What do you see among the priorities for TCM/MdBio you intend to work on as president?
We’ll look at the next level: How can we serve the member companies? What can we do on the education side? Can we expand programs? Can we go into additional areas? Perhaps do an additional truck, or look at other training programs, working with the universities? How should we get to the high school and middle schools?
Clearly we have to have plans for growing those programs, because one of the needs we have — probably not just in the state of Maryland, but nationally, is enticing our youth to really gain an interest and an advocacy in science. I think that’s a very clear role for MdBio.
Did you mean adding a truck, as in vehicle, or a track, as in an avenue for worker development?
That remains to be seen. We have succeeded with the truck [for MdBioLab] that we have now over a five-year period. We have touched 40,000 students, which is a remarkable accomplishment. Could we direct some resources, and would the best resource be another truck for high schools? Would it be something to be dedicated to middle schools? University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute has some programs like a loaner lab program — they can set up a lab in schools. I’ve already had discussions with Montgomery College, Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland. The low-hanging fruit would be, let’s look at another truck or a bus, and what we’d need to do that. But what I’d like to see — and I don’t know if it’s feasible — would be to have an endowment that would allow [educational programs] to operate perpetually long-term.
What other challenges does TCM/MdBio face?
I think in addition to the growth of the membership and serving member needs and being responsive to their needs, both in terms of programs and educational opportunities, two big challenges I have are networking and advocacy.
On the membership side, earlier this year TCM/MdBio was reported to have 110 biotech members of the tech council’s total 500 members.
That sounds about right.
Given that, how do you plan to raise those numbers?
I think there are two things that can happen. First of all, we’re not playing a numbers game for the sake of playing a numbers game. Right now, it’s estimated there are as many as 350 biotechnology companies in the state of Maryland. What we want to do, for the larger companies, is to make sure they’re all part of [MdBio], helping to benefit those companies, serving their needs without losing sight of the smaller companies as well.
We do provide assistance to smaller companies in terms of some of our business development. We have a project accelerator award, a block of money that can help companies that are very close to having something commercially available get over the hump. It’s a quid pro quo, of course. This [money] comes out of our foundation. What we’d look for is once they turn the corner, for them to provide a royalty so that we can use this for other companies. We want to be self-perpetuating. We want to grow those programs. That slowed down a little bit in the last couple of years. There were some companies early on that were some very good success stories, and we’d like to make some more awards in those areas as well.
Part of my job would be getting out there statewide, and really reaching into all the areas of Maryland to get companies involved, and helping to notify them of what the member benefits are, and also learning from them [about] what they are looking for. What can we do to help grow them? I’d rather have a smaller number of really quality companies [as well as] people to volunteer for the program committee, to help host some of the networking events to be sponsors for various events. If we have a high quality number of people, companies in that area, we should be successful. Having said that, I will have some outreach activities to try to entice companies, large and small. We have a fee structure for membership that is not burdensome to smaller companies. [MdBio pegs membership fees for employers to the sizes of their work forces; a single-person business pays $300 for a year’s membership, for example, while employers with 10 to 49 workers pay $900; 100-199 employees, $1,400; and 1,000 or more employees, $6,000.]
Yet TCM/MdBio’s 110 member biotechs represent less than one third of the state’s cluster of biotech businesses. How much has that hamstrung the organization?
It may be a third in terms of numbers of businesses. But if we looked at the number of employees from the member companies, they’re representing — I don’t have the exact statistics so I’m shooting from the hip — say 50 percent of the total [biotech] employees [statewide] … Relatively speaking, the majority of the employees and probably the majority of the revenue [of biotech companies statewide], well over 50 percent of that is represented.
How urgent does TCM/MdBio view increasing its membership given that since the merger, it has had to subsist on membership fees while its former revenue stream of $1.6 million a year — reflecting the former Cambrex, now Lonza, lease at the Maryland Bioprocessing Center in Baltimore — was diverted to the TCM/MdBio Foundation?
It becomes of big urgency because there are a number of things that are happening right now, including the fact [Cambrex] was purchased by Lonza. We are actually in discussions with them about what the future of that will be. There are a number of issues that are sort of out of our hands, to be determined, and we have to see how that plays out.
One of TCM/MdBio’s successes in recent years was the annual Mid-Atlantic Bio conferences held with Virginia Biotechnology Association and the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association. Will TCM/MdBio look at creating more such events or doing more with existing events?
That’s a good question. I basically have been a volunteer with the Tech Council for 18 years. In 1995 when I was on the program committee, we got feedback many times that the sessions were not detailed enough or in-depth enough and people didn’t have time for networking. We put together the first Maryland bio forum, and that grew every year till three years ago, when I was a board member, when MdBio felt we needed to be more regional and have a broader base [of attendees] so we got together with VaBIO.
This year we have three dynamic keynote speakers. We’re attracting top-notch people. [AstraZeneca CEO David Brennan; Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Biogen Idec CEO and president James Mullen.]
Something like that takes a fair amount of work and energy to pull off. Whether it would be another large thing like that, I don’t know if it would be the best use of resources. It might be hosting some other types of conferences, maybe focusing on intellectual property within Maryland companies. It could be any number of things. But one of the things I’ll be doing right after I’ll start: We’ll be putting together a strategic plan, and we’ve got a board of directors with leaders from companies from all over the state … It’s not going to be just my, or MdBio’s, conception of what needs to be done. It will be a joint effort with the board representing the members.
What’s your time frame for completing the strategic plan?
Right now, even before I’m on board, I’m working a lot on Mid-Atlantic Bio. I’ll probably have an outline in September. In October, a lot of effort will be focused on Mid-Atlantic Bio. By the time we get something put together [and obtain] board approval, I’m saying by the end of the year. I don’t think that’s unrealistic, with the idea that we kick off the [2008] calendar year using the new strategic plan.
In July, the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore issued a report citing complaints by CEOs that state and regional agencies are duplicating each others’ economic development efforts, that the state’s economic effort lacks specific focus on biotech, and that startups face a dearth of needed lab space. What is TCM/MdBio’s role in addressing all three?
Those are legitimate questions. With regard to the government, there’s been some cutback in government spending because of the budgets, and I think you’re going to see a little bit less involvement there, and some of that slack is going to be taken up by the regional councils. We work closely with [Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development] and Montgomery County. I would like to strengthen relationships with Baltimore and other regional councils. I don’t think MdBio is supposed to be all things to all people. I think what we can be is a facilitator for many things.
As far as space for startups, I think that that’s already being addressed by [the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s BioPark research campus, now planning a third building] and by Forest City [whose Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins campus is also under construction]. Another one in the works is Montgomery College’s new incubator in downtown Rockville. I think the market is really responding to that right now. It may be frustrating to the people who need space. But you don’t just flip a switch and get it.
My role would be in helping the companies that might be in the incubators and might still be working in government laboratories, to assist them in helping to identify the space that they can use. Now it behooves me to get to know companies of all sizes, and for the startups, to match the people with the needs that they have, from the startups to a MedImmune.
What role can TCM/MdBio play to ensure a biotech cluster remains in Maryland even if AstraZeneca were to move MedImmune operations outside of the state?
We sponsored a breakfast [Aug. 10] with David Mott, the CEO of MedImmune. He was very candid about what the merger meant to MedImmune as well as the state. AZ didn’t purchase MedImmune just for their products or revenues, but really for their technology, and their technology resides here. And David made the claim this morning that they plan to expand by 250 people additionally a year in R&D over the next three years. I don’t think there are going to be any changes there. Dave’s going to continue as CEO of MedImmune. They’re keeping the MedImmune name. And quite frankly, it’s quite an optimistic picture that I’m excited about.
On May 8, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law a Life Sciences Advisory Board, with the long-term goal to create a public-private state life sciences authority that would serve as a “one-stop shop” for companies relocating to or expanding within Maryland. How crucial is that to competing with North Carolina and other states?
I think that is a fantastic proposal. The board hasn’t been named yet. But by doing this at the state level, it is a way of being very proactive in terms of pulling together those resources and minds and people who have a vested interest in it as a very high level, who can mobilize to do something about what are some of the things we need to do as a state.
Clearly we are competitive. But I think the key in moving forward is not only to be competitive now, but to be competitive in the future. Anticipate needs. I always look at the change in technology and how computers change every 18 months or so. If you’re still operating on your old 386, you’re not going to keep up. It’s the same way in biotechnology. We need to be aware of what’s going on, to have the people and resources. We don’t always have the latest and greatest equipment, but you need to know what’s going on in the field. I think by the assembly of a senior-level advisory board that’s under the auspices of the governor of the state, it’ll clearly be able to get the attention it needs for advancing the industry.
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