A 2016 decision to link the research labs at the University of Maryland College Park with those at the University of Maryland at Baltimore is paying dividends in the competition for federal COVID-19 research dollars, a top education official told a science advisory panel on Wednesday.
The decision was a spinoff of the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership Act, said Laurie Ellen Locasio, vice president for research at the two institutions.
“Now we’ll be ranked together by the [National Science Foundation] in the U.S. rankings of research universities — and together this makes us [an] over $1 billion public research enterprise,” she told the Maryland Life Sciences Advisory Board.
With a multi-billion dollar research powerhouse, the privately-funded Johns Hopkins University, also operating here, Maryland is unusually well-positioned, Locasio said.
“Very few states in the country have the distinction of having two research universities with over a billion dollars in research spending per year. … We’ve really shown up as central to this pandemic.”
Martin Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, said there are so many therapeutics and vaccines in development that keeping up with them all is a daunting task.
Many firms adopted a “drop everything” approach when the scope of the coronavirus challenge started to become apparent, he said.
“We just saw a lot of amazing thing happening here in Maryland — so many companies were pivoting immediately to support the response to the pandemic,” he said. “They were basically dropping their other work and on their own dime — spending their own money — evaluating their technologies, their platforms, how they could apply them to COVID-19.”
Many of the big players have grabbed global headlines for their work on a possible vaccine. But smaller companies are making potentially valuable strides as well, Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz told the panel.
Other firms are working to develop COVID tests that are faster and more reliable.
The Tech Council formed the Maryland COVID-19 Coalition to bring companies together, “to make sure they knew who each other were and begin a conversation,” Rosendale said. Twenty-five firms were part of the coalition’s first call; 40 were on the second.
Chris P. Austin, director of the National Center for Advancing Translation Sciences at NIH, told the panel that the federal government has pumped more than $20 billion into COVID research.
“Of that, we know that over $3 billion is coming here to Maryland,” Rosendale said. “That’s a testament to the amazing vaccine and cell-and-gene therapy industries that have grown up here.”
If foundation and other non-government funds are added to the public dollars, “the number is well over $4 billion,” he added.
To play off the capital region’s strengths in biotech, a group of industry leaders in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia is organizing a “pandemic and bio-defense center” to help countries around the globe guard against future pandemics.
“Because of the prominence of what’s going on with COVID-19 development in our region — especially within Maryland — with vaccine, diagnostics, and therapeutic research… we are sort of the epicenter in the world right now,” said Richard A. Bendis, president and CEO of BioHealth Innovation, Inc. in Rockville.
“People are starting to take notice.”
Schulz said the Department of Commerce paused its planned marketing efforts in the spring to focus on the pandemic, but now is ready to gear back up again with an “Innovation Uncovered” campaign.
“We’re going back to where we wanted to be at the beginning of the year, which was to push the bio- and the life sciences worlds out, because we have heard from [company executives] that Maryland needs to be seen as a strong, tight ecosystem for this industry,” she said.