31 Mar, 2005

By: Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.
A Microcosm of the Bioscience Industry

The research and development team at Protiveris, Inc., a small Maryland-based biotechnology company, had reached an impasse. In trying to optimize a cantilever assay-well—a key component in technology designed to enable scientists to monitor nanoscale molecular activity and ultimately accelerate drug discovery and the development of diagnostic tools—the researchers were running up against competing requirements. They needed to find a way to both minimize fluid loading onto the cantilever and maximize the opportunity for binding on the biosensor’s surface.

Trial and error might have produced a solution, but that route would have been both time consuming and prohibitively expensive. What the Protiveris team really needed was a computational model that would do the work for them. Unfortunately, no one at the company had the expertise to design such a model.

Based near Washington, D.C. in Rockville, MD, Protiveris was founded five years ago to develop new technologies for biomarker discovery. When it became apparent that a particular biomarker technology Protiveris was developing was not suitable as a commercial venture, the company switched gears adeptly, turning its attention, focus and resources to the development of microcantilever technologies, for which the company already held several patents. Today Protiveris is at the cutting edge of a nanotechnology market that they hope will one day soon help researchers and scientists detect molecular events that could, for example, signal the onset of disease or even a chemical or biological attack.

To reach that goal, however, the team was going to need some modeling help.

It was one of those moments when the advantages of having a Maryland location really hit home, said Protiveris’s Chief Operating Officer Robb Menzi. As Menzi explains, being based in Maryland means a company gets to work alongside some of the brightest life sciences people in the country, but also has access to the full weight of Maryland’s biotech resources—partnerships, research and development facilities, grants and other funding.

In researching their options for moving the cantilever project forward, Protiveris’s team discovered two critical resources in their own backyard: the Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) program and Dr. Ben Shapiro.

The MIPS program provides funding—$115 million for more than 680 projects so far—for collaborative research at the University of Maryland. Dr. Shapiro, a faculty member at Maryland, specializes in fluidic-system optimization.

After consulting with Dr. Shapiro, and applying for and receiving a MIPS grant, the combined team of university and industry researchers was able to put together a computational model for how fluids would optimally flow onto a chip, said Menzi. This model was all Protiveris’s team needed to successfully design a cantilever assay-well component that became an important part of the company’s VeriScan3000 product.

It was for both Menzi and Protiveris a clear example of the power of private-public partnerships and a reminder of why they chose Maryland as their headquarters.

“Our location in Maryland has been essential to our success, because Maryland supports the kinds of grass-roots business development opportunities that can help a relatively small, entrepreneurial company like ours grow,” said Menzi.

That kind of grass roots support within the academic community is certainly one reason why more than 300 life science companies call Maryland home. But as many of those companies can attest, Maryland’s support extends well beyond academic-industry partnerships.

The state is also home to more than 40 federal research and regulatory agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Institute for Human Virology, the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology, the Center for Marine Biotechnology and the Institute for Genomic Research. In addition, Maryland organizations receive $9 billion annually in federal research dollars, which leads to abundant government-private sector alliances and consulting agreements.

The Protiveris example also sheds some light on the kinds of opportunities available in Maryland. In another case, Dr. Robert Cain, Protiveris’s director of research & development, and his colleagues were looking for help in troubleshooting the performance of the 64-channel laser in an early prototype of the VeriScan3000 system. They sought help from the scientists at the Advanced Measurement Laboratory, part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, MD.

Opened in 2004, NIST’s 500,000-square-foot facility is beyond state of the art. Equipped with clean rooms, a nano-fabrication facility and temperature, humidity and vibration-controlled labs, it is arguably the nation’s foremost nanoscale measurement facility.

Working in close collaboration with scientists at NIST, Dr. Cain and his colleagues were able to make extremely precise measurements of the lasers in the VeriScan3000 system—and, ultimately ensure that the technology will more accurately capture the biochemical and molecular activity that the lasers are intended to detect and monitor.

As Protiveris’s experiences highlight, few locations can match Maryland’s partnership opportunities or concentration of strategic assets, including a highly educated workforce. In fact, Maryland ranks first among the states in concentration of math and life sciences PhDs, second in biological sciences PhDs and fifth in computer and information sciences PhDs. In addition, Maryland was also ranked first in the percentage of professional and technical workers (25%) in the nation. (Source: BLS)

Maryland’s bioscience sector is particularly strong in biopharmaceutical discovery, therapeutics, vaccine development, medical devices, diagnostics and research tools and bioinformatics. All told, as many as 20 companies in the state are currently conducting clinical trials for more than 45 new biotherapeutics, and Maryland counts 17 publicly traded companies among its bioscience ranks, with a total market capitalization of $13 billion. Among the top employers in the sector are the Center for Biosystems Research, the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology, Becton Dickinson, BioReliance, Celera Genomics, Chesapeake Biological Laboratories, Digene, Gene Logic, Guilford Pharmaceuticals, Human GenomeSciences and MedImmune.

According to a recent Ernst & Young report, the biotech industry in the mid-Atlantic region generated $1.7 billion in revenues in 2003—a remarkable 25 percent increase over 2002, making Maryland one of the fastest growing bioscience clusters in the U.S.

That fact, combined with Maryland’s clear commitment to building the State’s biotech infrastructure—$100 million invested in 2004 alone—and its unmatched access to federal, academic and private research and development facilities puts companies like Protiveris, and the hundreds of other small, growing biotech companies in the State, in very good company.

“Maryland is good for us,” said Menzi. “We realized early on that the long-term value of the company is in applications, and we’ve been working closely with National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins, and personnel from some of the larger biotech companies in the area. We know the community, and our relationships with those researchers and their product functionality requests have really shaped our product design. We see those guys ultimately as customers, and so when we started product design and development, we asked ourselves “what do they need?” Maryland is truly a microcosm of the bioscience industry.”