The importance of nurturing Maryland’s biotech culture

Andrew Ratner —  July 2, 2014 — Leave a comment
Ted Olsen is president of PathSensors in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ted Olsen is president of PathSensors in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ted Olsen can be very passionate when describing the mission of his Baltimore-based life sciences company, which is developing systems to rapidly detect biological threats in the air, plants and food. But the president of PathSensors is also fervent about the importance of having a strong biotech community to help nurture a small company like his, as he has discovered in Maryland, and in particular at the University of Maryland BioPark in West Baltimore.

“I never would have dreamed there would have been this kind of collaboration, the number of speakers that have come through the BioPark … government delegations from China and Korea that have led to conversations with us,” he said.

Maryland has one of the stronger biotech clusters in the country. On a per capita basis, it is second in academic bioscience research spending, fifth in bio venture capital investment and eighth in bioscience patents, according to Battelle, a private, nonprofit applied science and technology development company. It also ranks seventh for pharmaceutical job growth since 2007. Life sciences were responsible for one-third of Maryland’s job growth between 2002 and 2010.

Olsen’s company is developing systems to speed, simplify and improve the process of detecting biological threats such as the anthrax attacks that followed Sept. 11, 2001 and food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. PathSensors licenses technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Lincoln Laboratory. Its system employs genetically engineered biosensors that replicate the glow from a jellyfish to signal a dangerous substance more rapidly than traditional means. Analysis that might have required four days can be cut to less than a day.

Culture—not in a petri dish, but in the collective sense—is very much key to a small biotech company taking shape in ways large and small, Olsen said. One of his scientists at the BioPark, for example, met a University of Maryland researcher at an adjacent lab at lunch and struck up a dialogue about white blood cells and T-cells that may prove very useful to their work. (That the BioPark cafeteria has a white board for sketching diagrams and equations is a sign that nourishment there isn’t confined to brown bags alone.)

“It was just the luck of the draw that we were on the same floor,” Olsen said. “We share ideas, we share approaches. A lot of synergy comes out of there.”

Another vital resource is the Global Virus Network—a course on virology that will draw international experts—being held at the BioPark later this month in Baltimore. “They’ve invited us to speak about our technology and that allows us to get connected to worldwide thought leaders,” he said.

Olsen considers his company a “poster child” for the resources Maryland offers to spur growth in a sector that has grown from 28,000 workers in 400 companies to 34,000 in more than 500 companies in the past five years. PathSensors received an investment of $200,000 through the Maryland Venture Fund in 2012, a $200,000 Biotechnology Commercialization Award from the Maryland Biotechnology Center in 2011 and a grant that pays half the salary of a college intern.

PathSensors has 12 employees now, he said, but noted that life science success stories like MedImmune and Digene began similarly in Maryland before they grew to employ hundreds. Support from the state and the university system also helped him attend the recent BIO International conference in San Diego, where Olsen made contacts with peers from around the world.

“I doubt we would be here today if we didn’t have those helping hands along the way,” he said.

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