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After years, those elusive high-tech jobs are almost here

April 02, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

For years, people running for office have said that Washington County needs some "high tech" jobs. But I'll bet that not one in 10 of those folks could tell you what that means.

Well, thanks to Hagerstown Community College, we're all about to find out.

The college has opened 11 wet labs suitable for biotech research, with $1.3 million from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, Maryland Technology Development Corporation and the Washington County Commissioners.

In a meeting last week, Chris Marschner, director of HCC's Technical Innovation Center, told me that the county has an edge in attracting start-up companies because the cost of renting a lab here is half what it is in other areas.

The other part of the plan is that with HCC's introduction of a biotechnology curriculum. HCC's president, Guy Altieri, foresees biotech students working as interns in the wet labs and start-up scientists teaching part-time.

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"We actually have a one-year certificate and a two-year associate degree in science and biotechnology," Altieri said.

Because of the work of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, more work is expected to move to Fort Detrick in Frederick County, Altieri said.

"Detrick will have more scientists, but they depend on the local area for technicians," he said.

Altieri said that Detrick is expeected to add 1,400 jobs by 2010.

Not only does the college hope to provide workers for Detrick and the start-ups, but Altieri said HCC hopes to hold onto the best and brightest of its students.

I asked Alteri if this could be a career track someone could follow to eventually become a scientist.

Yes, he said, but added that "it's a pretty rigorous career track."

However, Altieri said that once a student obtains that first job as a technician and proves his or her worth, the employers will likely help them find other training opportunities.

Marschner said that he hopes to have all 11 of the labs rented by this summer.

Asked whether some of those start-ups might eventually relocate to the former Fort Ritchie Army base, Altieri said HCC has put an extension operation back at the site.

"I could see incubators start here on campus and move to Fort Ritchie later," Altieri said.

Asked exactly what most of these companies would be doing, Marschner said it would involve protein research, but not on the kind of protein you find in a sirloin steak.

This research will take place at the cellular level, Marschner said, and involves synthesizing proteins - collections of amino acids - for medical supply companies and for research into various kinds of diseases.

Some might help with the prevention of disease through early detection, Marschner said.

"By being able to manipulate certain proteins, it could have an effect on how well certain drugs work," he said.

For example, he said, "the influenza virus is a protein. If you can put a blocker in between it and the patient, you may prevent an outbreak," Marschner said.

And there are agricultural proteins that can be used to alter crops so that fewer pesticides are needed, he said.

"But really, much of focus here is going to be on cellular biology - biodefense and biotechnology," Altieri said.

It's not cheap to do, either. Altieri said that unlike a computer software company, start-ups need more than a basement for work space.

Just to get going takes about $100,000, he said, and HCC helps by providing lab space at half the cost of what's available in Montgomery County.

Those costs aren't borne by local taxpayers. Marschner said that since 1997, the TIC has covered all of its costs.

This is what Washington County has been waiting for - and presumably why the county government wouldn't rezone the old Allegheny Energy property once envisioned as a site for high-tech firms.

The dream might be more complicated than anyone imagined t first, but it seems that it will be real and in our midst before we know it.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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