Legislators ask Montgomery officials to reconsider closing incubator -- Gazette.Net


Several state legislators from Montgomery County have asked County Executive Isiah Leggett to reconsider replacing its oldest business incubator with a national cybersecurity center aligned with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But one delegate listed among the signees said she didn’t sign the letter and did not support reconsidering that decision.

The legislators wrote in a letter that the William Hanna Center for Innovation at Shady Grove, which is in Rockville, was the “cornerstone of our biotech community.” Replacing it with the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence would represent a “significant setback to the thriving biotechnology industry in Montgomery County,” the letter says.

Those whose names were on the Feb. 17 letter to Leggett include Dels. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring and James W. Gilchrist (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville.

But Hixson said on Thursday that she did not actually sign the letter and did not know how her name ended up on the letter, which is on Maryland House of Delegates letterhead. Her name was the first among a group of eight Montgomery County delegates listed.

“I was among a group of delegates briefed about the proposal,” Hixson said. “I am concerned about what is going to happen to the biotech tenants. I would like to see the cybersecurity center happen. I talked to Ike’s office, and they said they are working on a plan to help the tenants. That does satisfy me.”

Hixson said she did not support the county reconsidering the decision and was not sure who put the letter together. Gilchrist could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The county is moving ahead with the plan to convert the center to the cybersecurity facility, Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman, said in an email. An agreement was signed last week between Leggett (D) and state officials on the plan, he said.

“We are working with firms on relocation and assistance,” Lacefield said.

Tech Council also sends letter

Philip D. Schiff, CEO of the Tech Council of Maryland, also sent a letter to Leggett on Feb. 18. He asked officials to “reaffirm” support for life sciences companies and provide “reasonable assistance” to businesses forced to move from the oldest business incubator.

The Tech Council represents not just biotech companies, but also tech firms such as those in the cybersecurity industry. Schiff’s letter doesn’t ask the county to reverse the decision, but says his council is “concerned that this transition places undue stress on the affected companies and has led some in the broader life sciences and technology community to question the county’s support for early stage life sciences companies.”

He praised officials’ efforts to establish the national cybersecurity center in the county.

David Beylin, CEO of Brain Biosciences, one of more than 30 tenants at the Shady Grove center, said he liked the reconsideration request in the delegates’ letter more than the Tech Council one.

“I want to make sure we build our company in a vibrant startup environment,” Beylin said. “Either preserving [the Shady Grove center] or offering a replacement would address my concern better than inviting real estate brokers.”

Many companies at the incubator are worth more than $1 million, the legislators said. The county Department of Economic Development considered other sites for the cybersecurity center and it was “puzzling” why the Shady Grove facility was the best space, the legislators wrote.

The new center will help make Montgomery a national hub for the civilian cybersecurity industry, said Steven A. Silverman, the county’s economic development director. He said he was “appreciative” that the Tech Council wants to work with the county on the plan and intends to meet with Tech Council leaders.

The county tried to find private-sector space for the cybersecurity facility, but rent would have cost close to $3 million a year rather than $750,000 a year at the Hanna center.

The county’s plan doesn’t mean it is retreating from its commitment to the life sciences industry, Silverman said. The idea to convert the Shady Grove center, which dates to 1999, was hatched as officials refocus the incubators and try to do more to attract cybersecurity businesses.

The county is considering converting office space near the Germantown Innovation Center into lab space.

Beylin said his company likely will end up in space that is significantly larger and more expensive than what it needs and probably can’t hire as many employees as it hoped for this year.

Leases for 3,000 square feet “are pretty much the minimum around here,” Beylin said.