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Swimming Toward Success: Turning Marine Research Into Commercial Gold

Russell Hill has a panoramic view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor from his office atop the Institute of Marine and Environmental Science. It's only fitting since Hill was named director this month of the University System of Maryland marine research institute next to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It has recently commercialized three of its technologies from its downtown Baltimore office at the Columbus Center.

"We really focus on practical applications," says Hill. "We have a lot of interaction with small, startup biotechnology companies in Maryland. IMET is always looking to license its technology to companies."

Hill points to three recent examples of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Science (IMET) spinning research into commercial gold. One is aquaculture, aka fish farming, led by Yonathan Zohar. A newly formed company, Maryland Sustainable Mariculture, is the first to license Zohar's technology and is looking for investors to set up an aqua-farm.
The company plans to use a warehouse in Baltimore City, where it will grow fish in a closed-loop, self-cleaning, sustainable tank system that Zohar also developed.
A second example comes from Feng Chen, who studies algae strains from around the world. One of them, it turns out, can be used for clean energy purposes.
At Baltimore City's Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant, startup HY-TEK Bio has built bioreactors that are using algae to absorb nutrients like nitrogen from the waste water of the power plant before the exhaust is released into the air. The startup is funding the pilot project with help from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships and Baltimore City.
A third example is the license that has been signed between IMET's Vikram Vakharia and Frederick County's BioAssay Works to develop a diagnostic test that detects an infectious virus in salmon. 
BioAssay Works primarily uses antibodies to create tests that detect viruses and other health threats. The biotech firm received a grant from the Maryland Technology Development Corp. under its Fort Detrick Technology Transfer Initiative to develop a test to detect smallpox and similar viruses. 

Hill says IMET, with an annual budget of slightly over $10 million per year, is in a growth phase. He plans to hire more faculty, at  a rate of one hire every year for the next three years. The first hire was Yantao Li, an expert in marine bioenergy, or the conversion of algae-produced lipids into biodiesel.

"This is a new area for IMET, but it's an exciting area in which a lot of new, small biotechnology companies are interested," Hill says.

IMET staffers have faculty appointments, roughly in equal parts, with its three university partners: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), University of Maryland, Baltimore and University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Hill himself is an example. He is not only marine institute's director, but a professor with UMCES. "Part of my job description is to further collaboration among the three universities," says the South African native and marine microbiologist.
The marine institute was founded two years ago to foster a multi-disciplinary approach to environmental and marine ecosystem research following a restructuring of the biotech research facilities within the University System of Maryland (USM). It was formerly known as the Center of Marine Biotechnology, one of the four research centers that belonged to the former University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. UMBI was an independent USM research with a faculty of about 50 scattered among four different locations, one of them being the Columbus Center.
Formed in the mid-1980s, UMBI was "a bold new idea, for a public university to become involved in biotechnology and technology transfer," says JoAnn Goedert, USM assistant vice chancellor.
As the decades wore on, though, she continued, the model changed. Other universities in USM developed their own research capabilities and technology transfer offices, and the feeling was UMBI's efforts were being duplicated elsewhere in the system. Critics charged that UMBI wasn't doing enough to turn its research into for-profit enterprises. 
"The goal was better integration of the institutions," says Goedert of IMET's founding.
Hill says IMET intends to stay vital and relevant by addressing issues that are important to everyone's future. "We have research on environmental sustainability, on energy and food," he says.
The marine institute also serves an important role in the state in education, where it sponsors numerous internships for Maryland undergrads and trains advanced-level graduate students.  At any one time, 20 to 25 doctoral degree graduate students are working with its researchers on everything from algal blooms to drug discovery.
"The reorganization of IMET gives us new energy and a new arrangement that has great potential," says Hill. "We are positioning ourselves to make major contributions to human health and the Chesapeake Bay."
Barbara Pash is BmoreMedia's Innovation and Jobs News Editor and can be reached at [email protected]. Pash writes for Maryland Life magazine and is a former contributing editor to Maryland Reporter.com. 
All photographs by STEVE RUARK

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