Friday, Nov. 16, 2007

Scheer Partners expands bioscience property reach

Real estate firm takes its niche on the road

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Bill Hinzman⁄University of Maryland, Baltimore
Scheer Partners Inc., a major player in Montgomery County’s real estate industry for decades, is giving up on conventional commercial properties to concentrate on its primary niche — life sciences — and expand that focus well beyond Maryland.

‘‘We believe in the sector so strongly that we are willing to focus most of our resources on a vertical industry, on the life science sector, as opposed to trying to be a broad real estate services company,” said Robert Scheer, founder and president of the 23-employee Rockville company.

For more than 20 years, Scheer Partners has thrived with the Interstate 270 bio-corridor. About 75 percent of its business is already in building, leasing and owning space in the life science industry. In recent years, it has branched out, but is now getting back to what it does best.

And a consultant recently concluded that it’s now time for the company to expand that core business, Scheer said.

The ‘‘spinning top” of Maryland’s biotech industry may be wobbling a bit, Scheer said, perhaps because of a lack of consistent political will or ‘‘economic circumstances.” Meanwhile, more money is being diverted to bioscience clusters in other regions.

For whatever reason, he said, Maryland has not continued to climb the ranks of biotech-invested states, once it had reached third or fourth in state rankings. More opportunities are opening elsewhere.

Six months ago, the company hired real estate consultant Chris Lee of CEL Associates of Los Angeles to help develop a new strategic plan.

Previously, the company chose to ignore much of the life sciences market outside of the region, Scheer said, ‘‘because we were enjoying such a market share. But, now my eyes are opened. There is more going on from Baltimore down to Blacksburg [Va.] and North Carolina than I had realized.” Scheer declined to disclose revenues and profits.

William Gust, managing general partner at Anthem Capital Management in Baltimore, said he sees no clear signs of life science funding being siphoned away from older biotech clusters including Maryland, California and New England. However, other regions are ‘‘beginning to drive a stake into the ground,” he said.

Scheer said he has been approached recently by five or six new bioscience companies that have been ‘‘rather indifferent” as to whether they want to put down roots in Montgomery County or Baltimore. Montgomery County still ‘‘has pull for the classic cluster effect, but Hopkins also has a lot of pull right now,” Scheer said.

Scheer Partners is a marketing consultant for Johns Hopkins University’s on-going biopark projects and is ‘‘in discussions” to possibly establish a 20,000-square-foot business incubator at the university in Baltimore.

The company already operates other life science business incubators in the state.

Scheer Partners is also expanding into the I-66 commercial corridor in Prince William County, Va.

Last week it completed a 102,000-square-foot good manufacturing processes facility for Mediatech Inc. in the Prince William County-owned Innovation Technology Park. Mediatech, named the 2004 Virginia biotech company of the year, by the Virginia Biotechnology Association, makes cell culture and molecular biology reagents for bioscience laboratories. The park also includes the American Type Culture Center, which moved from Rockville in 1998, and George Mason University’s National Center for Biodefense.

‘‘The relative low cost and availability of land, coupled with the favorable business climate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, has made Prince William County an attractive location for companies needing technical facilities,” said Michael Norris, director at Scheer Partners, in a statement. Norris is also a director of the Business Alliance of George Mason University.

Scheer is also expected to invest $63 million in the construction of a 100,000-square-foot laboratory for the Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences.

Scheer said his career won’t last long enough for him to see the company go nationwide, but he expects to guide expansion on the Eastern Seaboard, from Boston — or at least Philadelphia — to North Carolina.

New competition from other life science developers in the region could be a factor in Scheer’s expansion strategy, said James Barrett of New Enterprise Associates, an early stage investment company.

Anthem’s Gust said life science growth is not bound by clusters.

‘‘There is nothing as obligatory as life science; it tends to be very mobile,” Gust said. ‘‘There is a correlation between good science and nice places to live ... and if academic institutions are superb and there [is] funding.”

Scheer founded Scheer Partners in 1985 after previously running the commercial real estate side of Shannon and Luchs Co. in Chevy Chase.

‘‘I think I had done enough 5,000-square-foot office spaces to be bored by them,” he said.

He was excited by the burgeoning life sciences market. ‘‘All of a sudden we were dealing with facilities issues that were very mission-critical as opposed to a commodity, which is what most people view office space as.”

The company’s timing was right, it brought in people who knew sciences and for a long time it was mastering the learning curve much faster than its competition, he said. Early projects included new buildings for MedImmune Inc. in Gaithersburg, and Human Genome Sciences Inc. and the nonprofit Institute for Genomic Sciences in Rockville.