Maryland Department of Commerce Building Critical Networks Behind the Scenes 

State’s focus on building stronger industry-government networks is helping solve challenges like COVID-19 and support key industries like Biohealth and Life Sciences

When COVID-19 was emerging as a public health crisis, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) requested Maryland Department of Commerce (MDOC) team members to assist with coordinating its statewide coronavirus response. While the circumstances were certainly unique for the MDOC team, the task at hand was not: identifying and vetting resources, creating infrastructure, and building a stronger state network to solve challenges.

Ernesto P. Chanona

MDOC was once again working hard behind the scenes to fulfill its mission of supporting Maryland’s business community. Only this time the MDOC team’s skills and know-how were to be applied to solving the state’s supply chain challenges brought on by the pandemic. MDOC’s Senior Manager, Office of Biohealth and Life Sciences, Ernesto P. Chanona was one of these team members who took on the role of Industrial Specialist at MEMA during the health crisis. 

“MEMA is set up to handle many types of localized emergencies from tornados to hurricanes, but the COVID-19 activation was uniquely state-wide. This activation brought together a combination of agencies that wouldn’t normally interact regularly like MDOC, the Maryland Department of Health, MEMA and the Department of General Services plus a few subcommittees,” stated Chanona.

“Our role was to vet the companies that wanted to sell emergency supplies and critical items to the state. We had to set up the process by which the private sector would engage the government and then organize all that input in a way that was digestible to the state procurement team,” he added.

As the coronavirus crisis escalated, MEMA was inundated with requests for masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as other critical materials needed to handle an impending surge in COVID-19 patients. Identifying and evaluating reputable vendors and finding the best materials at the right quantity and at the best prices became a major and urgent priority across the entire state.

Chanona was brought in on the operations side and worked to create and execute a suite of standard operating procedures (SOPs) to streamline private sector information collection, vendor vetting and distribution of validated information to the state’s procurement teams. This work culminated in the creation of an Emergency Vendor Database of vetted vendors and resources and a form that guided private sector vendors through the process of contracting with the state of Maryland.

“We needed to make sure everyone that had a touchpoint with the private sector knew what the processes were and we had to look at vendor hard metrics, then interview those suppliers. Our team and the team from the Department of General Services had to develop these relationships quickly. In addition to the metrics, we also needed that  ‘gut check’ to make sure we picked the right vendors to provide the critical materials our healthcare system depends on,” stated Chanona. 

According to Chanona, the Emergency Vendor Database was receiving about 30 entries a day at the height of the ramp-up; however, only about 5% of vendors that applied for a contract made it past the first stage of MDOC’s vetting process. MDOC’s emergency relief programs for COVID-19 eventually culminated in approximately $150M in grants or loans to Maryland-based companies; these grant and loan recipients were also added into the vendor database as potential resources as well.

The Maryland Business Emergency Operations Center (MDBEOC) was where Chanona and other state government teams spent six-day weeks working long hours six feet apart at the height of ramping up the state’s coronavirus response. State agencies that did not normally work together closely forged new bonds and gained a greater understanding of their respective processes and people, resulting in stronger state agency relationships and coordination and a public-private contract infrastructure that’s now more efficient and effective.

MDOC’s work to help the COVID-19 response is by no means done, but it has slowed down some since the height of the crisis, allowing Chanona a bit of space to reflect on his experience working with a host of state agencies during the pandemic.

“We want the work we did and the database we created to be a tool for future possible pandemics and other crises that require the quick sourcing of medical supplies. I have a more in-depth view of how these departments work and it was refreshing to see how proactive everyone was,” he added. 

Chanona concurred that state interagency coordination and communication have come through this “trial by fire” stronger than before. 

The coronavirus was and is a unique and daunting challenge for MDOC and the state in general. However, breaking down silos, making connections, and augmenting networks are not new for MDOC and Chanona — this is what Chanona and the agency do every day to make the Maryland business community stronger and to attract new business to the state of Maryland.

Biotech and Life Science Networks

For the biotech and life science ecosystem, Chanona has been working diligently with partners across Maryland to increase access and connectivity among companies, large institutions, and tech transfer departments to grow underserved life science and tech sectors.

“I’ve been working with stakeholders across the state to figure out new ways we can partner. For the longest time, the economic development pitch for companies to come to Maryland has been the presence of the NIH and the FDA. However, if we do get a company to come here it’s very difficult to answer the follow-up question: ‘Who do I talk to at the NIH? Who and how do I engage?’,” said Chanona. 

MDOC and Chanona created the Maryland Innovation and Technology Series to answer these questions and bring Maryland’s biotechnology industry into the NIH to network with investigators, patent holders, clinicians, and other important connections. The goal of the Series is to “…foster the formation of contract research and development agreements and the out-licensing of NIH technology to our companies, as well as creating a space for our companies to network,” said Chanona.

The Maryland Innovation and Technology Series targets somewhat underserved biotech segments. About 45% of Maryland’s biotech industry is developing technologies for infectious disease and oncology. According to Chanona, this 45% of the state’s biotech market is served wonderfully by organizations like TEDCO, BioHealth Innovation, and the Maryland Tech Council. The Maryland Innovation and Technology Series seeks to fill the networking gap for sectors outside of the BioHealth Capital Region’s (BHCR) canonical focus areas. 

The series kicked off in December 2019 with a well-attended and well-received event focused on neurotechnology; unfortunately, the May 2020 scheduled event on autoimmunity was postponed until December 2020 because of COVID-19. That said, Chanona and MDOC have laid the groundwork for a series that will provide greater access and connectivity to talent, investors, and potential technologies to companies in niche therapeutic areas across the state once pandemic restrictions ease.

On a parallel path, Chanona and MDOC have been working to improve the state’s ability to recruit companies, to strengthen Maryland’s supply chain and to build a hub that better connects companies developing intellectual property to service companies in the life science and tech space. Chanona has been building a database that centralizes access to key data points and helps MDOC identify the BHCR’s strengths and gaps.

“When I first joined Commerce one of the major issues that the team was addressing was connectivity within the industry. We have a very large number of contract research and contract manufacturing organizations in the state and a lot of companies that could be sourcing services from them. But whether these connections were being made was unclear,” stated Chanona.

There were gaps, according to Chanona, in understanding what types of companies are out there, what technologies are being developed, and what their therapeutic areas of interest are.  Chanona researched company-by-company and poured this information into a database structured around these criteria, creating an organized resource that could be deployed to connect biotech companies to local service companies and to showcase the state’s assets to domestic and international companies interested in opening a Maryland location. 

As part of their effort to map the state’s life science assets, MDOC and Chanona are also conducting surveys to investigate the service and supply chain needs of companies in biologics, Medtech, vaccines, and research. Chanona anticipates the survey going out at some point this summer.

“If you’re a cell therapy company you need plasmid manufacturers. Or if you’re an antibody company or research organization, you’ll need to find kitting services. We can send a company our Constituent Report that lists all the plasmid manufacturers and organizations that build kits in the state. This is our ‘one-stop-shop’ for our state’s resources,” stated Chanona. 

“This resource will also help us move the needle in recruiting new companies to Maryland. There’s so much we can do to bring in companies to the area and to increase the density of biotech companies here. Our strategy needs to move beyond the tradeshow booth. We want companies to expand in Maryland and we can do that by having these data ready at hand,” added Chanona.

While the applications might be different, MDOC’s mission remains the same whether it’s fighting a pandemic, creating productive networks, building bridges between suppliers and service organizations, or developing the tools needed to showcase the state’s life science assets. 

MDOC’s team strives behind the scenes to build the resources and network connectivity to enhance the Maryland business community at large and to augment a maturing Maryland life science ecosystem.

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