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Md. tech thrives on ‘problems that need solving’

WASHINGTON — One recent Saturday morning, Greg Merril watched a lacrosse practice with team coach Ray Megill in Potomac. But Merril was not there to scout standout players or to observe as a parent — he was looking for a big hit that could result in a brain injury.

Merril’s Bethesda-based company, Brain Sentry, builds helmet sensors to help prevent brain injuries in contact sports. The sensor blinks red to alert coaches if there is more than a 25 percent chance the player has sustained a brain injury after a big hit.

Merril is one of the growing number of entrepreneurs in Maryland’s startup community who have helped the state earn recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the best place for innovation and entrepreneurship for the second year in a row. Maryland beat Massachusetts, Texas, and California — states better known for robust entrepreneurial climates.

The ranking does not surprise Baltimore-based entrepreneur Josh Matthews, who said there are countless problems for startups to solve with government agencies, biotech and medical companies and defense contractors among the many industries that call Maryland home.

Access to research from government agencies and Maryland’s universities, and funding from state programs such as TEDCO have also played a key role in keeping innovators in Maryland, despite the state’s high taxes, which led to a poor business climate ranking from the Chamber.

“I think the most important foundation you have here is industry that has problems that need solving,” said Matthews, co-founder and CEO of Baltimore-based Apkudo, a company that optimizes Android devices for companies such as Samsung and HTC before they are released.

While neither Baltimore nor the rest of Maryland may garner the same kind of hype and profit for startups that Boston or Silicon Valley does, its top innovators say they should not be dismissed.

John M. Wasilisin, chief operating officer at TEDCO, an organization that assists entrepreneurs in Maryland by providing funding and mentoring, said he believes the culture in Maryland is growing as people realize the state’s potential.

“We have all the natural assets that these other regions have,” Wasilisin said. “We have an educated workforce, great quality of life and access to tremendous amounts of research in university or government labs.”

Support from the state has played a big role in keeping entrepreneurs happy.

“Maryland has been great,” Merril said. The state has supported his business ventures through grants from organizations such as TEDCO, and he pulls talent from the local universities’ STEM programs, which educate students in science, technology, engineering and math.

Justin Musterman, founder and CEO of Baltimore’s Mediaglu, who is new to the startup community, said there is a robust network of support for entrepreneurs trying to start a company. Launched in 2009, his company aims to help advertisers reach their target market across all of their computing devices.

There are more than 20 startup incubators in Maryland offering a wide range of services from below-market rent to free Wi-Fi in an effort to reduce the operating costs of businesses that are just getting started.

FastForward, based out of Johns Hopkins University, is just one of them. It help startups get their technology to market faster by providing cheap access to office space, research laboratories and mentoring to people who are often working on their first startup.

“It’s basically a full-service accelerator,” FastForward Director John Fini said. “We provide intensive incubation. We work with them on business plans and help them understand the risks.”

Entrepreneurs in Maryland want more than just the success of their own company. Innovators such as Matthews, Merril and Musterman want Maryland to become a beacon for innovation on the East Coast. That, they say, will draw more entrepreneurs — and more investors.

“As we continue to have innovation and success here, I think that culture that exists on the West Coast could migrate over here as well,” Musterman said.

Matthews agreed.

“It should be talked about in the same breath as the valley,” Matthews said. “We can get there as a community.”