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A rendering of the hotel at the University of Maryland. (Southern Management)

Hotel, science center will anchor UM tech ‘ecosystem’

Tech companies and university startups have wanted to make a home near the University of Maryland, College Park for years. There just hasn’t been the space for them.

But that’s going to change in the next few years, as a pair of key projects on either side of Baltimore Avenue become anchors for innovation-focused development, according to Ken Ulman.

The former Howard County Executive and onetime candidate for lieutenant governor is the chief strategist for an effort to attract companies to College Park and help make sure new companies don’t leave the area.

There is a strong culture of innovation and entrepreneurship on the campus, Ulman told The Daily Record Thursday. “What we’ve never had is a place for companies to stay and grow and thrive.”

But over the next few years, the university is planning to bring 1 million square feet of office space to an area dubbed the “Innovation District,” located at the southeast corner of the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and Paint Branch Parkway.

The district will be anchored by The Hotel at the University of Maryland, a $150 million, 297-room hotel and conference center slated to open in December of 2016.

On the first floor of the hotel will be 20,000 square feet of space that will be leased to innovative companies, and new buildings will be privately-built around the hotel, Ulman said.

Tech companies are drawn to each other — their interest is piqued by seeing the logos of their peers, Ulman said, so developing an innovation “ecosystem” is important.

A 75-person company currently occupying incubator space on campus recently signed a lease to stay in the area, Ulman said, but he couldn’t release further details Thursday.

Across Baltimore Avenue – which Ulman says officials don’t want to call “Route 1” anymore because it sounds more like a highway than a main street – from the hotel will be the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation, a new home for the university’s computer science department.

Iribe, CEO and co-founder of Oculus VR as well as a UM alum, recently gave the university it’s largest ever gift of $31 million to fund the building, which is expect to cost $150 million in all.

The Iribe Center will be one of the first buildings visitors see as they approach campus from Baltimore Avenue or Paint Branch Parkway, and will be one of the most modern “Silicon Valley-feeling” building on campus, Ulman said.

The center will also include space for startup companies, as well a planned new engineering building, expected to open in 2017, and the renovated Cole Field House, expected to be completed in 2018, Ulman said.

The 200,000 square-foot building will include “hacker/maker” spaces equipped for 3D printing and the development of virtual reality and robotic systems, said Samir Khuller, chair of the department of computer science.

Emerging virtual-reality technology is getting more and more interesting, Khuller said. If two people wearing helmets in different cities can interact as if they are sitting across the table from each other, practical applications could include improved communications between doctors and patients in remote areas, Khuller said.

The global market for virtual reality in gaming is expected to grow from $466.6 million in 2012 to $5.8 billion in 2019, according to the university.

The university is expected to break ground on the Iribe Center in Spring 2016 and complete the project in December 2017, Khuller said.

In the six months since joining the university team, Ulman has been working to sell College Park to company CEOs and listening to what they say they need from the area. That includes office space, restaurants and retail, he said.

Companies elsewhere in the country are interested in opening small, research-focused branches near the university but want to make sure there’s a place for them, Ulman said.