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With FlexEl, officials see a model for UMD tech ecosystem

Karianne Morgan, a lab technician at FlexEl in College Park, assembles components of the batteries produced by the company. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record).

Karianne Morgan, a lab technician at FlexEl in College Park, assembles components of the batteries produced by the company on April 8. (Daniel Leaderman/The Daily Record).

COLLEGE PARK – A warehouse here that was once home to surplus furniture and office equipment now has a new tenant: FlexEl, a growing tech company that produces flexible and custom-designed battery cells, some no thicker than a few human hairs.

As they celebrated the opening of the company’s new, $10 million headquarters and manufacturing facility Friday, officials held up FlexEl as model of how the state, county, and the University of Maryland can spur further economic development around the College Park campus.

“This is the way it’s supposed to work, and I would suggest we’re just getting started,” said Ken Ulman, the former Howard County executive who is now the chief strategist of the university’s “Greater College Park” revitalization initiative, which includes plans to persuade more tech companies to make their home in the area.

But the FlexEl expansion almost never came to pass: when the UMD startup was ready to expand out of its incubator space on campus, it couldn’t find space near the campus and had decided to move to Northern Virginia, CEO Bob Proctor said.

“We had to move in order to serve our clients and continue to grow,” Proctor said. “We were busting at the seams.”

But Ulman wasn’t going to let FlexEl leave without a fight. He worked with university officials early last year to find the company more than 10,000 square feet of space in the UMD-owned warehouse, and provided the company with funds to support a renovation and build-out of the space. FlexEl will pay back that money over the course of its 10-year lease, Ulman said.

Proctor said staying in College Park was “the best decision FlexEl has made.”

Additional incentives came from state and Prince George’s County, each of which provided a $250,000 conditional loan — which the company won’t need to repay if it meets its job-creation goal of expanding from 12 full-time employees to 60, as it expects to do in the next few years.

The county’s funds were drawn from the $50 million Economic Development Incentive Fund, which was one of Democratic County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s first initiatives after being sworn in at the end of 2010.

So far, the county has invested $23 million of that fund, which has led to the creation of more than 5,000 jobs and attracted $800 million in additional private investment, said James Coleman, president and CEO of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp.

Baker said that spurring new investment required the county to lead by example.

“That’s why, in the height of the recession, with a budget deficit, we took $50 million we didn’t have and said ‘we’re betting on Prince George’s County,'” he said. “We believe we’re going to be the place where everybody is going to want to come.”

To provide an additional incentive for companies to locate in the area, the Prince George’s County County Council is exploring creating a RISE Zone, to include College Park, which would offer high-tech businesses a property tax credit of as much as 75 percent for five years, said Councilwoman Dannielle M. Glaros, whose district includes College Park.

Plans for the Greater College Park initiative include bringing 1 million square feet of new office space to an area near campus dubbed the “Innovation District” that will be anchored by The Hotel at the University of Maryland, a $150 million, 297-room hotel and conference center slated to open at the end of this year.