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College incubators increase enterprise around Md.

Colleges across the state are doing their part to grow the economy through incubator programs that create job growth and foster innovation in and around their campuses.

The state’s oldest incubator, Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute—commonly referred to as Mtech—has been operating out of University of Maryland College Park since 1985.

“Mtech’s mission is to create value for the state of Maryland—that’s what we want to do, and that’s in job creation and tax base,” said Peter Sandborn, Mtech’s director and a professor of mechanical engineering at the campus.

Mtech is best known for TAP, its Technology Advancement Program. Through the program, Mtech installs itself as administrators of TAP member companies, gets them off the ground and then hires their replacement.

To date, more than 100 companies have graduated from TAP, including billion-dollar companies, such as the Columbia-based Martek Biosciences, which produces nutritional supplements, and the Gaithersburg-based Digene Corporation, which produces gene-based testing systems for health screenings. Then there’s the high-profile FlexEl, the College-Park based company that develops flexible and biocompatible batteries, among other related products.

TAP has created more than 2,000 jobs and about 65 percent of the companies maintain material operations in Maryland five years after they graduate, Sandborn said. Currently, there are 24 companies operating through TAP.

“We want to continue to nurture the best companies and to maximize the value they add to the state, and our future plans are all oriented around how we can better serve the companies we’re creating,” Sandborn said.

Another program of Mtech, the Maryland International Incubator—or MI2—provides a landing pad and office space for international companies looking to collaborate in the fields of healthcare, environment, agriculture, energy and fire protection. Two newer student programs, including the Entrepreneurship and Innovations Program and The Hinman CEO Program, act as incubators for aspiring entrepreneurial students.

Sandborn, who has been a professor at the university for 18 years, said that it’s exciting to watch the innovations in technology that emerge from Mtech.

“I see really cool stuff every day and the students engage with us,” he said. “They have an amazing passion for it and that makes it worth it.”

TU Incubator

Towson University’s TU Incubator, south of campus at 7400 York Road, is home to about 25 small businesses or startups  — 17 of which work in the field of education technology — renting space at the university’s 7,000 square foot office space.

That makes the incubator “more of a technology services-enabled incubator,” said Frank Bonsal III, director of entrepreneurship for Towson University’s Division of Innovation and Applied Research. “These businesses are really the engine of job growth,” he said.

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Towson University’s Frank Bonsal III talks with T. Nicole Tucker-Smith, founder and CEO of Lessoncast, one of the businesses that got its start at the university’s incubator on York Road. Maxmilian Franz/The Daily Record

The university chooses companies through a rigorous judging process and awards incubator support and low rent for office space for the best innovations, he said. Typically favored are companies attempting to partner with an institution to improve language, crowdfunding or teacher effectiveness, said Bonsal, a longtime investor in education who began working with The TU Incubator seven years ago,

“Our job is really to add value to these emerging companies and mostly get out of the way,” he said.

Every year, the university holds an EdTech Innovation Showcase that features product demonstrations and lightning presentations, supporting companies looking to pitch their products to customers and some investors. The university also holds a workshop series and other networking meetups to bolster incubator member companies, Bonsal said.

“We’re trying all manner of things. In the entrepreneurship business, you have to throw things at the wall and see if they stick,” he said.

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UMBC started its first incubator in 1989, on the heels of University of Maryland College Park’s first incubator, said Ellen Hemmerly, executive director of [email protected] Research and Technology Park.

UMBC’s started as a small life sciences incubator, and began to expand in 1996 when the program took over the Martin Marietta building, which is now bwtech South. In 2001, the university created bwtech North.

Cybersecurity firms count for 60 percent of the tenants at [email protected] Research and Technology Park, director Ellen Hemmerly said. Maxmilian Franz/The Daily Record

The research park—the first of its kind in the state—now consists of eight buildings and more than 500,000 square feet, she said. It currently hosts 130 tenants and about 65 to 70 of those tenants are a part of the incubator program, creating 1,450 jobs, she said.

“UMBC has part of its mission an economic development mission,” Hemmerly said. “One of the primary ways we can create economic impact is through the creation of jobs.”

The programs also help support the university’s research mission as some of the companies are involved in research collaboration with the school; the businesses employ about 150 students working as staff or interns.

“Many of them end up after they graduate working for the companies,” she said.

This is a big plus – all universities struggle with finding ways to keep bright graduates in-state, Hemmerly said. But incubators encourage student interest in local businesses and concepts.

UMBC is looking to grow its international programs, and its cybersecurity activities, which already account for about 60 tenants at the research park, most of which are incubator members.

“While cybersecurity is our largest area of focus, we have a significant life sciences program and other companies that don’t necessarily fit into those buckets,” Hemmerly said.

Salisbury’s “Gull Cage” Nets Future Business Leaders

At Salisbury University, the school’s longstanding business planning competition is now growing to include an incubator program, said Bill Burke, the university’s executive director of economic development.

Salisbury University’s annual Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation Shore Hatchery competition drew a record 28 contestants this fall. Aspiring Mid-Atlantic entrepreneurs and startup businesses competed head-to-head through multiple rounds for the chance to win up to $50,000 in grants, he said.

Eighth-grader Marvin Li, the youngest Ratcliffe Shore Hatchery winner to date, impressed judges with Stock Scholars, an interactive online platform geared toward teaching children about financial literacy through games and fun activities. Photo courtesy of Salisbury University.

Eighth-grader Marvin Li, the youngest Ratcliffe Shore Hatchery winner to date, impressed judges with Stock Scholars, an interactive online platform geared toward teaching children about financial literacy through games and fun activities. Photo courtesy of Salisbury University.

Contestants can win money in each round; Using Salisbury’s seagull mascot, one round, the “Gull Cage,” mimics “Shark Tank,” a popular reality television business competition, Burke said.

The Ratcliffe Shore Hatchery program awards up to $200,000 a year in grants to competing entrepreneurs and Mid-Atlantic startup businesses. It has produced 49 winners over the last four years, and only two are out of operation, Burke said.

In addition to money to fund research or expansion, winners of the Ratcliffe Shore Hatchery program also receive mentoring support. The goal is to help businesses open within six months, with the potential to employ at least five by year’s end.

“We’ve created a nontraditional avenue of financial support in the format of a grant for these entrepreneurs of all different ages,” Burke said.

Winners are more likely to get loans from financial institutions and investors with the university’s stamp of approval, he added.

The university’s focus is on small business development and diversity in business sectors and demographics. Winners have ranged in age from middle school to seniors, said Burke, who coordinates the program and wants to find ways to “bring the generations together to work together.”

The university has also acquired a former IRS space in downtown Salisbury to create 12 offices or garages to use as incubators for entrepreneurs who win the awards. The plan is to offer winners the chance to develop their product at the downtown Salisbury entrepreneurship center for a year or six months, rent-free, Burke said, adding that designs for the 6,000 square foot space have been approved.

An added appeal for young entrepreneurs is the City of Salisbury’s “Buy a Home, Build a Business” program, which offers financial support to university graduates looking to start a business and buy a home, he said.

Salisbury University also has been holding The Richard Bernstein Achievement Award for Excellence business planning competition for 30 years, but changed the format five years ago to award $100,000 in prizes.

“If you write a business plan, you are in the competition,” Burke said of the contest, which draws 40 judges from the local business community. “They’re not required to start a business, but more winners are starting a business than ever before.”

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