Understanding the far- and wide-ranging Maryland technology ‘household’ or ecosystem is essential to success, according to Glenna E. Cush, director of marketing with the state’s Small Business Development Center.
“The ecosystem refers businesses to how different components of technology support systems fit together,” she says, “Those components are organizations that provide expertise, technical assistance to different types of companies.”
But experts say novices should beware of swimming alone through an alphabet soup of acronyms for business development in Maryland, such as TEDCO, MIPS, SBIR, BWTech, SMIT, MDMEP, MTech, AIE and more. Learn them as you go.
Instead, a consensus of business experts says the place to start understanding the high-tech ecosystem for small businesses is at the SBDC. Its consultants in the statewide network in all 23 counties and Baltimore are dedicated to helping inventors start and grow a business. SBDC provides training, confidential consulting and market research to help aspiring and existing small businesses make sound decisions for successful operations. The consultants have owned or managed successful businesses.
In LaPlata, SBDC was instrumental in helping mechanical engineer Michael Steele launch Motobriiz LLC, a manufacturer of wind-powered automatic chain oilers for motorcycles.
“I had this idea in my garage and then I kind of went underground because I was afraid someone would steal it until I submitted a patent,” Steele said. “Once I emerged, I was amazed how much help is out there; many people in Maryland really want businesses to succeed.”
Steele was soon convinced that SBDC was a good place to start to build a company.
“I found in the entrepreneur ecosystem that if you go to the wrong place first, they will tell you to go somewhere else, you are not quite ready for us. Come back when ready,” Steele said. “You may not be ready if you try to go to an incubator, for example. They might send you back to the SBDC to get you on track again.”
Steele has sold his Motobriiz oilers to customers in 41 different countries so far. He is now marketing other products. Using the wind was a natural choice for powering the oiler because it is ever present when you ride, he said on his website.
Former professional football player Matt Furstenburg and Chana Arya also got a grip on the high-tech ecosystem. Furstenburg is now the CEO of GripBoost, a Linthicum company that sells a polymer to extend usefulness of sports gloves and Arya is the chief operating officer.
Arya explains, “The grip was wearing down on Matt’s football gloves and I’m a chemical engineer. We teamed up to find a solution.”
Furstenburg, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, said his gloves, which cost $40 to $60 a pair, wore out too quickly. He sought help through advisors at the college. “We worked through TEDCO to develop a product that can restore old football gloves to ‘like-new’ tack without leaving residue on the ball.”
GripBoost is doing well four years later, sustaining 300 percent growth per year. Arya’s expertise is in biomaterials and surface functionalization chemistry. The two met through Harry Geller, a serial entrepreneur, whose career has spanned a broad range of successful startup companies.
Ralph Blakeney, with the Maryland Procurement Technical Assistance Center & SBDC and Julie Lenzer, co-director of UMVentures in College Park, helped them get started, says Arya.
“And then, we got a lot of help from all over Maryland, from Baltimore, D.C., College Park for the past six years,” Arya said. “We got past the post-funding stage and are completely reliant on our revenues to pay back our loans and keep on growing. Now we are rolling, we know who we are.
“We are not going to be like a Facebook or Google, but will be a small exit, hopefully when one does come. We have to make ourselves acquirable, maybe in the next four or five years I think. If it will be a $5 million to $10 million exit then I’m happy.”
Blakeney says a fundamental understanding of how to actually start a business is what is often lacking at first, and researchers or college professors often have the acumen to help newcomers manage a business.
Lenzer says, “Small businesses are the number one job creators, responsible for 68 percent of the net new jobs created nationally. Looking at the fabric of our community, main street especially, it is the small businesses that help define it.”
According to Phil Robilotto, assistant vice president, Office of Technology Transfer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, “The high-tech ecosystem for us, and we are focused on the life sciences, is composed of the research coming out of the universities in Maryland and federal labs such as the NIH, plus all the opportunities for funding which are available through the state for business infrastructure advice. There is also a burgeoning support for the state and its universities to provide incubator space for startups, such as the UMBioPark. These spaces bring new companies at a similar stage together to use and share equipment, utilities, mentorship and help available at the sites.”