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Md. Tech Council expands startup mentorship program statewide

The Maryland Tech Council will expand an entrepreneur mentorship program that aims to help startups bridge the gap between having an idea and generating funding.

The Maryland Tech Council Venture Mentoring Services now primarily serves Montgomery County, but with assistance from the state Department of Commerce, the tech council will be taking the program statewide.

The program works by building a team of diverse mentors that meet with the company every four-to-six weeks. The mentors have expertise in areas including law, marketing and accounting.

“When we put the team together, we look at what are the critical issues the company is facing and we’re giving them a level of expertise that gives the CEO perspective from another angle,” said Phil Schiff, volunteer chair of the program’s operations committee.

Schiff was involved in bringing the program to what was then the Tech Council of Maryland about five years ago when he was the council’s CEO.

The mentors use a process similar to the Socratic method. They do not tell mentees what they need to do, instead encouraging the companies to try to teach them how to be better.

“We train the mentors to ask the questions and say, ‘Have you thought about it?’ and ‘How about bouncing this against that?’ so that the CEO really gets a broader picture of the issues,” Schiff said.

While the program is expanding statewide, it is looking for organic growth. Part of that comes from all of the mentors having to be referred, as the program looks to winnow down to mentors it thinks will be the best teachers for participating companies.

Applying companies must have a technology or life science-related product with more than just a proof of concept and have at least one full-time employee.

“These are companies that are beyond that stage (where they just have an idea) and they have got a product, they have probably got some revenue, there’s at least a full-time CEO involved and they are scaling towards early stage money,” Schiff said.

That gap has been an issue for Maryland, which has had some promising startups develop ideas out of its universities and government agencies only to leave for other states where funding is more readily available.

Schiff hopes the program is part of the solution to growing and retaining Maryland-born companies.

The program in Montgomery County has had some successes on that front: 30 mentee companies enrolled in the program have raised more than $15 million to date.

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