Start-up companies show their wares Entrepreneurs: Fledgling firms, incubated under a state program, seek a venture capitalist for their next step


March 12, 1998|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Last night, in the old warehouse behind Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a select group of budding high-technology firms tried to break into the major leagues.

The fledgling firms were gathered for the Maryland Incubator Company Showcase, an event designed to bring technology entrepreneurs into contact with potential investors.

"In the growth stage, companies need high visibility," said Jane Shaab, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee Technology Council, which helped sponsor the showcase.

The companies at last night's event were at an especially early and important stage of growth. They were brand-new firms chosen from technology incubators, which are public or private entities that bring start-ups together and provide them with administrative assistance, cheap space and business advice.

The companies, which ranged in industry from biotechnology to telecommunications, were about to leave the nest and enter promising but highly competitive markets. In short, they must start finding investors.

"The window of opportunity is very tight, and these might be the companies who have their product 90 percent done but the window's closing," said Jeff Oyer, the chief financial officer of the High Technology Council of Maryland Inc., and the manager of the Montgomery County Technology Enterprise Center, a Rockville incubator.

One of the companies at the showcase was Direct Dimensions Inc., a firm based at the incubator of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The company started in 1996 by offering three-dimensional measurement services. One of its earliest projects was assessing whether a 5-ton sculpture proposed for the Atlanta Olympics was in danger of tipping over.

Design Dimensions now seeks to make an Olympian leap of its own, branching out from the provision of services to the manufacture of portable 3-D measurement devices.

To make this jump successfully, Direct Dimensions needs cash. Richard Lee, the company's president, said he hoped the showcase might lead to investment. "If you're not in the right place at the right time, it might not happen," he said. "We think this might be the right place."

What drew Lee and other incubator hatchlings to the showcase was the event's audience, a crowd of about 300 venture capitalists, bankers and government officials who were looking for places to put their money.

One of the would-be investors was Frank A. Adams, president of Grotech Capital Group Inc. of Timonium. "We are always looking for that one specific company that has the potential for changing the market or becoming a leader in a particular market niche," he said.

In addition to his role with Grotech, Adams heads the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association, a co-sponsor of the showcase. "The major difficulty for small companies is finding sufficient capital at an appropriate time in their life cycle," he said. "What this event does is bring select companies together with venture capitalists in one concentrated environment."

Oyer said that partly because of projects such as the showcase, it has become easier for new high-technology firms to get established. "The climate has improved dramatically," he said. "Two or three years ago it was quite difficult for tech companies to find financing."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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