Luxurious incubator for infant Md. firms

Not every start-up is good enough to rent space at state center

May 02, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Entrepreneur Carl Burnett counts himself among the fortunate in the rough and tumble world of business start-ups.

The reason: He just got the green light to move his HomeQuest Network, an Internet and TV real estate company, into Maryland's newest high-technology business incubator, the Technology Advancement Program center on the University of Maryland campus in College Park.

"We see this as a tremendous opportunity for us," said Burnett, a former TV producer in Hawaii. "The assets and resources available to us at the TAP center and on campus are a really big advantage for a start-up."

His enthusiasm is shared by executives at companies in the TAP center -- with good reason.

Outfitted with the latest high-technology equipment, from high-speed fiber-optic telecommunications lines to sophisticated "wet" laboratory space for life science research, the center is luxurious even by private industry standards.

And it comes at the bargain price of $9 to $14 a square foot, about half the commercial rate in the Washington area.

A year and $6 million in the making, the three-story, 32,000-square-foot center opened in October.

It may be Maryland's newest business incubator, but it's not the only one.

There are at least 10 in the state, including several that are private, for-profit enterprises, not to mention competitors in Northern Virginia.

Most Maryland incubators, such as the Technology Advancement Program and the one on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Catonsville campus, are nonprofit ventures affiliated with colleges.

Edward M. Sybert, director of the TAP center, said the state and university moved ahead with plans for the center after a 1997 report by the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

The report concluded that such a center was needed if the state is to remain competitive in attracting high-technology businesses.

The report also recommended support for high-technology incubators in Montgomery County and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Prior to the new College Park center, TAP companies were located in several aging and technologically outdated buildings that had served the university as temporary trailer-type classrooms. Those buildings were so outdated that some companies temporarily used laboratory space normally reserved for faculty.

"We've now got a center that offers a very nurturing atmosphere for a wide range of companies that meet our specifications," said Sybert. "I like to think we can now accommodate almost any type of company from aerospace to zoology."

The new Technology Advancement Program building can house 15 to 17 companies, depending on space needs, said Sybert. The former facilities, which house about 10, could not accommodate additional clients.

The building opened at a ripe time for Maryand's business climate. Opportunities created by the Internet and advancements in biotechnology and information technology, coupled with a strong economy and the growing availability of capital, have led to an explosion of new companies.

While many apply for admission to the Technology Advancement Program, few are chosen. Since TAP was launched in 1984, 300 companies have made initial applications, but only about 60 have passed the screening process.

Sybert said the screening process has gotten tougher as the program has matured, and recently the state added a condition: TAP companies must agree to stay in the state for five years after "graduating" from the program, or face financial penalties.

TAP relies on a panel of business and technology experts to review applications that make it through the initial screening process, said Sybert.

Companies that appear to be strictly consulting outfits or set up to remain small enterprises get cut early. Program administrators look for companies that would mesh well with the university and potentially offer students internships or other learning opportunities.

Companies that are chosen for the program also must agree to give a 1 percent equity stake to the program and state.

"Our mission is to look for companies and ideas that have the potential to grow into big companies one day -- to have a significant effect on employment and the economy of the state," said Sybert.

Among those that have passed muster and are part of the current crop of 13 TAP companies are five biotechnology concerns, a company developing energy-efficient lighting systems, a scientific instruments developer, and a developer of in-store TV advertising.

TAP companies have access to the computing system on campus, faculty advice on engineering and other technical problems, and financing and other guidance from the Dingman Center of Entrepre- neurship on campus.

Christine Copple, chief operating officer of NeuralSTEM Pharmaceuticals Ltd., which is developing new therapies for neuro-degenerative diseases, said the company program and its location on a major university campus have proved advantageous.

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