Lured by location and demographics

Howard County sees a steady growth of high-tech companies

March 06, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Ask Louise Sengupta why she decided to move her fledgling Harford County technology company to Columbia last summer, and she'll rattle off 10 answers that all basically boil down to one thing: location.

In the past 10 or 15 years, Howard County has become a prime location for high-tech companies, largely because it's between Baltimore and Washington, within easy reach of the amenities of both cities. It is also near Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and draws from a highly educated labor pool stretching from Virginia to Pennsylvania.

Executives such as Sengupta also like the county's reputation as a place where high-tech companies feel at home.

"I think our synergy with those companies is important, in terms of support and ability to hire people," said Sengupta, CEO of Paratek Microwave Inc., a private company working to create a new type of low-cost antenna for satellite communications.

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the number of high-tech companies in the county has been growing steadily for 15 years. He estimates there are at least several hundred. They range in size from the Applied Physics Laboratory, which has 2,800 employees, to start-up Syntonics, which has one person working to develop super-quartz crystals to be used in timing devices for spacecraft.

Though Montgomery County is the state's leader in high-tech industries, Story said Howard County has begun to develop a reputation of its own.

"We are the center of what is the Baltimore-Washington common market," he said. "So if Baltimore and Washington are a regional mall, we are the neatest boutique store on the arcade. That's who we are."

About 60 percent of the state's high-tech companies are in Montgomery County and 20 percent are in Prince George's, says Dyan Brasington, president of the High Technology Council of Maryland. Most of the remainder are divided among Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties. Of those, she says, Howard probably has the most high-tech employees.

All the counties compete with one another, she said, so it's in Story's best interest to tout Howard as "the center of the universe" in Maryland.

But Brasington acknowledges that Howard County has some selling points -- and she should know, as former head of its Economic Development Authority. Location is its greatest attribute, but it also has a diversity of businesses attractive to many executives.

"There's a nice combination of both biotech and information technology" in Howard, she said. "Montgomery County has that, but, say, Prince George's doesn't. They have very little, if any, biotechnology, and the Baltimore area has some biotechnology, but Howard County's mix is really nice.

"They've got a nice mix of people, nationalities, industries. It makes for a very nice portfolio."

All those qualities attracted Shirley Collier, CEO of Paragon Computer Services Inc., when she moved from her native South to begin her business in Ellicott City 11 years ago. The company, which has about 35 employees, helps builders and developers plan buildings that are wired for future technologies.

"I said, `I need to locate my business where there is an educated labor force, where there is a very strong economic base that is not based on one industry so there are not these huge ups and downs in the economic cycle which means it would be more likely to flourish,' " she said.

Collier also likes the area's recreational opportunities: museums in Baltimore and Washington, sailing on the bay, hiking in Western Maryland. "Quality of life is very important to me and to employees."

Sengupta and the other founders of Paratek started their company in Harford County but knew that to succeed they needed to be closer to airports and a highly educated labor force. Even in Columbia, the company has had a hard time attracting qualified people in this economic climate, said Paratek spokesman Michael Slavin.

"It would have been much more difficult to do hiring in Harford," he said.

Peter Rogers, vice president of business development at Micros Systems Inc., said Howard County's reputation in luring high-tech companies can be a big help "when you are trying to recruit impressionable young people."

But he said Micros, which creates software for restaurants and hotels, is moving to Columbia from Beltsville this month for an entirely different reason: space.

"We're growing as a company," he said. "We're in four buildings down in Beltsville. We needed more space."

Rogers said the move will open up the Baltimore labor market while allowing the company to retain its current employee base. With such low unemployment now, he said, that's important.

Story dreams of creating a "mini Silicon Valley" in the county. If you consider Baltimore and Washington together, he said, that's 7 million people, the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country after the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago areas.

He said Howard County gets the best of Washington -- with the Federal Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Standards and Technology and dozens of federal research labs -- and Baltimore, with the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the bioprocessing center at Bayview Hospital.

"We are the bridge that brings all that together," he said.

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