High-tech futures hatching in Howard


June 18, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

ACCORDING TO dot.com legend, hot new companies and technological breakthroughs start up in garages, basements -- maybe even tree houses.

Young geniuses who can program the VCR, who handle the mouse and cursor keys as if they were pencils (they are, of course), go to work on some new idea and Voila! There's something else to demand more RAM.

Not to speak of something to create another 27-year-old millionaire.

In the beginning, before Bill Gates made his first billion, it may have worked that way. May still work that way occasionally.

But now, in Howard County, Baltimore and various other Maryland locations, economic development gurus are putting up "high tech incubators" -- extremely big garages, big enough to remind you of a factory or an airport hangar.

That's big government for you. No, actually, that's creative government. In this case, Howard County and the state of Maryland have joined forces to create work space for promising entrepreneurs with big ideas.

Howard advances its facility as the only true info-tech incubator in the state. With 10,000 square feet of space -- enough ultimately for seven new companies -- the center officially opened recently with four carefully selected enterprises.

They come with the array of names: Syntonics, a hardware designer; Medisold, which will offer Web portals for hospitals; N2Z, a Web site for tradeshows; and DOT21, a software operation spinning off from the Applied Physics Laboratory just down the road in Howard.

CEOs of these companies include a down-dressing 27-year-old and a 40-something doctor.

Already, under the direction of Mike Haines, a computer-wise manager, the incubator has transformed an ample expanse of dingy old factory into clean, well-lighted offices suitable for the minimal needs of the new companies. An office of SCORE, the retired businessman's mentoring organization, is also housed in the building to assist the techno-wizards with real-world business advice.

With that sort of help and assistance from assorted other small business development agencies, Mr. Haines and his boss hope to improve on the rather dismal performance of small companies that attempt to make it all happen out of something like a garage. The failure rate for those businesses ranges up to 80 percent within five years, according to the Small Business Administration.

After incubation, Mr. Haines says, the figures reverse, with successes running to 80 percent. This figure is based on a relatively small number -- about 650 -- of incubator graduates across the country, he said. But the word is out in the community of cyber thinkers that Howard wants to help. More than 20 other applicants for space at the new center are under review now.

"There are things we can do for them they wouldn't get in a garage," Mr. Haines says. One or two of the companies have already gotten a bit of media exposure, he says -- newspaper stories, a cable television interview.

In time, these fledglings will be eased out the door -- no later than three years after they arrive. The idea is to get the companies on their feet and to replace them with new ventures. If that can't happen within three years, Mr. Haines says, maybe the idea wasn't as strong as it seemed.

"We don't want to go from incubator to life support," says Dick Storey, head of the county's economic development office.

Mr. Storey says he does hear the occasional skeptical-to-cynical question about government's proper role in the marketplace.

"We're doing this because we can make a difference," he says.

Mr. Storey helped negotiate a deal that kept Allied Signal in the county -- by buying the building where the incubator is located for $7 million. Its somewhat forbidding, un-refurbished spaces are now used for library storage, some public works department operations and various other county tenants in addition to the incubator.

Another important partner in the project is Del. Shane Pendergrass, the former county council member who now serves in the General Assembly. She and the rest of the county's legislative delegation succeeded in securing about $340,000 in bonding authority to help pay for the improvements in the building.

As a member of the House committee on science and technology she heard herself described once as a bridge between various county representatives.

She prefers "hub."

"Howard is ideally located to be the hub of high-tech businesses and particularly info-tech business with Fort Meade and the physics lab," she said.

So, the ideas, the money, the location and the leadership are there. All that's needed now is a BMW dealership.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.