Helping women start tech firms

Entrepreneurs learn to tap local research

December 13, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN REPORTER

Kris Appel stood before investors this week and delivered a seven-minute pitch on the market viability of an exercise device that helps stroke survivors regain their arm movement.

The presentation at a biosciences conference in Baltimore was Appel's latest effort to raise money for her startup company, which grew out of a program that trains and helps women start technology-based businesses.

Called ACTiVATE, the backbone of the program gives women access to technology and research created by the region's laboratories and universities with a goal of commercializing such homegrown innovations. Since its start in 2005, the program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has produced 12 startups, including Appel's.

"I probably would have ended up with a franchise of some sort" if not for the program, said Appel, president and chief executive officer of Encore Path Inc. in Baltimore. "That never would have satisfied my quest for creativity. You don't get to create anything if you buy a franchise. But opening your own business, everyday, you create what's going to happen that day."

Supporters say the program helps fill a gap in a state known for its strong research and discoveries yet weak on commercializing such efforts, which is considered vital to economic development. While institutions, such as Johns Hopkins and several University System of Maryland schools, spend more than $2 billion a year in research, they bring in a fraction in licensing income, according to figures from the Association of University Technology Managers, or AUTM.

"The areas that are developing the strongest technology base build up companies based on innovation that's coming out of their own regions," said Ellen Hemmerly, an ACTiVATE founder and executive director of the UMBC Research Park Corp. "At the same time, women-owned businesses are the fastest-growing business sector. If you look up technology companies, women are underrepresented. We saw that as a real opportunity. "

When the third year of the program wraps up in a few weeks, ACTiVATE - which stands for Achieving the Commercialization of Technology in Ventures through Applied Training for Entrepreneurs - will have graduated 69 female entrepreneurs.

With its initial $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation running out, the program recently obtained $50,000 from the Maryland Technology Development Corp. and signed up corporate sponsors such as Constellation Energy Group to continue its mission. ACTiVATE also has small equity interests in three startups in an effort to become a self-sustaining operation.

It is recruiting up to 30 women for next year's class that begins in February. Participants pay $1,500 for the two-semester program. Since it began two years ago, the program has received more than 250 inquiries from candidates, and it has accepted 85.

The program seeks midcareer women with technical or business experience and gives them access to inventions from universities and research facilities, including NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Aberdeen Proving Ground.

After identifying promising technology, participants conduct a market assessment and complete business plans to bring those innovations to the marketplace. The students, who attend class once a week and one Saturday a month, work with instructors, advisers and each other to turn their business plans into reality.

To that end, the program's curriculum covers everything from technology transfer to licensing to financing.

It is up to the participants to negotiate license agreements and raise money, said Stephen Auvil, director of UMBC's office of technology development, who works with participants to identify marketable inventions.

"There are challenges," Auvil acknowledged. "Some have been able to come up with licenses and some of them have not."

Kristin Gray, the technology transfer director at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said no deal has been signed with any ACTiVATE company. But Gray said her office is negotiating license agreements with four participants.

When Kerrie Brady could not get a license for a pain treatment drug developed at a local university, she used her contacts from more than 20 years of working in biotechnology to obtain licenses for two drugs from Japan.

Brady graduated from the first class in 2005 and formed Traxion Therapeutics, a Baltimore biotech firm that is developing drugs to treat severe pain caused by nerve damage. Traxion is working with the University of Maryland, Baltimore to conduct preclinical tests on small molecule-based drugs.

"I don't think I work as hard or enjoy myself as much I have," Brady said of running a one-person business.

ACTiVATE participants are not limited to technology coming out of the region's schools and labs. Some participants have tapped their own inventions, while others, such as Christina Twomey, started the program this year with a specific idea.

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