Leaders brainstorm path to state's innovation economy'
Maryland needs to foster entrepreneurial mind-set, executives and others say
Maryland home to brilliant innovators, but not-so-great entrepreneurs.
That's the challenge the state faces if it hopes to bolster its high-tech economy, according to business, government and consultants who gathered in Silver Spring on Friday to chart that course.
In a state that has been programmed to concentrate on government business, more must be done to foster an entrepreneurial spirit, said Christian S. Johansson, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development.
"We have phenomenal innovators," Johansson said. "We're just not very good at commercializing that."
The state needs to find new ways of incentivizing innovation visionaries, such as appointing someone who is viewed as a business icon, said Erik R. Pages, president of EntreWorks Consulting in Arlington, Va.
Some, such as Steven A. Silverman, Montgomery County's economic development director, suggested local and state labor agencies identify the fastest-growing companies and what is driving their growth; other agencies could then work with them to promote that growth. To do so, economic departments would have to sort out a federal regulation prohibiting labor departments from sharing individual information on companies. Silverman said Montgomery has worked with lawyers to access aggregate information and identify the top 200 employers, which employ half the workers in the county.
Steve Dubin, CEO of nutrition company DSM-Martek in Columbia, cautioned that any change will not occur overnight and that the state should also concentrate on highlighting any entrepreneurial opportunities.
Pages also pointed out that the state's current plan of focusing on industry clusters such as cybersecurity, biotech and other high technologies will benefit urban areas, but leave more of Western Maryland's businesses in the lurch. The state should focus on establishing corporate supply chains for products and services for those areas, he said, as small businesses that link into such chains show a 266 percent growth rate within two months. Pages said the state also needs to ensure all businesses feel capable of participating in the "innovation economy," instead of limiting the state's development efforts to the clusters.
"It's really hard for small businesses to sell anything to the government," said Bryan Sivak, who was named the state's chief innovation officer in April. He said the state needs to find ways to make the process easier for businesses while limiting risk for the government.
Montgomery County has its own small-business contracting program, Silverman said.
Maryland's other challenge is commercializing its research institutions endeavors which have led the state to a No. 2 ranking in the Milken Institute's technology and science index but only No. 42 among states in the number of startups per capita Johansson said.
Rob Atkinson, president of the Information and Technology Foundation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit technology policy think tank, according to its website, suggested Maryland look into funding public research institutions based on whether they produce new companies. That's what's done in Sweden, which boasts the most government university funding per capita in the world, he said.
Sivak proposed having state and local governments involve themselves in higher education courses by targeting them to industry needs. For example, Montgomery College targets the bioscience industry's work-force needs, while Anne Arundel College focuses on the National Security Agency and cybersecurity businesses. He said the state needs more courses that challenge students to create applications that solve real-world problems while at the same time setting them up in models similar to startup businesses so they are already market-ready when they graduate.
"The timing for business has changed," Johansson said, as businesses can now go from small to multimillion-dollar revenues if they have the right idea.