- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Even during the worst of the Great Recession, Maryland’s economy did comparatively well, generally boasting unemployment rates a few percentage points below the national average. Much of that resilience derives from the large number of people employed by the federal government, including the military, and its contractors, analysts have said.
Charles County is no exception.
In 2012, 63 percent of Charles County workers commuted elsewhere to work, many at jobs related to the federal government, said Theresa Ohle, the coordinator of a new “incubator” for technology businesses. The region’s economy also is bolstered by Naval Support Facility, Indian Head and Patuxent River Naval Air Station, she added.
But what the Department of Defense giveth, it can take away. Federal budget wrangling could imperil the jobs of people who commute out of the region to work at government agencies or their contractors. Seeing this danger, a new program, the Charles County Innovation Center, aims to foster technology startups that can take advantage of the resources provided by military bases while lessening the region’s reliance on the government, Ohle said.
The center, an “incubator” for new technology businesses, is the newest program of the Energetics Technology Center in Waldorf, a nonprofit organization supporting research primarily at Naval Support Division, Indian Head, she said. Ohle was hired two months ago, but ETC staff has been “working on it for at least eight months.” As a new program, there are no clients yet, but interested companies can apply online.
The organization will support businesses that are “technology-based, focusing on [those owned by] women, veterans and minorities. … It’s basically helping entrepreneurs start their own businesses. We’re going to focus on clients interested in taking intellectual property developed in federal labs like Pax River, Indian Head, and commercializing it,” Ohle said. Entrepreneurs can telework, use office space at ETC’s headquarters or rent space in the same office building.
There is more than one way to define a startup, and for the moment, the incubator is prepared to be flexible, Ohle said. Depending on what happens, the organization might tighten its criteria later.
“It really depends on the client that’s coming to you. It could be less than five people, five employees. It could be generating less than [$1 million]. We don’t anticipate that there’s going to be many companies coming to us that are going to be making more than $1 million,” she said.
The center is seeking help from Charles County government, and the latest published draft of the fiscal 2014 budget allocated $100,000 for the project, as recommended by the county Economic Development Executive Board. On Tuesday morning, the county commissioners allocated $283,800 in the new budget to economic development grants in general, but specific recipients have not been determined, said county government spokeswoman Donna Fuqua.
Beside the grant, ETC has invested about $150,000 of its own funds, Ohle said.
The center will not fund companies but will provide advice and support, including access to advisers and mentors to help entrepreneurs develop technologies and expand their businesses, Ohle said. If requested, some of this help will come from the southern region of the Small Business and Technology Development Center in La Plata, said Director Kelly Robertson-Slagle. The organization can assist new small business owners with basic matters like establishing a business plan or with technologically oriented needs like filing for patents, she said.
“Basically, we’ve had some preliminary meetings with their folks etc., and basically where we feel our role is is to be a mentor and provide a level of technological counseling for businesses ultimately that will be housed there at the incubator’s physical location,” she said. SBTDC also might refer qualified clients to the incubator.
Speaking Tuesday before the commissioners voted on the budget, county Director of Economic Development Kwasi G. Holman was reluctant to go into details. But he said his department believes in the concept.
“Let’s just say that we are very supportive of the idea of a technology incubator in Charles County, and we are looking for mechanisms to support that effort as it matures. And we’re hopeful to find a way to make it a reality in the near future,” he said.
Also before the vote, commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said she supported the center’s mission.
“I think it’s a great project, and I like the approach they’re taking with the incubator, helping new businesses to move forward and develop. And I’m particularly pleased with the whole connection to something I’m very excited about for our region: the unmanned aerial vehicle, the UAV. I feel that’s the way of the future, with the research, development and manufacturing we should be working toward for this region,” Kelly said.
Right now, the incubator is focusing on Charles County, but the aim is to spread into Calvert and St. Mary’s counties as well, Ohle said.
“An underlying theme is that everybody has to know this is regional effort,” Ohle said. “One county trying to attack business incubation will not be as well received as if it were a regional initiative. There are 20 incubators in the state of Maryland, and none of them are in Southern Maryland. Now there’s one,” Ohle said.