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Building a more entrepreneurial Maryland [Editorial]

The effort to focus the post O'Malley era in Maryland on developing private sector businesses and jobs got a big boost Friday from the unprecedented joint agenda of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. It's encouraging that the two top leaders in the General Assembly are both focused on the issue at the same time that most of the candidates for governor next year are talking about the same thing and private sector advocacy groups like the Greater Baltimore Committee are pursuing similar efforts. But what is more intriguing is the nature of the ideas Messrs. Busch and Miller are putting forward.

Too often, the debate about whether Maryland is business friendly goes no farther than a glance at the Tax Foundation's reports on the state and local tax structure, as if the only choices are a Maryland heavily oriented toward government or one that radically slashes taxes and regulation. The truth is that there are other models for success, and the one that best suits Maryland's strengths is a strategy that leverages our great advantages in intellectual capital to produce jobs in high-tech fields like biotechnology and cyber security. The Miller/Busch proposal recognizes that through tax credits to attract superstars from the private sector to academia, build the cyber security industry and encourage business formation in the areas directly surrounding institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.

But perhaps the most well targeted of the proposals is the last one: a plan to provide new support and training services for entrepreneurs. After all, Central Maryland has for generations been home to one of the heaviest concentrations of research activity in the nation, but for some reason — perhaps the proximity of the federal government or historic happenstance — it has not developed the kind of entrepreneurial culture found in places like Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin, Tex.

In the last few years, the state has taken some steps to address that problem. The University System of Maryland has developed strategic goals for encouraging professors to translate their findings into commercial ventures, and Gov. Martin O'Malley championed a state venture capital fund to help some start-ups get off the ground. But Messrs. Miller and Busch are targeting what has so far been a missing piece of the puzzle: giving would-be entrepreneurs the skills they need to actually run a business.

As it stands, when a Maryland university professor, for example, gets a patent for a potentially valuable technology and starts a company, one of a few things typically happens. Sometimes the company never really gets off the ground, and the technology is sold to a larger company, which then develops it somewhere else. Sometimes investors see the need to beef up management and displace the entrepreneur, often moving the company in the process. Sometimes the company fizzles altogether.

The rare cases are the ones like Sourcefire, a Columbia cyber security firm that grew into a business employing hundreds. It sold out to Cisco last year for $2.7 billion, but its headquarters will remain here. Rarer still is a company like Under Armour, where the founder's ambition for innovation is matched with a drive to build a globally competitive corporation.

What the legislative leaders are proposing is to create a program through Maryland's Technology Development Corporation, a state-chartered organization designed to spur commercialization of research, to pair new entrepreneurs with executives with significant experience in various aspects of business development. The executives would be paid by TEDCO and would devote a substantial amount of time — as much as one or two days a week for as long as six months — to mentoring the entrepreneurs. The hope is that such an effort can kickstart the virtuous cycle between a culture of entrepreneurship and the development of skills to support it that has long been in existence in places like Silicon Valley.

Essentially, what Maryland needs is more people like Paul Palmieri, who stepped down today as CEO of Millennial Media, the mobile advertising company he founded in Baltimore seven years ago. A veteran of — an early Maryland dot-com success story — Mr. Palmieri found support in the early years of Millennial Media in Baltimore's Emerging Technology Center, an incubator in Canton. He was able to make the leap from start-up to a publicly-traded company that now employs about 400 people. Now he's leaving for a position at the Chevy Chase office of an international venture capital firm that will allow him to work with other early-stage businesses looking to make it big. The more serial entrepreneurs like that Maryland has, the faster we will translate ideas into commerce and research into jobs.

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Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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