Baltimore Suburb Rallies for Startup Incubator

The small suburb of Frederick has submitted a proposal to the state to transform part of a county-owned building into a business incubator for tech startup companies and entrepreneurs.

by Nancy Lavin, The Frederick News-Post, Md. / November 9, 2015

(TNS) -- Vaughn Thurman drives about 12 minutes from his Frederick home to the offices of his information technology companies, Swift Software and Swift Systems.

Although his commute is short, he knows many local residents in the technology field who drive up to four hours total daily, fighting rush-hour traffic near Washington, Baltimore or northern Virginia.

He used to be one.

“I had the perception that to work in Frederick would mean a pay cut, if I could even find anything,” he said.

Thurman recalled the three years he drove from Frederick to Baltimore before starting Swift Systems in 1998.

Many IT workers and entrepreneurs still feel that way, so they work far from Frederick despite long drive times.

Thurman and numerous other IT industry professionals and city and county officials hope to change that by making Frederick a technology hub.

The Downtown Frederick Partnership applied for $25,000 through the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Operating Assistance Grant program. The plan is to transform part of a county-owned building into a business incubator for tech startup companies and entrepreneurs.

The Technological Assistance Grant would match county money for a consultant or consulting team to create a tech incubator-centered design for two vacant floors of the Frederick County building at 118 N. Market St. The consultant would also brand the space, with a name and marketing campaign.

The effort includes the Downtown Frederick Partnership, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner and the Frederick County Office of Economic Development. It also includes a peer group of local tech-based leaders, including Thurman, known as Tech Frederick.

The effort is in early stages, but organizers hope the funding will catalyze a project that puts Frederick on the map as a technology-friendly environment.

‘Googlizing’ the space

Although it’s been several years since the basement and first floor of the downtown building housed county offices — the public works department was relocated under the previous Board of County Commissioners — its appearance still reflects government use.

“It still has that government look and feel,” said Kara Norman, executive director of the downtown partnership.

To market the approximately 6,000 square feet of space to aspiring tech entrepreneurs and start-ups, she said, the space needs to be reinvented — office walls taken down, collaborative gathering spaces created.

Nick Demoulakis, president of a Frederick IT web agency called Orases and an advisory committee member for Tech Frederick, suggested exposing the brick walls and pulling up flooring, creating a warehouse-like space promoting communication among various occupants.

The open-space environment, which Demoulakis called “Googlizing” the building, could incorporate Frederick’s history and community icons in its decor, he said.

If received, the $25,000 DCHD grant, matched by $25,000 from Frederick County’s fiscal 2016 budget, would let project stakeholders hire a consultant to help redesign the physical space.

The consultant, likely chosen through a request-for-proposal process, would market the site, said Helen Propheter, director of the county economic development office.

“The building doesn’t have a name right now — it has an address,” Propheter said. “It needs a name. It needs a brand.”

Making the cake

The downtown incubator space would be the first exclusively for technology. A few entrepreneurs or companies have expressed interest in the building so far, Propheter said.

With the technology industry growing rapidly and the county devoid of spaces for start-up companies to grow roots, the need for an incubator project is increasing, Propheter said.

Gardner said fostering growth of the local tech industry was one of her chief goals when she took office, along with remaking vacant spaces within county-owned buildings. The prior county commissioners considered selling 118 N. Market St. to consolidate and free up space in the budget, The News-Post has reported.

Gardner maintained that keeping the building, which has county economic development offices on its second floor, was the best option financially and for new industry.

“I think [technology] is one of the areas where we have a lot of opportunity for job growth,” Gardner said.

Thurman pointed to the Frederick Innovative Technology Center Inc., an incubator space founded in 2004 through public and private funding, as evidence of potential success for the downtown incubator.

Since the primarily biotechnology-based incubator opened, the number of Frederick biotech companies has grown from less than a dozen to more than 80, many of which started in FITCI, Thurman said.

FITCI’s impact, combined with the expanding industry and supply of prospective entrepreneurs from places such as Hood College, gives the project a high chance of success, according to Thurman.

“We’ve got all the baking ingredients here to make a great cake,” he said.

The next step will be consultant work, which hinges on grant funding.

The finale, in Thurman’s eyes, will be recruiting IT professionals to Frederick.

“[The incubator project] will be a wonderful beacon toward getting that critical mass, where Frederick says ‘We’re not just open for business. We’re open for the business of the future,’” Thurman said.

©2015 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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