On the road to getting a patent — and beyond — Maryland’s inventors have a lot of support along the way. Whether inventors are working in business incubators, in labs such as The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory or in their garages, they are working in a state that offers opportunities for funding, pitching, networking and other forms of support.
From state-funded programs to local nonprofits to university departments, inventors can draw on resources that can help turn their ideas into bona fide businesses.
The business community needs to recognize that inventors and entrepreneurs are not one and the same, said Julie Lenzer Kirk, co-chair of Startup Maryland, a regional initiative launched out of the Startup America Partnership that connects innovation communities and recognizes the importance of startups to state and regional economies.
“I think inventors like to do the research and the development,” she reflected. “They are fascinated by the discovery process.”
An entrepreneur, on the other hand, is interested in the application, the bigger proliferation of that invention into the market. “A program that supports an inventor might help that inventor build a customer base, find new customers and get out there, sell that idea and deliver it.”
Marrying Entrepreneur and Inventor
Some of the most successful businesses pair an inventor with an entrepreneur, allowing each to thrive in his own preferred environment.
This model an be found in the ACTiVATE program, a year-long, applied, entrepreneurship training program focused on teaching women with some technical or business experience to create technology companies based on inventions from the region’s research institutions and federal laboratories.
ACTiVATE, created at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, stands for “Achieving the Commercialization of Technology in Ventures through Applied Training for Entrepreneurs.”
Kris Appel, an ACTiVATE instructor and also president of the company Encore Path Inc., said she has seen a lot of inventors in the past few years. “Many of them seek me out to ask if I will commercialize their product for them. Some of more successful companies I’ve seen locally include both the inventor and the entrepreneur working as a team — a winning combination. It’s rare that one individual has all the skills necessary to go from idea to commercial success.”
ACTiVATE helps entrepreneurs connect inventions with people and then find a market to create a business, agreed Lily Bengfort, also an ACTiVATE instructor. In addition, Bengfort is founder of CenGen, short for Consulting and Engineering Next Generation Networks.
“Entrepreneurs convert these inventions into cash by obtaining the necessary resources, talent and leadership to bring the invention to market and make it a commercial success,” she said.
“Many inventors are entrepreneurs because they pursue full business ventures. Many entrepreneurs are innovators but not inventors, so they commercialize the work of inventors. We work with both at ACTiVATE to grow businesses.”
Extracting the Seed to Success
If an invention is the seed for a business, the state’s funding and technology transfer programs are key in helping extract that seed, and give it what it needs to grow.
Maryland’s Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) operates the Maryland Technology Transfer Fund, the BRAC Technology Transfer Initiative and the Johnson & Johnson Joint Investment program, all of which provide funding for Maryland companies that wish to develop technology-based products or services in collaboration with universities or federal laboratories.
Similarly, a University of Maryland program called Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) accelerates the commercialization of technology in Maryland by jointly funding collaborative research and development projects between companies and University System of Maryland faculty.
Through MIPS, Maryland firms have the opportunity to leverage their research and development funds and gain access to the creative talents and extensive research base of the University System of Maryland. MIPS matching funds are awarded on a competitive basis for projects based on proposals submitted jointly by Maryland companies and researchers from any of the 13 university system institutions.
Birds of a Feather
Many local inventors also draw resources and support from groups of their peers. Organizations such as the Inventors Network of the Capital Area and Women Inventorz Network (WIN) give inventors a chance to bounce ideas off each other, share sources for funding and update each other on the latest changes in patent laws.
Melinda Knight, co-owner of WIN, said that WIN’s members are inventors and entrepreneurs.
“I think they deal with even more challenges than the average entrepreneurs,” she said. “Most of the women are mothers as well, so they’re juggling a lot and wearing countless hats. Each situation and challenge is unique, so our network was built to try to help them with any challenges they might face. We consider ourselves the connectors and protectors of these women. We have seen many situations where these women have either been taken advantage of, had personal struggles … and we have seen many successes.”