Thursday, October 23, 2014

Small State, Big Ideas — Maryland Is for Inventors

By Barbara Krebs, Staff Writer

May 6, 2013

Posted in: MEQ

It’s true that, geographically speaking, Maryland is a small state. But as the old saying goes, “Good things come in small packages,” and that is especially true when it comes to the resources, advice and technical expertise that Maryland offers inventors and technology entrepreneurs.

From university laboratories and research centers (such as The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Maryland’s Office of Technology Commercialization or University of Maryland – Baltimore City’s ACTiVATE) to state organizations (Maryland Biotechnology Center or the Department of Business and Economic Development), a wide variety of entities are working to help entrepreneurs develop and market their inventions.

Abundant Resources Available

Glen Kotapish, president of the Inventors Network of the Capital Area (INCA), certainly would agree. As a patent researcher for more than seven years, as well as an inventor in his own right, he listed several Maryland agencies that he or others have used. For example, he has both taken classes and taught at the Community College of Baltimore County’s FAB Lab, which, as its web site explains, is “the place for [Do-It-Yourself] Digital Design and Fabrication.”

Kotapish’s latest invention, a kitchen knife sharpener, reinforces the notion that good things come in small packages. First of all, it attaches to multiple kitchen surfaces (countertops, tables, drawers) and offers multiple sharpening areas for different size knives. Then it stores neatly in a drawer and doubles as a knife organizer.

A patent has been filed for the sharpener, and Kotapish described the two- to three-year journey that such things take to be reviewed.

Interspersed with this narrative, he listed even more resources that are readily available, such as the Maryland Intellectual Property Legal Resource Center at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), and the patent and trademark depository libraries located in Baltimore and College Park.

He was quick to point out that “the proximity of the patent office in Alexandria, Va., is also a great help for inventors in this area.”

A Convergence of Resources

So, Maryland offers a lot for the individual inventor. But how is technology transferred from research labs to the market? Again, there is a wide array of options, but one of the most recent and promising is UM Ventures.

This organization, established in August 2012, is a collaboration between two University of Maryland campuses: College Park and Baltimore. Both feature first-class research laboratories with highly regarded faculty.

But as Dr. Patrick O’Shea, vice president and chief research officer of UMCP, noted, “Academic institutions are historically good at discovery, but they have not usually been very good at moving their discoveries from the lab to the marketplace.” UM Ventures is intended to bridge that gap.

O’Shea explained that UM Ventures “brings together faculty and students from both universities to make connections and solve real-world problems.” The example he gave — an emergency room physician with a problem that could be solved by an engineer — highlights the synergy UM Ventures is intended to create.

Baltimore’s emphasis on life sciences, and its medical school and diagnostic technology, form a perfect fit with UMCP’s focus on engineering and business schools, as well as its expertise in fundamental science and software.

Dr. Phil Robilotto, assistant vice president – Office of Technology Transfer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, called UM Ventures “the natural next step” in transferring technology into the commercial marketplace. He cited the Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII), a partnership between the state and five of its universities, which offers monthly awards of $100,000 for technology that has good potential to be commercially viable.

Since UM Venture’s inception a little less than a year ago, the organization has already won the MII award seven times, with two of the awards centering around technology that is jointly owned by the two campuses.

Inventing Your Own Niche

Despite all the academic and governmental resources available, sometimes inventors take a different path, as did Charles Kleinrichert, president and owner of AC Beverages. This small company, based in Annapolis, takes advantage of its own special niche in the beer industry market.

Kleinrichert was led to Maryland in 1990 because he had a contract with Anheuser Busch and Miller Brewing Company to install and service draft beer equipment. Shortly thereafter, following an idea sparked by a conversation with his brother-in-law, who was working on nitrogen extractor membranes in a joint MIT/NASA project, Kleinrichert developed his Nitrogenator, a device that, in essence, adds a nitrogen/carbon dioxide blend into the beer storage systems of hotels/restaurants and other establishments that serve beer on tap. The Nitrogenator helps enhance the quality of the beer by keeping it fresher much longer.

For Kleinrichert’s small business, Maryland was a good fit because of his involvement with the International Beverage Dispensing Association, which is headquartered in Reisterstown. The Brewer’s Association and Maryland Restaurant Association “have also been instrumental in the growth of my company,” added Kleinrichert.

John Melius is another inventor who followed a slightly different path. Melius, the president of Mor-fin Corp. in Waldorf, created the Predator Power fins, which use biomimetics to create a fin that enhances the swimming experience by adapting the shapes of the ocean’s predators and applying those shapes to the fin on a swimmer’s foot.

Originally an aerospace engineering student at UMCP, Melius eventually switched majors to fine arts to nurture his artistic side. However, when it came to the development of his Power fins, both his scientific and his creative nature came into play. “I was inspired by the way dolphins ‘flew’ through the water and how their form allowed that natural movement,” he explained.

Although there were many resources that Melius drew upon while working on his invention, he gave high praise to Direct Dimensions, an Owings Mills firm that helped with the initial CAD drawings. Their exacting measurements and three-dimensional scanning systems enabled him to fine-tune his designs.

Developing Shared Resources

Another resource that many inventors and entrepreneurs take advantage of is Maryland’s numerous business incubators and research parks. According to the Maryland Biotechnology Center’s web site, these incubators “offer shared resources, access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, and business assistance.”

With more than 453,000 square feet of wet and non-wet laboratory space available, this network stretches across the state, from the Garrett Information Enterprise Center in the west, to the Salisbury Airport Incubator on the Eastern Shore, not to mention the many research parks located near state universities.

One final note: Just in case there were any doubts about Maryland’s welcoming atmosphere for inventors and entrepreneurs, the following statistic from Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development web site is informative. It states, “In the 2012 Enterprising States study, which looks at how states are creating an environment in which the private sector can thrive, Maryland ranks first in “Entrepreneurship and Innovation.”

Not bad for a little state with big ideas, and, luckily, the resources, support mechanisms and brain power to match.

{ 1 comment }

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