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Entrepreneur Expo Highlights: Opportunity, Trends and Success

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More than 600 of the region’s aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders attended the 2015 Entrepreneur Expo, which was hosted by the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO) in November.

The fifth annual event, held at the BWI Marriott, in Linthicum Heights, provided a day-long program focused on industry insight from a cross section of sectors, funding opportunities and nuts-and-bolts panel discussions of the various topics entrepreneurs lose sleep over.

The expo featured one-on-one mentorship sessions with experts, angel investors who listened to speed pitches from startups, and the final round of judging for finalists in the Startup Maryland “Pitch Across Maryland Competition” and the Eastern Shore Business Plan Competition.

Participants heard from a variety of industry experts, including keynote speakers Terry Virts, a Maryland-born NASA astronaut, and Rent The Runway co-founder Jennifer Fleiss.

Kicking off the program, TEDCO President Rob Rosenbaum said the event capped an extraordinary year for his organization. Significant changes included the launch of the mdPACE program for the commercialization of medical devices, the mdSTEPP program for commercializing technologies out of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the InnovateHER Business Plan Competition, and TEDCO’s acquisition of the Maryland Venture Fund (MVF) and the Life Science Investment Fund.

“That’s five new programs we’ve [launched] in the last six months, in addition to moving and hiring people,” Rosenbaum said.

New Programs

TEDCO announced on Nov. 4 that it would host a local competition in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2016 InnovateHER: Innovating for Women Challenge, in which entrepreneurs compete for $70,000 in cash prizes. Competitors must showcase products and services that have a measurable impact on the lives of women and families, have commercialization potential and fill a marketplace need. The winner of TEDCO’s competition will advance to the semi-final round of up to 10 finalists, administered by the SBA.

Announced just days before the Expo, TEDCO’s mdPACE (medical device Product Acceleration and Commercialization by Executives) program is made possible through a three-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

According to TEDCO Board Chair Newt Fowler, taking responsibility for the MVF added $100 million in capital to the funds TEDCO deploys.

“That grew TEDCO more than six-fold, literally overnight,” Fowler said. “We have become the largest publicly funded tech transfer and commercialization organization in the country.”

Maryland Secretary of Commerce Mike Gill was also on hand for the event. He noted that while the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development has officially been retired as a department, “it’s been promoted to the DNA of the state of Maryland. [Commerce] is an umbrella for everything we do, and the umbrella just got a little bit larger.”

Proactive Change

Perdue Farms Chairman Jim Perdue presented his views on some of the trends and opportunities in agriculture and agriculture technology.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of transparency that’s required today, which is great,” Perdue said, referring to the information on humane practices, feed composition and other specific details now being demanded by consumers.

“Our mission is to be the most trusted name in food and agricultural products,” Perdue said. “We think that fits in perfectly with where the Millennials are going, with their interest in food and what’s in it.”

Perdue Farms has taken a proactive approach with suppliers as well, he said, building the Perdue AgriRecycle Facility in Delaware in 2000 to help chicken farmers weather stringent environmental regulations that were created to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The operation collects their poultry litter at no charge, then processes it into organic fertilizer pellets that are sold to organic farmers and large fertilizer producers, such as Scotts and Holly-tone.

“It’s never been profitable, but we think it’s the right thing to do,” Perdue said.

As for market expansion for Perdue and other agriculture producers, China and Africa are the new growth areas.

Primarily a pork-consuming nation, China is quickly converting to chicken because chickens require less corn to produce a pound of meat protein compared with hogs, Perdue said.

“Africa is really the future of growing grains and animals,” he said. “When the African middle class starts to blossom, as in India and China, it’s going to be a big market area.”

Refining New Products

As part of the Expo’s health care track, Evergreen CEO Peter Beilenson and other speakers examined the proliferation of smartphone-based health and wellness applications, which now exceed 265,000 in number.

“It would be nice to know what works and what doesn’t,” Beilenson said. “We need more evidence based studies.”

Out of 30 of the top selling fitness apps evaluated in a recent University of Florida study, only the Sworkit app, developed by Nexercise, hit a majority of American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for physical activity, said Nexercise COO Greg Coleman.

“It says a lot about the challenges of getting this right, but it also speaks to a great opportunity,” Coleman said.

In the education arena, CEO Burck Smith of online courseware provider StraighterLine observed that the Internet could ultimately do the same thing for education that it did for the travel and financial services industries. “There will be a handful of platforms serving online delivery,” he said. “There’s an emerging direct-to-consumer business that’s building up in education.”

CFO Dominic Hunter of Baltimore-based CyberPoint, meanwhile, said his company is working to develop a Cyber Insurance tool.

“If you’re a medium or large company, your insurance company’s going to try to write cyber insurance for you,” Hunter said. “The question is, how are you valuing my cyber risk? Several companies say they can give you some ranges, but we feel like that’s an underserved area in cyber. There are no real tools that both sides of the equation agree that they want to use.”

Non-Traditional Funding

Funding remains a universal pinch point for entrepreneurs, but Paula Jagemann-Bane, founder and CEO of the Someone With Group, said that she’s turning to crowdfunding for her next project, despite having more than adequate access to conventional capital.

Her new venture, Someone With Group, pursues licensing agreements with hospitals to put rechargeable debit cards into the hands of verified patients who need financial support to pay for health care. The cards only work with medical environment merchant codes and are funded by the user’s own crowdfunding campaign.

“Our ask isn’t that large, only $3.5 million, so we’re too small for a lot of venture capitalists,” Jagemann-Bane said.

Moreover, she said, pursuing funding under what’s commonly referred to as Regulation A+ under the federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act allows thousands of investors an opportunity to risk smaller amounts and opens the door to a worldwide pool of investors.

“It’s a brave new world” for investors and startups alike, said Fowler. “It’s not just for companies that can’t find capital somewhere else.”

As TEDCO’s signature event, the Entrepreneur Expo is designed to create additional opportunities for entrepreneurs to find partners, customers, investors and mentors, Rosenbaum said. “With our evolving programming, every year we cater to the needs of entrepreneurs from all stages with influential leaders throughout the state and beyond.”