In March 2016, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman stood outside the county-owned building at 6751 Columbia Gateway Drive and announced the relocation of the Howard County Economic Development Authority’s (HCEDA) business incubator, The Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE), as the first step in creating the next generation of business resource center, the Howard County Innovation Center.
With the building already located in the Columbia Gateway Innovation District, his plan was to have the HCEDA convert the lobby, and the third, fourth and fifth floors into an Innovation Center and become an anchor tenant in the newly-established district.
“This Innovation Center presents us with a unique opportunity to make a defining impact on our business community,” said Lawrence Twele, CEO of the HCEDA. “This center will be able to serve the entire business community, as well as facilitate connections among businesses both locally and across the region.”
Located along the I-95 Corridor between the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metro areas, the Innovation Center has attracted attention as a possible catalyst between what are two local, yet disconnected, innovation communities. Due to its central location between the districts, such a center in Columbia Gateway can be a place to bring together innovators from both districts, while still catering to businesses that already call Howard County home.
Part of the new focus for the center will be to cast the vision beyond the startup.
“There can be a gap in services for businesses based upon [a] business’s size. Incubators target early stage and startup companies, while some economic development agencies tend to focus on a jurisdiction’s largest employers. We are looking to change the model and dedicate our resources to those second stage and mid-size companies, because they are the job creators that may not have the all right resources they need to grow.”
More than 80% of Howard County’s 9,900 businesses employ fewer than 25 people. Twele acknowledged that it was this audience that would bring the greatest amounts of economic growth in the years to come.
“Having 30 companies gain 10 employees each adds up to the same number of jobs as attracting a headline-grabbing 300-employee company to the county, but those big projects are few and far between and take more resources to acquire,” he said. “Additionally, it is better for the economy to grow these local companies, as our current customers are our best customers.”
With this goal in mind, the center aims at providing support to these companies. While the incubator will still be an active participant, the center looks at adding additional specific resources to support businesses growing beyond the incubator or for businesses in the community looking to continue their expansion.
Twele indicated that those involved were currently meeting with strategic partners and organizations to come up with the best combination of resources for the community.
Another unique service the center will provide is post-graduate housing for companies coming out of the incubator. As latter-stage startups, these companies may no longer need the intensive mentoring services of the incubator, but are still gaining market share and can benefit from the innovation center environment. Plus, these companies play an important role in the creation of an innovation ecosystem by giving back and guiding other startups.
“We have come to understand that mentorship plays a key role in a startup’s success,” said Twele. “While we will continue to offer guidance from our staff, it is just as important for the next generation of CEOs to engage and learn from their already established peers.”
The HCEDA already has begun locating some of these companies into the innovation center as early space has become available. In July, it welcomed three companies from the recently closed Chesapeake Innovation Center and in early December it welcomed MCE resident company VitusVet.
The HCEDA plans to relocate all incubator services by the end of 2018.
The Innovation Center sections of the building will encompass approximately 50,000 square feet. This will double the capacity of the existing incubator and will allow for the expansion of services and the addition of new partners. Another added resource is Howard Community College’s (HCC) Business Training Center, which is already located on the first floor of the building. Twele said the HCEDA is working closely with the team at HCC to make sure its services are a part of the ecosystem.
“The MCE grew out of the NeoTech Incubator as it found success in helping to start small companies,” he said. “In the new building, we will have the opportunity to grow upon this success by designing a space and service package that will even better serve our clients and the community.”
The Innovation Center will be renovated and transformed in several phases. Plans include open floor plans and common spaces aimed to bring people together, as well as private office spaces for companies needing it. Twele admits that it is an ambitious goal, but it’s a goal the organization is up for. Phase One renovations are expected to begin in the summer.
“This is the type of place our business community deserves to have,” he said, “and while it may take some time to reach the final product, we are confident that we can continue providing superior services in the interim, which is the No. 1 priority.”