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Q&A With CRTC Executive Director Tami Howie

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Tami Howie replaced Kris Valerio last fall as executive director for the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council (CRTC), which is based out of a new home on Admiral Cochran Drive, Annapolis. Shehas spent the last 20 years helping tech startups to become public companies and continue growing.

During that span, Howie has been involved with the successful exits of more than 150 tech companies and has also represented investors, Small Business Investment Companies and underwriters, such as J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. She spent 13 years as a partner with law firms such as DLA Piper and Cooley LLP, and most recently worked for five years for a $75 million government contractor, where she served as general counsel, and most recently, president.

Howie has served on several boards, most recently the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, and as counsel in her early career for the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association. In addition, she has served the tech community by participating as a speaker, committee chair or legal adviser for both the D.C. Tech Council and Tech Counsel of Maryland.

She has been named one of America’s Top Lawyers and has received the Young Gun Award from the Washington Business Journal. Howie is active in the arts community in Annapolis, performing in bands and theater with her husband, Walter Leach, an attorney with Washington, D.C.-based EverFi. They have six children.

How does the CRTC acquire funding?

Primarily from our company sponsors, who feel it’s in the best interests of all companies to have an organization that advocates, educates and connects tech, biotech and life sciences companies. We also receive sponsorship from companies that want to do business with tech, biotech and life sciences companies. We also get money from the state Department of Commerce (DoC) and the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

How many members does the CRTC have, and how many do you want to have a year from now?

We have approximately 320 members, and we’d like to have about 400 by this time next year.

How do you retain members while attracting new companies?

By bringing value and helping them grow their businesses. We often ask our members how we can bring them value — because the answer to that question often changes, because their needs can change as they grow. Tech, biotech and life science companies with unique technologies go from needing to know how to incorporate a company into needed advice on a $5 million round of financing in six months.

We also try to spotlight as many companies as we can. There are so many hidden gems in Maryland, companies with amazing technologies that no one has heard about, that need to be featured. For instance, we created a video for our Tech Awards program, and I went around and heard the stories of our finalists. I was amazed at the technologies and the accomplished executives that were out there that I had never heard about. We showed this video at our Tech Awards in front of the hundreds of people there, and many of the finalists have received calls about doing business with them from the video. We are finding once we can shine this spotlight on the technologies that Maryland has, these companies take off.

We also need to make people feel like they’re having fun, too. People do business with people they like to work with and respect.

What are the challenges of marketing your organization regionally, as opposed to a more provincial approach?

We are member-driven, and the CRTC team coordinates our marketing, advocacy and educational efforts with all of our members and committees. This means that we rely on our members to put some work into the organization. They are the chairs of events that we put on, they run the committees for advocacy, and they are in charge of getting speakers and teachers in our educational initiatives.

We also rely on them to reach out to new members, serve as mentors and teach as adjunct professors, give us technical and marketing support and do community projects. That is how we can accomplish so much with our small staff of two-and-one-half employees, myself included.

Will you be trying anything new in the way of programs, etc., in the near future?

Yes. One will be a Cyber Innovation Marketplace, which was are working on for the fall. Others will concern a sales training program, a workforce development platform, internship programs, entrepreneurship programs, investment programming for the investors and the companies, and a bootcamp training program — all of which we will also introduce this fall with partners.

How do you get people working for the common good?

Maryland is a tech hub, and I don’t think people from around the country are very well aware of that. We have a deep bench of amazing tech organizations that included StartUp Maryland, the Cyber Association of Maryland, Launch Annapolis, the incubators and accelerators, and other tech councils around the state.

In the past, we all worked alone, and that did not work. We’ve been working together in the last few months to advocate for the state. If we all work together, we will become the No. 1 tech market in the country.

How does the CRTC work with academia?

We have an entrepreneurship center at Anne Arundel Community College, we’re working on a mentor’s series, and at the University of Baltimore, we plan to offer a tech management series; in addition, we’re part of a group with the DoC that is working on a statewide internship program.

How does the CRTC get involved in the area’s various tech transfer efforts?

This is an important topic for us. We must get these technologies out of the labs and into commercialization. We can never let a great technology or bio science be just a great idea; they must [lead to the formation of] companies. As a former lawyer in the technology space, I know how to do this.

As a start, we are working with the SAIL Center at Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC) on an initiative to bring medical technology used at the hospital to market. Our goal is to commercialize some amazing technologies that are being developed in the medical device space by the doctors at AAMC and the surrounding community. We plan to do this around the state.

What will the approach be with the area’s cyber community …

We have a partnership with the Cybersecurity Association of Maryland, the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, and we’re also doing some work with the Fort Meade Alliance. We view that sector as a place where we have a large concentration of members.

… and the health information technology (IT) community?

That is also significant sector for us, notably with AAMC and some of the health IT companies in the state. We also offer a health IT forum twice a year.

Do you feel that the region can become Silicon Valley East?

No, because I think we’re already better than that. We have all of the tech, bio tech and life sciences that Silicon Valley has, but we also have the federal government. That is our secret weapon — and we have seasoned, experienced technologists who are working on the coolest technologies in the world that are funded by the government.

No one else has this hidden gem. We have Fort Meade, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology — in short, the federal government right in our back yard.  And know that workers who come out of the federal government and the military often have phenomenal educations, and they’re not leaving the area because we have amazing companies to work for, as well as diverse educational opportunities and vast cybersecurity offerings.

What is the biggest challenge the CRTC is facing today?

Prioritizing. I think that we have so many incredible things going on that the companies located within our region can have a tough time getting their arms around it all. But the buzz has started, and it’s getting louder; thus people are wanting to stay for the growing opportunities — and some are opening their wallets, too, as angel investors.

You have a law degree, yet you’ve spent most of your career connected to the tech field, and have gradually come to a point where you no longer practice. Can you describe that evolution?

Early in my law career I fell in love with technology and how it could change the world.  I absolutely loved helping companies grow from two guys in a garage to incredible companies. While I loved the law and the art of negotiation, my billable hour requirements kept me away from the business side of growth.

Five years ago, I decided to go into the business side and worked for a government contractor that I helped complete a successful exit. I loved working on the business side but missed helping multiple companies at once. The CRTC, however, allows me to have it all; I get to help hundreds of companies grow without having to charge them $750 an hour.

What has surprised you the most since you took the job?

As a lawyer, I practiced nationwide and I spent a lot of time representing companies in the well-known tech hubs: Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; Northern Virginia; and the pharma capital, Princeton, N.J. The [industry] perception is that those areas had the richest technologies, best bench of entrepreneurs and the deepest pockets.

However, I’ve been shocked at how many hidden gems I’ve found in our community. Bear in mind that Maryland, traditionally, has not marketed itself well on a national scale, though that’s improving. All told, I think that our technology and our companies are more sophisticated than what you might find anywhere else. Now that I know what we have here in Maryland, I will not sleep until the rest of the country and the world understand that we are the greatest tech hub in the country.