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Q&A With TEDCO President & COO John Wasilisin

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John Wasilisin, president and chief operating officer (COO) of the Maryland Technology Development Corp.  (TEDCO), has spent 38 years in the business/government service sector, 33 of which have been in economic/workforce development. His experience has included progressive positions at the state and local levels of government, and has involved partnerships with the business community.

Wasilisin is responsible for developing policy and directing programs to further advance the mission/role of the corporation. TEDCO’s mission is to facilitate the creation of businesses and foster their growth in all regions of Maryland through the commercialization of technology, and to be Maryland’s leading source of funding for technology transfer and development programs and entrepreneurial business assistance.

Wasilisin previously served as deputy secretary of the state Department of Budget and Management, where he oversaw the day-to-day administration of the department, including operating budget analysis, personnel services and benefits, information technology, procurement and capital budgeting. He has also served the state government as deputy secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Prior to returning to state in 2003, Wasilisin served as the chief administrative officer to the Baltimore County executive, the highest appointed official in Baltimore County government. Under his administration, Baltimore County government was recognized by Governing magazine as one of the four best-managed large counties in the United States; for fiscal 2003, the county had a total budget of approximately $1.9 billion and more than 8,000 employees.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and Administration from the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business. He is also a graduate of the 1999 Greater Baltimore Committee Leadership program and the 2005 Leadership Maryland program.

How has your transition to president and COO since the departure of your predecessor, Rob Rosenbaum, worked?

It’s gone well. I’ve been here since 2007, so I know the organization very well, and what I’m doing now is consistent with what I was doing. It’s been a seamless transition with our 21-person staff, the legislature and the tech community.

When the board of directors hires a new CEO, I’ll be responsible for the operations side of our organization and the new CEO will be more concerned with external relationships and strategic planning.

Norm Augustine, chair of the Augustine Commission, said in last month’s Q&A in The Business Monthly that TEDCO “might be getting a budget hike.” How might that additional funding be invested?

It’s always nice to be supported by someone as esteemed as Mr. Augustine. While we did not receive an increase in the governor’s budget this year, the Maryland Venture Fund (MVF) was transferred to TEDCO, which increased our investment capacity by approximately $100 million, with about 80% already deployed to private fund managers and current investments.

What is your take on the efforts of the Augustine Commission?

I thought it was excellent, in that the governor and the legislature are interested in improving and supporting the state’s business climate. I went to a number of their hearings, and the commission members got a pretty good sense of the good, the bad and the ugly. The impact of their efforts has been very positive.

As a direct result of the commission’s work, the MVF and parts of the Maryland Bio Center were transferred on Oct. 1, 2015, from the Department of Business and Economic Development (now the Department of Commerce) to TEDCO. Both of these programs fit nicely into TEDCO’s mission, and the transfer will make their accessibility more convenient for the customer, which in TEDCO’s case is the entrepreneur.

Augustine also said, “Today, 72% of all of the nation’s venture capital goes to three states: California, Massachusetts and Texas. Too often, people get ideas for businesses here in Maryland but go to another state to start a company. We have to change that.” How can we?

It’s hard to believe, but that stat has been backed up a number of times. But last year, Maryland had maybe its best year ever in the venture capital arena, led by Tenable’s (which is headquartered in the same Columbia building as TEDCO) $250 million deal.

But know that smart money will find the deals, including money from the aforementioned states. So what we need to do is develop and support quality startups here in Maryland. Think about how Cisco bought Sourcefire for $2.7 billion, but left the entire operation in Columbia. Founder (and TEDCO board member) Marty Roesch is still running it, too.

At TEDCO, we try to grow the best deals possible. On that note, know that the horse is important, but smart investors usually bet on the jockey. We want to raise the bar of the entrepreneurs in Maryland so they become more attractive to investors across the country. We even have people moving to Maryland to start businesses.

TEDCO is just one player here among the colleges and other technology organizations, but we want to grow that pool organically.

What is TEDCO’s financial standing?

It’s very solid. Our budget is approximately $18 million from the state, $9 million of which is for the stem cell research program; the other $9 million is for technology transfer and entrepreneur development programs. Plus, the $100 million from the MVF is complementary to the mix, because it’s latter stage.

What can be done to expedite technology transfer?

The demand for our services and programs is greater than the supply of funding, so we try to stretch our dollars as best we can. We are blessed to have world-class research universities and federal laboratories in Maryland that are doing groundbreaking research, i.e., Johns Hopkins, the University System of Maryland, Morgan State, the National Institutes of Health, the National Security Agency and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Also, the universities are working hard to help researchers see how their technologies can be applied in the commercial world. That’s a big challenge, as some researchers are more receptive to doing this than others, who may not be interested in a commercial application of their research.

What can TEDCO do to help prevent “stovepipes” and ensure that new technical information is shared among professionals who can help bring it to market?

I don’t know if we can totally stop them from occurring, but TEDCO is technology agnostic and works with all types of industry sectors. We’re mindful of the different technologies we’re investing in and try to ensure that we are touching as many as we can. They all have pluses and minuses as they relate to marketability and job growth, and we strive to create a level playing field.

What new programs are in the works?

We’re not sure yet, because we just commissioned a study of emerging best practices across the country to find out if there are initiatives we should be considering here in Maryland. We got an update last week from the firm performing the study, and there are some preliminary findings that look interesting. I think there may be some new TEDCO initiatives this summer/fall to help us grow the innovation economy in Maryland.

Is there a strategy to bolster economic development efforts in the rural regions of Maryland?

Absolutely. It’s called our Rural Business Innovation (RBI) Program. Just because an entrepreneur/startup company is not located along the route 95 or 270 corridors doesn’t mean that they aren’t developing some innovative technologies. With Internet availability in the rural areas being so much better than it was 10 years ago, TEDCO wants to be sure that the entrepreneurs in our rural areas have the tools they need to move forward, not just with mentoring, but with new investment opportunities as well.

When you observe Maryland’s tech landscape, what are you happiest about?

The momentum and synergy that’s developed during the last five years, as well as the supportive culture that has continued to grow. I think we’re onto something, not only in our hot pockets like Baltimore and Montgomery County, but statewide. I’ve been to Austin, Texas; Boston; and the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and those places don’t have anything on us. We just need to celebrate entrepreneurs more and not put a scarlet letter on someone’s back if their startup fails.

I’m also pleased to see that more and more policymakers are understanding and appreciating the important role of entrepreneurship and its impact on the state’s economy. In baseball, it’s called “small ball”: Hit a lot of singles and doubles, and you’ll score a lot of runs. It leads to a diversified economy that is the foundation of a strong economic region.

What do you feel is TEDCO’s greatest challenge?

Just fighting complacency. That can be very dangerous for an organization. To address this issue, TEDCO has commissioned a study to find out what our customers and the innovation ecosystem think of our efforts. We’ll take the good and the bad, including input from people who had a bad experience or have been frustrated with us.

What specific goals does TEDCO have in the next three years?

To try and make a greater impact on growing our entrepreneurial base and increasing its quality, so that investment money can find those startups. Our hope is that our new programs lead us in this direction.