Baltimore's hidden resources

SunSpot Staff

John Fini is the Executive Director for Technology Initiatives at the Emerging Technology Center, an incubator for tech start-ups in Canton. SunSpot caught up with him recently to discuss surviving the current trough of venture funding while waiting for the next wave.

Information technology, dot-coms, Internet service providers, telecom--all have been hammered recently. Are there any bright spots on the tech horizon?

Everything is cyclical. There is going to be a period of time while we go through the transition to whatever the next new, new thing is. Maybe it will be more development in telecommunications. It could be nanotechnology, in which Maryland is very strong. Biotech is going to become bigger and bigger. What we are seeing now is a surge in biotech funds in Maryland, while two years ago you couldn’t get a biotech deal going. Everything goes through a cycle. Clearly, Baltimore and Maryland have an enormous amount of strength in biotech. I think we have enough of a tech concentration here, but we as a community haven’t really concentrated on doing much about it. It really does hurt when we are losing the brains. It is very hard to get them back.

By brains I take it you mean local university graduates. One of the ETC’s missions is to help transfer technology from area institutions like Johns Hopkins into the commercial sector. Seems like they should be a gold mine for biotech companies. Do they just not care enough about making money off their technological discoveries?

I wouldn’t say they don’t care. I think you have to respect the prevailing university perspective on tech transfer. It doesn’t have to be Hopkins. You can pick any school. The point of view on tech transfer had always been that it muddies the academic waters. Schools have felt that they were there to give away technology, publish papers and increase the amount of knowledge in the world. On the other hand, some people have started looking at what’s happened at Stanford and MIT in terms of tech transfer. They have made millions for the institutions and their surrounding communities have benefited. They take that money and give it back to the laboratories to fund more research. It’s just another source of capital. If the technology is going to be commercialized why shouldn’t the university make money?

How much work are you doing with Hopkins now?

We are doing more and more of that, but it’s still a trickle. Large institutions take a while to change. I can tell you that there are people at Hopkins that get it, that want to and are doing tech transfer. We have done four tech transfers here out of Hopkins in the last six months. And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. But we have a long way to go. We’ll be the first ones to admit that. Ideally, what we would like to do is create a critical mass so that we can sustain ourselves and then people wouldn’t even think of leaving town. It’s not just something we need to do, but something we all need to do as a community.

Do you think Hopkins is doing everything it can?

I can’t really comment on that. I know that the people I work with are doing everything they can do. It’s like asking 'does the federal government do everything it can?' Hopkins is huge. I just don’t know. I will say there are pockets of people who get it. A lot of the new people Hopkins has brought in get it.

What is it going to take to get that biotech development in Baltimore and the metropolitan region? Seems like a lot of this is already centered in Rockville and the 270 corridor.

There is going to be more and more biotech in Baltimore. There is no reason that the whole route from Montgomery County down to Columbia and up to Baltimore can’t be just an incredible region for biotech. And it already is. There are two big factors. One is the ability to get the technology out of the universities that develop them. The other is having the money available to commercialize them. What we are seeing now is the universities, Hopkins and Maryland, becoming much easier to do business with. It’s mind-boggling the amount of technology that has been developed in this state. Look at the amount of money that the National Institutes of Health has. Add to that Hopkins, the University of Maryland system, Goddard Space Flight Center, Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Aberdeen Proving Ground. You start going through the list and you see that we have this huge concentration of science and technology here. Combine this science and technology base with the investing community in this city. Baltimore is home to some really major funds and investment banks. The components are all there.

What’s it going to take to get them together?

They are beginning to work more and more together. I think the biggest thing has been that they were separate communities sharing the same space. It’s a grassroots thing. There has been a lot more conversation among the different institutions, a lot more interest in getting together. We all really understand what it’s going to take as a community to jump-start this. People are actually starting a dialogue. The community--bankers, universities, lawyers--are all looking to work closer together. If we get that going, and I think we can, there’s no question the talent is here.

Do you think Baltimore got on the tech bandwagon too late? A search for the term “Digital Harbor” in The Sun archives revealed its first use in December 1999. That’s a long time past the “Internet Revolution” of 1996.

What’s too late? Technology development, economic development will continue. There is another wave coming. The next wave may be biotech, nanotech, satellite communications, Internet II. These waves are all coming. That’s one of the things we are trying to do is get ourselves ready for the wave. Is it too late? No, it’s never too late. You just don’t want to keep missing the waves.

What advice do you give ETC companies for making it through the current climate?

The fact is that we are in an economic slowdown and it affects small companies greatly. It’s not just tech companies. Procter & Gamble has laid off thousands of people. Whether you are a start-up or anybody else you just have to ride it out and then pull yourself back up. It’s hard right now. A lot of money has been pulled off the street. Venture capitalists are reticent at best at this point. It’s going to be critical to spend the next three or four months in survival mode until the capital markets turn around.

So you think the downturn will only last for another few months?

No, some people say less. I’m just a pessimist.

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