Keeping the tech fires burning

SunSpot Staff

As executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, Penny Lewandowski is charged with promoting and cultivating the region's technology community. The former Northern Virginia resident recently discussed the council's role and the prospects for the city's Digital Harbor project in this lean time.

The GBTC was started about two years ago. Describe the role you play in the local tech community.

We were created by the Greater Baltimore Committee. The council itself has been around for 10 years or so, but in its newest form, only for about two years this March. The board recognized that there was a huge potential for technology development in this region. Because of that, they felt it was time for the council to spin off from the Greater Baltimore Committee and become its own entity. That?s what I came up to do. To manage that spin-off, turn it into a stand-alone organization -- at that point we had no members -- and build the technology community in greater Baltimore. And that?s what we?ve been doing.

Where do you draw your funding?

We draw it from a couple of different sources. The council has always been funded by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, so we get part of our funding from them. When the council spun off of the GBC, the Abell Foundation provided us with funding for two years. That funding ended the first of July this year. We still have some of that money. We are extraordinarily frugal in how we spend our money. We run this nonprofit like a business. The other part of our money comes from membership and the biggest event that we do, called TechNite. That has become our major fund-raiser.

What is your annual budget?

In revenue, around $800,000 is what our budget looked like for this past year. Expenses were around $650,000. You?ll see that fluctuate because this next fiscal year we won?t have the Abell money, that was $200,000 a year. We?re going to have to supplement that with our fund-raiser and membership. We just ended our fiscal year, and we made our projection for membership and actually beat it by a little bit. In this market, I think that?s fairly phenomenal.

How do you define "Greater Baltimore?" Is it more than just the Digital Harbor?

It?s Baltimore City and the five surrounding counties. As far as the name Digital Harbor is concerned, we think it's going to become a moniker that?s going to describe the region.

Do your members reflect that geographic mix?

Yes, they reflect a mix of different people throughout the region. They also reflect a mix of technology, some biotech, service providers, universities and nonprofits.

How has what you do gotten tougher in the current market?

Let me say a couple of things first in terms of where we were, in my opinion, when I came in, where we got to and where we are now. When I first got into this job, I just spent a lot of time going around talking to CEOs and entrepreneurs asking them what they wanted. Typically, when you do that, the first answer you get is "money." That?s not the answer I got here. The answer I got here was, 'I want to meet people who look like me and do stuff that?s kind of like me. I want to be able to network and find partners.' We really knew that there was a huge need for that community aspect. So that?s what we started doing. Not only did we see the community start to grow, but we also saw an incredible rise in energy. Then as we came to the point where the markets started to dive, I think a couple of things happened. People were glad they didn?t get what they wished for. When I came up here from Northern Virginia, everybody was like, 'I wish we looked like Northern Virginia.' Well, be careful what you wish for. Maryland is very diversified in its technology. When one sector feels some pain, the others make up for it. We?re not seeing the amounts of layoffs that other states are seeing because the technology is diverse enough that one sector can absorb, to a degree, another.

What are some of the sectors that are doing better than the others? It looks like IT is not doing very well.

I think biotech is doing well.

Is that something that you are involved in?

Not as heavily as technology. We do have some biotech companies that participate, but they really participate more for the business side of what we do. The Bioscience Alliance in Montgomery County, which really covers the whole state, is so strong, it wouldn?t make a whole lot of sense for us to duplicate the wheel. But I do think that sector is strong. I think bioinformatics is strong. I think a lot of industries right now are just flat. I think telecom is flat. It?s going to be interesting to see what happens on the fiber optics side.

You referred to the business side of what you do. What is that?

We do several things. We do a program called, "Guess who?s coming to dinner." What we do is we find entrepreneurs and executives who, in the normal course of life, you would just never be able to get in front of. We put it out on a listserv that we run for our technology companies and we?ll take the first 15 CEOs that reply. They just sit around a dinner table with people like [Ciena chairman] Patrick Nettles, [venture capitalist] Steve Walker and [Net2000 CEO] Charlie Thomas. They sit around and talk about what it was like to start this business and what they had to go through. They surprise me. They?ve been brutally honest. We?ve also started an executive roundtable, which right now is a group of eight, and we?re getting ready to start another one. Again it?s CEOs of different companies -- all technology -- and they meet once a month, they sign no disclosure agreements and they help each other. We supplement them with an online discussion group so they can keep their discussions going throughout the month.

Have you had to retool at all in the market downturn?

At some point I think we are going to see it affect our funding. As companies look through what they can pay and not pay, a membership organization sometimes doesn?t get the attention that it typically would. I mean, do I pay my membership dues or do I make payroll? I think it?s going to affect us financially. We have not been charging for any of our events, so you?re going to see us put in a little bit of a different financial structure. As far as how it?s going to affect the council itself and the community, I actually think it will make us stronger. People come to rely on us more. Now they are really looking for business. You?re going to see our focus change a little bit. We think we?ve got enough programs in place for the small to midsize company, and we?re going to look a little stronger at the big companies and the traditional companies to see how we can get our companies inside of them to help them with their business needs.

How much work do you do in Annapolis?

It?s part of it. We support the Technology Council of Maryland, their legislative agenda. We have our own legislative committee, which is run by Larry Siedman from Hogan & Hartson. We look at all the different bills that are coming up and how they affect our membership, whether or not we need to send a member down to testify. But we are not writing legislation. It?s a part of what we do, but it?s not a major thing.

Are you pleased with the level of support you?ve received from Annapolis and City Hall?

City Hall, absolutely. We have been a part, from the very beginning, of helping the city write its technology strategy. The partnership has been extraordinarily strong. Yes, we've been pleased with what we've seen from the state. The only thing we wish we hadn?t seen was that the Maryland Technology Development Corporation got a $250,000 cut in their budget. But that?s been the exception to the rule. We?re really lucky; we?ve got a really strong partnership with those folks.

What are your goals moving forward?

What we want to be able to do is really sustain and grow this community. We want to make sure that the companies feel that this is the place that they want to stay. I think our next step is really going to be getting inside some of these larger companies and figuring out how they are making their buying decisions, how we can make them aware of this technology community. So when it is time for them to source their business that they look inside this community first.

Have you seen any signs of recovery yet?

I talked to Frank Adams the other day at Grotech and I think everybody thinks that things will start to loosen up but nobody knows when. People are still raising money, but on the money side, no, it?s not [getting better.] Summer is a slow time anyway. Raising capital is really, really hard. That hasn?t changed.

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