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The Interview: Rosenbaum building a more entrepreneurial TEDCO

For three decades, Robert A. Rosenbaum helped guide established companies and fresh startups through complex challenges.

The Connecticut native was president of an apparel manufacturing firm, ran technology projects for big companies, and helped several businesses run smarter and more profitably with his operations acumen.

But for the past 18 months, Rosenbaum, 54, has taken on a new challenge: technology economic development for Maryland. He's been serving as president and executive director of Maryland Technology Development Corp., or TEDCO, the state's technology development arm.

And, with his broad experience in the private sector, he's transforming the quasi-state entity, which is organized like a private corporation, into a less bureaucratic and more entrepreneurial organization. TEDCO depends on state and federal funding for much of its budget, but Rosenbaum has been pushing for it to start pulling in its own revenues.

He sees TEDCO offering its services to investors and venture capital firms, and helping to move cutting-edge technologies out of the state's universities and into the market. TEDCO can also continue to invest in technology startups that could bring healthy returns to the state, Rosenbaum figures.

Rosenbaum, who once ran a venture capital fund, sees TEDCO helping build Maryland's venture capital investment ecosystem. TEDCO is going to guide a $3.3 million early-stage investment fund — Propel Baltimore — in the city, in a partnership with the Abell Foundation. Rosenbaum is also trying to organize the region's angel investors into a $50 million fund that will pump money into early-stage startups.

The Baltimore Sun recently caught up with Rosenbaum, who talked about his successes and failures, and his growth plans for TEDCO and the state's technology sector.

There was a conference organized by the Greater Baltimore Technology Council last week called BMoreFail, where entrepreneurs and business leaders talked about overcoming failure. You spoke at it. What did you have to say?

Part of entrepreneurship is learning from your failures and setbacks. One of the cultural challenges we have here in Maryland, and in a lot of old-money industrial economies, is that failure is not good. You need to get it right the first time. But that's not the case with entrepreneurship. You're going to have some bumps. It's about a cultural change in acceptance of failure. I've certainly had any number of setbacks. There have been strategic decisions that I've made that haven't worked out.

You oversee an agency that helps entrepreneurs take risks in business. Have you mastered your own aversion to failure?

I am OK with risk and with failure. My wife is constantly telling me that I'm much more risk-taking than she is. I've started several businesses from scratch.

You've been in charge of TEDCO for a little over a year now. Where was the organization when you joined and what do you think you've changed or done differently since you took over?

My assessment when I joined was that it was very effective at what it did and what it was initially chartered to do. But it needed an infusion of cultural change because it needed to start generating some of its own income and become less dependent on state and federal funding. We've had to change from a traditional economic development organization to a hybrid revenue-generating organization.

How is that working out?

It's working out very well. The staff has embraced the challenge and the change. I'm not worried about cultural acceptance anymore. I'm fully onto execution now.

How do you get money coming in?

We're generating revenue in two ways. First, on a fee-for-service basis, the way any consultant might generate revenue; and second, on an investment-return basis.

Who does TEDCO consult for?

We have had a range of engagements, some speaking engagements, and we're doing ad hoc due diligence and portfolio tracking for the Baltimore Angels [a private early-stage investment group]. We're managing the new [$3.3 million] Propel Baltimore fund. We are in the process to raise a $50 million investor fund.

A lot of people in the technology and investor community talk about the difficulty of raising investment capital in the early stages for a company here in the Mid-Atlantic? Do you think this is an accurate view?

If you look at the statistics, the Mid-Atlantic region gets probably close to its fair share of [venture capital] money, but it doesn't get it from local sources. As a result, the entrepreneurs have to work harder and reach further. By creating a fund here and a source of capital, the homegrown deals will get to use homegrown money, and we'll avoid having a pull to take the companies away as they grow.

Are you getting a warm reception for this new $50 million angel fund you're trying to organize in Maryland?

We're finding a reasonably warm reception. The old money/new money debate falls into the category of risk-tolerance, and whether you're willing to make an investment in technology as opposed to lower-risk investment in real estate or bonds. I think that mentality is changing. I think the large deep pockets of East Coast money are still risk-averse. But we're growing our next generation of risk-takers.

It's almost a generational thing. You have to have a generation of entrepreneurs who come from a risk-based source of wealth to then replenish that risk-based source of wealth.

InvestMaryland is Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature plan to jump-start technology investment in Maryland. The program recently raised $84 million from the sale of insurance tax credits. Is $84 million a big deal?

By my estimation, there's probably more than a half a billion needed for early-stage capital in the Mid-Atlantic area. The $84 million is absolutely a great thing. I think it will have as much an emotional kick as it does in terms of absolute dollars in the ecosystem.

You've been talking about plans to organize the angel investor community better in Maryland. You've mentioned organizing a $50 million early-stage fund. How and why would TEDCO play a role in helping organize private investors?

We are not a government agency. We are an instrumentality of the state. We report to our board. We don't report to the governor. We act and function like any other private [corporation]. I think the libertarians would be OK with TEDCO doing this. Organizing private capital is a way for TEDCO to earn income and a way to leverage the shrinking state dollars that we have.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

twitter.com/gussent

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