A pharmaceutical company, a corporate-data analytics firm and a lighting company learned Monday night that they won the top prizes at the state's inaugural competition for start-up firms — $100,000 each.
The InvestMaryland Challenge drew entries from nearly 260 companies nationwide, a pool that was narrowed earlier this month to nine finalists. Organizers kept the winners' names under wraps until the awards ceremony at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, leaving the companies in suspense until Gov. Martin O'Malley announced them to the crowd, Oscars-style.
"I'm applauding this event … because this is exactly what the state should be doing to reinvent and rebuild our economy," Seth Goldman, president and co-founder of Bethesda-based Honest Tea, told the audience.
The contest is part of InvestMaryland, the state's largest venture-capital investment effort. The state raised $84 million last year by auctioning off tax credits.
Monday night, Maryland awarded $100,000 to the top company in each of three categories — life sciences, information technology and general industry — in hopes of propelling growth. Early-stage companies often struggle to get funding, and last year venture-capital deals declined here and nationwide.
Baltimore-based GrayBug, which won the state's life sciences prize, is developing drugs to more effectively treat eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration. Officials were hoping to win the money, of course, but they said finalist status alone could be a boon as they look for investors.
Baltimore-based RedOwl Analytics, winner of the IT prize, is developing a product to help companies use email, telephone records and other internal data to identify the best and worst employees — the key workers and the rogue actors. Company officials had hoped to win because extra money would help them launch more pilot projects as they press toward getting their product to market.
"To hear our name announced as the winner was a really tremendous feeling," said Renny McPherson, co-founder and director of business development and strategy at RedOwl. "The $100k is going to go a long way, but the recognition and being part of the landscape of entrepreneurial companies in Maryland is really terrific as well."
The general-industry winner is i-lighting, a fast-growing Cecil County company that sells energy-efficient LED lighting kits that plug together — no wire-splicing necessary — to illuminate fences, stairs and the like.
Just before the awards were handed out, Sean Ryan, i-lighting's director of sales and marketing, said the company could put $100,000 to good use if it won. Next month, it's moving into a new facility that needs to be filled with equipment and new hires.
Money aside, the contest helped i-lighting hone its message — officials had to put together a business plan — and offered new promotion opportunities, Ryan said.
"It's been great for us," he said.
Monday's winners weren't limited to the grand-prize recipients. Other companies won awards ranging from free incubator space to a $50,000 software package from Microsoft BizSpark.
Tom Sadowski, president of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, was one of the contest's nearly 80 judges. He thinks the network created by the event — the judges, business sponsors and other entrepreneur-friendly participants — is "as valuable as the awards."
The state plans to run the contest again next year.
O'Malley, speaking to the crowd, said innovation is the only way for the state and country to increase prosperity.
"To see all of you here tonight and to hear the stories … I cannot tell you how good that makes me feel," he said.
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