By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
5:49 PM EDT, March 21, 2013
Paul Capriolo and the crew at Social Growth Technologies are looking forward to graduation, having spent years getting ready for the world outside this one-story beige building in Columbia. The Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship is not a school, but it does cultivate business and launch its charges toward bigger things.
In fall 2009, Capriolo, partner Patrick Jenkins and an intern started in one office at the building; the company now has 22 employees, occupying about a dozen offices and some 5,000 square feet — a third of the space available for lease at MCE.
By this summer, they expect to move to offices in Columbia three times that size. "Something we can grow into, for sure," Capriolo said.
Social Growth is one of four tech companies likely to leave MCE this year, the first "graduates" since the center was established in December 2011. The agency runs under the auspices of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, getting 70 percent of its $742,000 annual budget from the county.
The MCE incorporates the work of an earlier business development operation called NeoTech, while adding the Howard Tech Council, Innovation Catalyst and the Business Resource Center. All are designed to help fledgling companies, particularly those working on technology products.
Executive Director Julie Lenzer Kirk has led the agency since its start. She came to the position with experience as a technology entrepreneur, and with the conviction that the world is awash in good business ideas that just need nurturing.
"I'll bet four of five people in the grocery store have an idea for a business in their head," said Kirk. "They don't know what to do with it, or they're scared."
Scared, that is, to leave a full-time job with benefits.
Kirk did just that, leaving a job as a systems engineer with IBM in 1995 to start her own company, Applied Creative Technologies Inc., which designed systems for manufacturing and inventory control.
"People thought I was a little crazy," she said. Those are people who don't get the "mindset" of an entrepreneur, she said.
The MCE offers advice, forums, educational programs, social gatherings and opportunities to meet potential investors, office space for a limited number of entrepreneurs and work and meeting space for others. It's all set up to encourage that entrepreneurial mindset.
Kirk took the position after being warned about the humble headquarters — a low-slung building on a campus of county buildings off Route 108 that looks like it could be a middle school. Inside, there's a warren of hallways and offices, conference rooms, a coffee room and a room with a few desks that fee-paying members use as work space.
Kirk had the place spruced up with new paint and an array of inspiring quotes pasted to the walls in large type.
On one wall is a quote from Under Armour founder Kevin Plank: "We were smart enough to be naive enough to not know what we could not accomplish."
On another there's Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
And rapper MC Hammer: "Either work hard or you might as well quit."
Of the 25,000 square feet in the building, about 15,000 are made available for lease to new companies at market rates. Kirk said the attraction of the space here — which has been leased for more than 10 years — is not so much the rate itself but the other terms, which are more flexible than office space elsewhere.
Entrepreneurs have to "win" the office space by convincing the MCE management that they have a worthy idea, and are open to making it better through the program.
"We're looking for coachability," Kirk said, "someone willing to engage with the community … people who are hungry, who want to move it forward."
Ideally, she said, companies will stay three to five years before they're ready to take up quarters elsewhere. They cannot stay at MCE indefinitely, but the center works with the entrepreneur to arrange a time to move out.
"This is a get-you-in-and-move-you-out kind of thing," Kirk said.
When companies move out because they've outgrown the space or because they're ready to work outside the friendly confines, they are "graduating," she said.
Social Growth Technologies is a good example, as it's about to complete arrangements for space elsewhere in Columbia. The company has 30 employees here and in Massachusetts, doing business built on an idea developed by CEO Capriolo and Chief Technology Officer Jenkins, who are both in their late 20s and met as undergraduates at the University of Maryland.
Spending time on computer games and Facebook, the two saw that gamers and social media users were being linked to advertisers through click-ons for merchandise credits or coupons.
"We just thought we could do it better," said Capriolo, who has a master's degree in entertainment technology from Carnegie Mellon University. Their program, he said, integrates advertising more smoothly with the game, uses information on the user's purchasing history to tailor which ads they see, and is "more user-friendly," Capriolo said.
In the last six months, they've expanded from three offices to a dozen, and are now working with 5,000 advertisers with transactions in 90 countries, Capriolo said.
Ben Miller and his Firejack Technologies are also expecting to move out later this year, having arrived when MCE was still NeoTech, in August 2011. About a year later he launched his first product: software that will build other customized software, designed to save companies much of the drudge work involved in building new systems.
"Think of it as a software consulting firm in a box," said Miller, 38. A graduate of Harvard University and Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Miller said he lives "around the corner" from the MCE, and came here after finding an technology incubator in Baltimore had no available space.
The choice has worked out well, as Miller took on one of the MCE's resident advisers, Neil Harris, as his chief operating officer. Harris, he said, played a key role in recently landing an agreement with a large bank that he expects will become his biggest customer yet.
"I don't know if I could have pulled it off without him," said Miller, who worked in the Boston area after graduating from Harvard. Up there, he said, you couldn't walk into a coffee shop without hearing chatter about one new technology business or another.
Around Howard County, not so much — at least until the past few months, he said.
"I feel like there's a hub growing out of this area," said Miller.
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