In the private sector for the first time in 12 years, former Howard County executive Ken Ulman has launched a consulting firm to offer economic development advice.
Ulman's first job: helping the University of Maryland in College Park try to remake itself into a tech hub that rivals Silicon Valley in California or Cambridge in Massachusetts.
"I wanted something where I can't wait to get out of bed in the morning and go to work, and that's the way I feel about the University of Maryland," Ulman said in an interview.
After losing his bid to become Maryland's lieutenant governor this fall, the 40-year-old Democrat auditioned competing offers and discovered most organizations wanted him to give "strategic guidance," often about how to spur development.
University of Maryland officials said they want to lure start-up companies — and so they want new grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants and businesses to create a community engaging enough for top talent to set up shop near the state's flagship university.
"Our graduates take all of their talents and their skills, and they go somewhere else," UM President Wallace Loh.
As Loh describes it, campus leaders want the University of Maryland to be a primary economic driver of jobs in Maryland, and they hope Ulman can begin building it.
"We have a huge research park, but our research park is a research park of the 20th Century," Loh said. "It's not a place of small, vibrant start-ups. … If you want a cup of coffee, there's no place to go other than the vending machine."
Loh said Ulman's reputation as an innovator and network of connections can help eventually transform College Park. "In academia, we are educators. We don't know how to do that."
Research universities across the country in recent years have tried to capitalize on discoveries on their campuses. Schools nationally increased the number of start-ups tied to their campuses by 16 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Association of University Technology Managers, a trade group.
Ulman's hourly contract with the University of Maryland Foundation will pay his firm up to $247,000 a year, according to university officials.
While the college will consume the "vast majority" of Ulman's time, he said it will not be his only client.
He declined to publicly identify other clients, saying the deals were not complete. His potential client list includes businesses in the technology, health care and real estate sectors. Ulman said he wants to work with companies with big plans "to play a significant role in innovation."
Ulman said he talked extensively with Under Armour founder Kevin Plank — like Ulman a College Park graduate — about what he should take on now that he's leaving public office. He said he and Plank agreed "the university has to play an even greater role as a catalyst" for new jobs.
Plank's spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Ulman named his new company Margrave Strategies, after the street he grew up on in Columbia.
As he Googled the word to make sure it didn't have an undesirable nuance, Ulman discovered "margrave" is a term for medieval nobility charged with protecting the realm, "often the most strategic, political and tactical leader of the kingdom."
"I decided that sounded just about right," Ulman joked.
The high-profile work with the university will keep Ulman in the public eye and in regular contact with many of Maryland's power brokers — potentially helpful should he decide to return to politics.
"It's really good to see someone with the talent and the contacts he has taking on that challenge," veteran Democratic strategist Mike Morrill said. "It's also incredibly smart, which continues Ken's tradition of making very smart political choices."
The new role will harness the same skills that fueled Ulman's political rise in Maryland.
He won his first political race at 28, and four years later became Howard County's youngest county executive. His tenure, marked by exuberance and a hands-on approach to government, earned him accolades as an innovator able to attract development and private jobs to his jurisdiction.
He contemplated his own bid for governor before signing on to Democrat Anthony G. Brown's ticket, which was defeated in Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan's upset win.
"I don't think anyone thinks that the reason the Ulman-Brown team didn't win has to do with Ken Ulman," said Morrill. "He was a good candidate on a losing ticket. The losing part hurts, but he still has a lot of opportunity."
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Ulman said he has "absolutely no plans to run for office, but I'm also only 40 years old. I wouldn't close the door on any opportunities in the future."
For now, Ulman said, he's satisfied to work on improving the state's business climate.
"Clearly, I wanted to be able to do it as the lieutenant governor of Maryland," Ulman said. "But as I told our kids after the election: You know, you get knocked down, you get back up quickly, and you get back to work."