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State awards help high-tech firms to stay afloat


It might seem a pittance, but for some tiny high-tech companies even $50,000 can help get a product to market or temporarily keep the company afloat during a critical period.

At least that is the theory behind a state program that has invested $550,000 in 11 companies this year.

From a company trying to build a plant that recycles dead chickens to a Baltimore firm that wants to sell hormones to control fish reproduction, the companies are basing their survival on using new technology or their own inventions.

Since its inception in 1988, the Challenge Investment Program of the Department of Economic and Employment Development (DEED) has given out $1.15 million. The General Assembly expanded the role of the program this year by allowing DEED to accept equity in a company in exchange for the award. In the past, DEED required a company to pay back the money -- if it had annual sales of $1 million or more -- or obtain $1 million from outside investors. The first of these new type of state investments, however, will not be made this year.

The awards are helpful to small, struggling companies, said Mary Lou Baker, a DEED spokeswoman, because they provide a "seal of approval" from the state that can help lure investors. The 11 companies were chosen from 76 applicants this year, she said.

For Biological Waste Management Inc. in Queen Anne's County, the grant will keep the company going as it opens a plant on the Eastern Shore to process dead chickens. The company has an exclusive license to a type of a marine yeast that eats protein. It plans to begin selling the product, which is put into a sealed tank with the chicken carcasses, to poultry farmers who routinely must rid their farms of dead chickens.

Biological Waste would then take what remains to a facility where it would be processed and turned into feed for hogs, chickens or farm-raised fish.

ConQuest Software Inc. in Columbia, has developed a "fuzzy logic" software system that allows researchers to retrieve information by asking a computer questions in spoken English.

In addition to those two companies, the grants went to AniCom Inc., Bio-Pax Inc. and Particle Technologies Inc., all of Anne Arundel County; Adheron Corp. and AquaPharm Technologies Corp. of Baltimore; In Vitro Technologies Inc. of Baltimore County; Integrated Technologies for Medicine Inc. and Medical Waste Tech Inc. of Montgomery County; and By the Bay Software Inc. of Queen Anne's County.

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