COLLEGE PARK -- In the spring of 1992, Alice Richmond and Ilene Halprin were rarities -- female electrical engineers heading staffs with scores of professionals at established high-tech companies.
A year and a half, a lifetime dream, and $75,000 of their families' and friends' money later, they are doubly rare -- female high-tech entrepreneurs about to market a new software package and reach for a piece of the imaging revolution that is dumping the office filing system out of metal cabinets and onto computer disks.
They say their software can upgrade a small firm's existing personal computer network for $20,000 or $30,000 and do jobs that previously were possible only for companies with hundreds of thousands of dollars to sink into new hardware.
Yesterday, Maryland state officials put Ms. Richmond and Ms. Halprin's four-person firm, Image Sciences Corp. of Rockville, on display along with a handful of small companies included in a six-month pilot of a new program that will use $255,000 in federal and state money to help small high-tech firms get started or expand.
The new program, one of a half-dozen the federal government's Small Business Administration is backing in the United States, will make the University of Maryland's Michael D. Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship a high-tech information clearinghouse for Maryland's network of regional small business centers.
The new Manufacturing and Technology Small Business Development Center will provide access to national on-line data bases to help search out markets and investors, train staff members of the regional centers to help fledgling high-tech businesses, and expand the Dingman Center's own programs, including matchmaking sessions to help entrepreneurs find venture capitalists.
"For $25, they searched on-line data bases and provided me with a packet half an inch thick of marketing information I never could have afforded on my own," said James K. Leslie, president of Baltimore-based BioFin Inc.
Mr. Leslie didn't use the marketing information to sell a product. He doesn't have one yet.
But he thinks he knows how to develop a growth hormone that will make fish, shrimp and some other seafoods bigger and therefore more valuable. He needed marketing information to help convince venture capitalists that he can sell it once he makes it.
For Ms. Richmond and Ms. Halprin's Image Sciences, too, venture capital is a central issue.
"We have had to operate on a strategy that assumes self-financing, and that's the stage where we still are . . . we've been at the edge of insolvency for the whole year and a half since we quit our jobs," Ms. Richmond said yesterday.
"But we also have to have business plans for the day when we begin to succeed and attract one level or another of venture capital," she said. "Aside from all the practical advice, on-line services and training the Dingman Center offers, getting our story out to investors is absolutely crucial to our future."
Their self-financing strategy starts with an unorthodox marketing idea.
As a shoestring-budget way to introduce OmniView, their trademarked software, they are selling what Ms. Richmond describes as "a shrink-wrapped, off-the shelf, one-user version" for under $400.
"The idea is to get one person in a company to use it, and after the managers see what it can do, send in a professional marketing person with an offer to upgrade the company's entire network," she said.
Ms. Richmond, 44, and Ms. Halprin, 39, were focused on business yesterday, but they were the only female high-tech entrepreneurs on hand, and occasionally they let it show that they were conscious of breaking ground in an arena populated mainly by men.
"When we were at the University of Pennsylvania together a decade and a half ago, at the Moore School of Engineering there was no women's rest room. We had to post a guard outside the men's room," Ms. Richmond said.
A year and a half ago, Ms. Richmond, who also has a Harvard MBA degree, was head of product development at Computer Sciences Corp. a systems integrator that helps bigger companies put their filing systems into computers. She headed a staff of 60 that custom-designed systems and estimated their costs.
"From the beginning, my dream has been to find the right technology and start my own business, and PC-based imaging is the technology I've chosen," she said yesterday.
Ms. Halprin was a program manager who headed a staff that designed computer equipment to upgrade weapons systems for Westinghouse Electric Corp.
"That was exciting, but I'll take starting up my own company any day," she said.