Maryland gives a boost to nine high-tech firms


For Ellicott City inventor Victor J. Norris Jr., a $50,000 award from the state may help him bring his dream from prototype to production.

And the money comes not a moment too soon, he says.

"If it was not something like this, we would languish and die," said the inventor of the "FogEye," a system that is designed to allow airplanes and ships to navigate through fog. "We would have ground to a halt in the next three months."

Mr. Norris' company, Norris Electro Optical Systems, was one of nine high-tech companies that got a helping hand yesterday from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, which announced awards from two state investment funds.

"These are not only good investments by the state but for the state," DEED Secretary Mark L. Wasserman told an audience of about 50 business people at the Legg Mason Tower in Baltimore.

Five of the awards were made from the department's Challenge Investment Program, which makes $50,000 investments in start-up companies. Four other companies got $250,000 each from the Maryland Enterprise Investment Fund,

which helps more mature companies that can also attract outside investors.

But in both cases, the money is in the form of investments, and either royalties or dividends are paid to the state if there are profits. The state has received no return so far. "It's much too early for these things to have returns," said Arthur S. Drea, assistant secretary for DEED's financing programs.

Since its beginnings in 1989, the Challenge program has awarded $1.95 million to 37 companies, with some of the investments being more than $50,000. The Enterprise program has invested $1.55 million in five companies and one investment fund since 1993.

In the case of Norris Electro Optical Systems, the $50,000 will be used to build prototypes of the FogEye, which uses a land-based lighting system and an electronic cockpit display to guide pilots or ship captains in foggy conditions.

Mr. Norris, 61, a former developer of avionic systems for Westinghouse Electric Corp. and Martin Marietta Corp., has sunk $200,000 of his retirement money and $165,000 from family and friends in the development of the FogEye.

Another company with high hopes is Town Creek Industries Inc., of St. Mary's County, which received a $50,000 grant to pursue the development of its "pancake" electric motor, which the company says is lighter and more efficient than conventional motors.

Other companies that received Challenge awards include RF Technologies Inc. of Anne Arundel County, which makes a higher-performance industrial valve system; Skyline Instruments of Prince George's County, which designs computer peripheral equipment; and THINX Software Inc. of Columbia, which has developed computer software that communicates through on-screen graphics.

The companies that got Enterprise awards were:

* Assurqual Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, company that is moving to Baltimore. It makes a computer system for long-term care companies.

* Visual Networks Inc. of Montgomery County, which provides monitoring and management software for computer and telecommunication networks.

* Guilford Pharmaceuticals, a Baltimore biotechnology company that has patented treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases.

* Osiris Therapeutics Inc., another Ohio company that has moved to Baltimore and is developing treatments to repair bones and soft tissues.

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