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From diaper bags to disease management, Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship helps guide market success

For The Baltimore Sun

Soon after Tonika and Cory Myers settled into their seats with their three children for a family wedding in South Carolina a few years ago, they realized a diaper change for their 1-year-old daughter was in order.

A quick peek into their diaper bag revealed an all-too-familiar sight: No disposable diapers and no wipes.

Before strains of "Here Comes the Bride" could fill the air, the Ellicott City couple was forced to flee the ceremony with children in tow, hunt for a drugstore, change Cori and rush back — only to find the wedding was over.

That 2012 fiasco wasn't the first time they encountered a nearly empty diaper bag, but the busy couple — he's a patent attorney and former electrical engineer and she's a CPA — decided it would be the last.

The couple, both 40, are working with the Columbia-based Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship to launch Baggio, a patent-pending "smart bag" that uses embedded sensor technology to provide timely updates on its contents. They threw a party last month to kick off a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with a goal of raising $30,000 online in 45 days to fund further product development.

Baggio has been assisted in its launch by the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, an initiative of the Howard County Economic Development Authority that was started in December 2011 to provide manufacturing, marketing and creative assistance to technology-based start-ups.

There are now 24 resident companies and 59 affiliate companies associated with the operation, located off Bendix Road in Columbia and formerly known as NeoTech.

Shameet Luhar is CEO and co-founder with Philip Rub of Vheda Health, a resident firm at the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship. Their company provides digital disease management through mobile software to help health insurance companies lower costs by making sure at-risk plan members comply with preventive health care measures.

"MCE is extremely valuable for its central location between Washington and Baltimore and for its access to resources, especially mentors," said Luhar, a 2000 River Hill High School graduate. "They have helped us to perfect our pitch and build our business."

Jeani Burns agreed. Burns is founder and CEO of VoMaSmart, a volunteer management and reward system based in Savage Mill that aims to save clients time and money while rewarding their volunteers with contests, meetups and other perks.

"In January we landed [a contract with] UCI Road World Championships," she said of the September cycling race in Richmond, Va., that is expected to draw 450,000 spectators over nine days. VoMaSmart has already registered over 6,200 volunteers; UCI was hoping for 3,000, she said.

"MCE advised me, pushed me and counseled me," said Burns, a Columbia resident. "We would not be as successful as we are without all that."

Getting serious

For the Myerses, the missed wedding was the catalyst they needed to get serious about inventing a smart diaper bag.

"We needed a fantastic idea that was adaptable and scalable," Cory Myers said, "and that's what we think we have in Baggio."

The reaction of Howard County mothers who took part in focus groups in April and May told the couple what they say they already knew: There's an untapped market for a diaper bag that nags — and, by extension, for all sorts of self-monitoring bags.

A smartphone app alerts Baggio's user when the contents of any of the diaper bag's four designated pockets — bottles, diapers, wipes and clothing —are running low or have been depleted. It accomplishes this with resistive bands that gauge how stretched out the pockets are, he said.

The same system is mounted on the diaper bag, so Grandma or the nanny can be alerted by a beep when the bag is in their possession. Also fitted with GPS and Bluetooth technologies, the bag will beep if you leave home without it, and you can track its location if it's misplaced.

For a product name they chose Baggio — the "io" suffix stands for input-output capability — to cover what they hope will someday be an expanded product line of backpacks, athletic bags, computer bags, luggage and more.

The couple have applied to Columbia-based Maryland Technology Development Corp. for funding with the help of Judy Harris, who is MCE advisory board chairwoman and has served for two years as executive-in-residence. They are still awaiting a decision.

"We speak or meet at least once a week to bounce around marketing ideas," Harris said of her work with the Myerses. "Tonika and Cory are much further ahead than most [entrepreneurs] because their careers have given them major skills."

The pair also singled out Stewart Gold, MCE's director of entrepreneurship, for his effect on their journey.

"He's amazing. He browbeats you into building up your company, and he's very black-and-white, which was super-helpful to us," Tonika Myers said.

The Myerses, who grew up in Baltimore and met in the sixth grade at Roland Park Middle School, are also alumni of AccelerateBaltimore, a business accelerator program run by Emerging Technology Centers. Baggio was one of six companies chosen by ETC in January to receive a $25,000 prize along with mentoring and training.

Beyond the startup world, Baggio has also stirred intense interest in the Myers home.

Sons Deondre Robinson, 18, and Jaden Myers, 8, have developed a taste for entrepreneurship after hearing their parents talk about their company, which the couple hopes their children will one day inherit.

"Deondre is our chief intern by default," Tonika Myers said of their eldest son, who is heading to Temple University this month. "I've been calling him operations manager because he gets stuff done."

Perhaps even more of a surprise has been the keen interest demonstrated by Jaden, who will be starting fourth grade in a couple of weeks.

"Jaden is our No. 1 'Shark Tank' watcher," Cory Myers said of the TV investment show where the couple hope to pitch their product someday. "We call him the chief officer of everything."

The Myerses have confidence the future they envision for Baggio will come to pass because it's a product that improves quality of life, they say.

"Everybody has a lot of balls in the air nowadays, and we all need help getting out the door," Tonika Myers said. "We want to help busy parents and professionals stay confident and stress-free."

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