Julie Coons is on a schmoozing tour of the local technology elite, lunching with executives and chatting with venture capitalists. She took over as president of the Technology Council of Maryland in November, replacing Dyan Brasington, who had run the council for more than a decade. "I've been a lifelong networker," said Coons, 43, who comes from a job as executive vice president of wireless trade association PCIA and previously worked in international business development for telecom firm Teligent Inc.
Networking is the easy part, she said over a recent breakfast. Coons acknowledged that the bigger challenge for the Maryland council will be to attain the higher profile and higher energy of its bigger counterpart, the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Coons said her organization and its constituents "have not spoken up as much as we should have." For example, the Maryland council plans to launch a new, improved Web site in April. "We're sharpening our message," she said.
The Maryland council has 600 corporate members, half the 1,200 members of its Virginia neighbor. The Washington D.C. Technology Council, or DC Tech, the youngest of the three local organizations, has 240 members.
NVTC president Bobbie Kilberg has invited Coons and her staff to meet in the next few weeks to talk about ways their groups can work together. In the past, they have collaborated on an awards ceremony honoring the area's top chief financial officers but not much else. Coons has already met with DC Tech's Penny Pickett, who took the reins in September, and Penny Lewandowski, who runs the Greater Baltimore Technology Council. "To the rest of the world we're Washington, D.C.," Coons said. "To us, we're three distinct regions."
While Maryland is best known for its biotechnology prowess, Virginia has a reputation for software, information technology and telecommunications. "The combination of those capacities leads to a strong bio-informatics niche for this region," Kilberg said. And that can create "the buzz" needed to brand the Washington region for a national and international corporate audience, she said.
The leaders of the three tech associations agree that the key to recruiting and keeping corporate members is hosting events with compelling speakers: experts holding forth on their specialties, debate over controversies, visionaries talking about their ideas. What doesn't work, Coons said, is networking without a clear focus. Busy tech executives aren't interested in coming together just for a drink.
The NVTC picked up some event-goers when it took over the occasional Coffee and Doughnuts morning meetings from the defunct Netpreneur organization. The sessions are geared toward entrepreneurs and start-up executives.
Since taking over as full-time president of DC Tech, Pickett has put together popular events on topics such as homeland security technology and learning to live with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. She scheduled the session on the corporate governance law after hearing members' complaints and confusion about it at the group's holiday party.
Tomorrow, DC Tech will present its biggest event of the year, its sixth annual venture capital fair to help match entrepreneurs to money. Ten start-up companies will pitch ideas to about 250 people, many of them potential investors. The presenting companies include Rockville-based Adlyfe, which has developed a test for chronic brain diseases; Wondir, an online search and instant messaging firm in Bethesda; and JB Cubed, a Herndon company that helps other businesses enter the government-technology market. The Virginia, Maryland and Baltimore councils and the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association are co-sponsors.
Pickett said DC Tech is working with embassies, introducing them to local executives, and is planning a mentor-protege arrangement that will link experienced members with newer executives. Kilberg noted that DC Tech wasn't started until 1998, seven years after her organization. "You need to give Penny time to develop their niche," Kilberg said. "They're in a growing stage."
None of the leaders sees a day when the area tech councils will merge. The region's choked traffic alone demands separate organizations, Kilberg said, because tech executives won't drive from Rockville to McLean or from Reston to the District just to attend a meeting. And for all the talk of collaboration, the councils compete to lure companies to their turf . "There is absolutely going to be regional competitiveness," Coons said.
Va.'s Research Hub
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has weighed in on the controversy over whether George Mason University should be anointed as Northern Virginia's go-to spot for high-tech research. In an interview this week, Warner said GMU "has enormous potential" to develop such a reputation.
Virginia's Secretary of Technology Eugene J. Huang created a stir recently by bluntly questioning whether GMU is up to the task and suggesting institutions such as Virginia Polytechnic Institute should expand in Northern Virginia to fill the gap. Warner, Huang's boss, said he disagrees on GMU. While the university is relatively young, Warner said its president, Alan Merten, has been able to "push the edge" in technology research.
Nonetheless, the governor said GMU shouldn't have to carry all the burden. "We need to beef up our research capabilities across the state," he said, mentioning Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University as other schools that can contribute to the statewide technology effort. "We've encouraged more collaboration between the universities," he said. Warner did not say whether he supports the idea, raised by Huang and by a panel the governor commissioned, that one or more of those universities should create outposts in Northern Virginia.
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.