Montgomery County business incubators provide a home for fledgling firms

By Steven Overly
Monday, May 24, 2010

The offices at 20271 Goldenrod Lane in Germantown never close.

Late at night and throughout the weekend, employees can be found in the labs monitoring experiments and in the offices meeting with clients, working to survive another day.

The building here is one of five business incubators run by Montgomery County's Department of Economic Development, and it is home to as many as 30 start-ups and fledgling businesses.

From stem cell research companies to information technology consultants to nonprofits, the companies inside the incubator span a multitude of industries. The entrepreneurs who run them are equally diverse; about 60 percent of the businesses are female- or minority-owned.

Yet despite their differences, many said the 32,000-square-foot incubator -- part of what Montgomery calls its Business Innovation Network -- provides a supportive, professional environment conducive to cultivating any type of business.

Ellen Chen, the founder and chief executive of Advanced Biomimetic Sensors, a medical device development company, holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and has three patents in various stages of development, but struggled when it came to managing employees. Chen had always been a scientist and inventor, but "businesswoman" was not among her titles.

"There's not a textbook I can buy to learn. It [comes] from people with experience," Chen said.

It's not uncommon for entrepreneurs to come to the incubator with limited business know-how, said John Korpela, director of the Business Innovation Network. A former entrepreneur, Korpela said the network's staff offers guidance to tenants and hosts more than 100 training programs each year. Tenants also are offered free legal and accounting assistance.

Montgomery County covers about 30 percent of the centers' $2.5 million annual operating budget, or $750,000. In return, Korpela said the incubators are designed to create jobs, one of the Department of Economic Development's core goals. He estimates about 2,000 jobs have been added to the local economy since the Shady Grove site opened in 1999, not including the 550 people working at the five incubators today.

"Our success rate is about 85 percent and basically failures [occur] if the technology or science doesn't prove out," Korpela said.

At the Germantown facility, entrepreneurs can sign one-year lease agreements on 142- to 245-square-foot offices for between $300 and $620 a month, including utilities, phone and Internet. Labs of between 500 and 700 square feet rent for $2,000 to $3,300. Conference rooms and communal spaces are shared at no additional cost.

For Neil Agate, running two businesses, ClinicMax Health Systems, an electronic health records system, and Four Gates, a business and technology services company, out of his Montgomery County home proved inconvenient, particularly when co-workers would meet clients there while he was out of town.

His businesses now occupy four separate offices within the incubator, and he has enough space to expand his staff from two people to about seven.

"We've gone from basically an idea to 80 percent of a product," Agate said. Without the incubator, "I don't think it would have all come together."

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