The Potomac KnowledgeWay Project, the Washington region's once-energetic technology development organization, decided last night to shut its doors.
The nonprofit group, founded in 1995 by local investor and philanthropist Mario Morino, was hindered by a fuzzy mission, fund-raising troubles and disagreements among its leaders, though it served as an early touchstone for the tech community.
KnowledgeWay board members yesterday voted unanimously to close down the group, saying that the organization had outlived its purpose and accomplished many of its goals and that the mantle could better be carried by other area technology associations.
"It was time to declare victory and move on," said April Young, a board member and former executive director of KnowledgeWay. "What we don't need is an organization in search of a mission."
Technology business in Washington has boomed since the KnowledgeWay was launched, back when America Online Inc., now of Dulles, was a struggling online service provider. The region is now abundant with major tech companies and smaller Internet start-ups.
"The Potomac KnowledgeWay was the catalyst to get everything started," said Penny Lewandowski, who ran the group's sister Netpreneur Program until she became the head of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council this year.
Local executives generally think of the KnowledgeWay's greatest accomplishment as the creation of the Netpreneur Program, a networking group that holds irreverent breakfast seminars and works to personally introduce investors to start-up companies. About 15,000 people have attended Netpreneur events and more than 7,000 receive a weekly Netpreneur News update on regional goings-on, according to the group.
The Netpreneur Program, which had already been moved under the umbrella of Morino's nonprofit Morino Institute, will continue.
When Netpreneur was taken away from KnowledgeWay, many saw it as either a weakening of KnowledgeWay or a chance to change or expand its purpose as the region was outgrowing the organization's original mission.
Some in the area hoped the group would become a research foundation, churning out reports and studies about the region. There is a dearth of such studies because most are now done by Maryland, Virginia or D.C. academic concerns that don't study the area as a whole.
About a year ago KnowledgeWay released a comprehensive report--"Toward a New Economy: Merging Heritage With Vision in the Greater Washington Region"--that said the area's total technology-related employment almost equals that of the federal government.
At the same time, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which runs the Greater Washington Initiative, was getting more involved in the technology community. Its twice-a-year Potomac Conference attracts top area leaders, including AOL chief executive Steve Case, who is the event's co-chairman.
Area executives saw overlap between the two groups, which both wanted recognition as the de facto area technology organization.
"We were the ones carrying the sword in the beginning, but it's a whole different world out there," Morino said.
Still, as it seemed Morino was gradually pulling away from the group, KnowledgeWay appeared to be poised to become more active again when in March it announced that Alfred R. Berkeley III, president of the Nasdaq Stock Market Inc., would become co-chairman of the group.
KnowledgeWay had long attracted powerful board members, including Mark Warner, managing director of Columbia Capital Corp.; Russ Ramsey, president of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc.; and Alan Spoon, president and chief operating officer of The Washington Post Co.
Young said the meeting was somewhat sad. "We were present at the creation," she said. But she added: "It's time for the region to grow up."