WASHINGTON – Greg Merril watched a lacrosse practice with team coach Ray Megill in Potomac on a recent Saturday morning. But Merril was not there to scout standout players or to observe as a parent — he was looking for a big hit that could result in a brain injury.
Merril’s Bethesda-based company, Brain Sentry, builds helmet sensors to help prevent brain injuries in contact sports. The sensor blinks red to alert coaches if there is more than a 25 percent chance the player has sustained a brain injury after a big hit.
Merril is one of the growing number of entrepreneurs in Maryland’s startup community who have helped the state earn recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the best place for innovation and entrepreneurship for the second year in a row.
Maryland beat Massachusetts, Texas, and California — states better known for robust entrepreneurial climates.
The ranking does not surprise Baltimore-based entrepreneur, Josh Matthews, who said there are countless problems for startups to solve with government agencies, biotech and medical companies, and defense contractors among the many industries that call Maryland home.
Access to research from government agencies and Maryland’s universities, and funding from state programs such as TEDCO have played a key role in keeping innovators in Maryland, despite the state’s high taxes, which led to a poor business climate ranking from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At the heart of the entrepreneurial culture surge in Maryland is Baltimore — a city more often associated with crime than with technological innovation and startups.
“I think the most important foundation you have here is industry that has problems that need solving,” said Matthews, co-founder and CEO of Baltimore-based Apkudo, a company that optimizes Android devices for companies, such as Samsung and HTC, before they are released.
While it may not garner the same kind of hype and profit for startups that Boston or Silicon Valley does, its top innovators say Baltimore and the rest of Maryland should not be dismissed.
John M. Wasilisin, chief operating officer at TEDCO, an organization that assists entrepreneurs in Maryland by providing funding and mentoring to startups, said he believes the entrepreneur culture in Maryland is growing as people begin to realize the state’s potential.
“We have all the natural assets that these other regions have,” Wasilisin said.
“We have an educated workforce, great quality of life and access to tremendous amounts of research in university or government labs.”
Support from state government has played a big role in keeping entrepreneurs satisfied with the startup culture in Maryland.
“Maryland has been great,” Merril said, speaking about how the state has supported his business ventures through grants from organizations like TEDCO, and the talent he pulls from the local universities’ STEM programs, which educate students in science, technology, engineering and math.
Although venture capitalists are not quite as enthusiastic to invest in Baltimore startups as they are in those located in California’s Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs and innovators are confident the growing startup culture in Maryland will soon be comparable.
Founder and CEO of Mediaglu, Justin Musterman, who is new to the startup community, said there is a robust network of support for entrepreneurs trying to start a company. Launched in 2009, his company aims to help advertisers reach their target market across all of their computing devices.
There are more than 20 startup incubators in Maryland offering a wide range of services from below market rent to free WiFi in an effort to reduce the operating costs of businesses that are just getting started.
FastForward, based out of Johns Hopkins University, is just one of the incubators that help startups get their technology to market faster, by providing cheap access to office space, research laboratories, and mentoring to people who are often working on their first startup.
“It’s basically a full service accelerator,” FastForward Director John Fini said.
“We provide intensive incubation. We work with them on business plans and help them understand the risks.”
Entrepreneurs in Maryland want more than just the success of their own company. Innovators like Matthews, Merril, and Musterman want Maryland to become a beacon for innovation on the East Coast, which they say will draw more entrepreneurs, and as a result, more investors.
“As we continue to have innovation and success here I think that culture that exists on the West Coast could migrate over here as well,” Musterman said.
“It should be talked about in the same breath as the valley,” Matthews said.
“We can get there as a community. You have this kind of spirit of entrepreneurship — an acceptance of taking risks for innovation. I think the fantastic thing about Baltimore is that there is tremendous opportunity.”
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