We at the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) are very optimistic about the New Year.

The economic growth that’s underway in Howard County is progressing, with many positive signs on the horizon. Businesses are hiring across sectors from information technology (IT) to retail to manufacturing. Our unemployment rate of 4.2% continues to be the lowest in Maryland and is well below the national average. Our top priorities for 2015 remain job creation, business attraction and serving as a catalyst for innovation.

Howard County is uniquely positioned to leverage the opportunities a resurgent economy will produce. We’re excited by the activity of Howard County-based businesses like The Coastal Companies. This produce distributor employs nearly 1,000 people and is constructing a 332,000-square-foot headquarters and distribution facility that will create 500 new jobs. Coastal could have taken its business anywhere when it decided to build, but the company chose to remain in Howard County.

We will continue aggressively pursuing industry leaders in cybersecurity to grow or relocate by showcasing Howard County as a premier business locale. Cybersecurity and IT are, and will remain, among the key focus areas for the HCEDA in 2015. IronNet Cybersecurity recently announced plans to relocate its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Howard County, and during the next two years the company expects to generate a significant number of technology jobs.

The expected growth at Fort Meade will continue to provide opportunity for county companies that support the defense and intelligence communities. Fort Meade is Howard County’s largest employer, and the facility is expected to create 3,000 new jobs during the next five years. The ripple effect could produce as many as 10,000 new jobs for the region, and we are making sure that Howard County businesses are positioned to capitalize on those opportunities.

Our proximity to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency gives us the opportunity to truly own the cybersector. Our engagement at industry events like the RSA Cyber Conference and the National Institute of Standards and Technology/National Initiative for Cyber Education have only served to reinforce the belief that Howard County is an international leader in this growing industry.

Another sector where we expect to see tremendous activity is in health IT. We have great examples of the potential opportunities in that area at HCEDA’s Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE). Two of our resident companies are attracting local and national attention for the innovations that will save lives and money.

Vheda Health is addressing the problem of patient non-compliance, which contributes hundreds of billions of dollars to chronic disease-related hospitalizations annually. Their patent-pending mobile technology increases compliance through an intensive intervention combining high-touch visits from a real care team and remote monitoring from biometric devices.

Vasoptic Medical, another MCE resident, has developed technology that can analyze pictures of a patient’s retina to determine if the person is at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy. The condition affects nearly one in three diabetic patients and can lead to blindness (if untreated). Vasoptic’s initial focus is on enabling primary care providers and health care retailers to perform routine eye exams remotely by using a specialized camera.

Expect to hear more about the need for business diversification in 2015. With economists voicing concern about the state’s dependence on government contracts, the HCEDA will build on its strategy to help existing businesses grow, and we’re sharpening our focus on national and international market opportunities to attract new businesses to Howard County. Additionally, our Catalyst Loan Fund has almost $2 million available to assist small business growth and development in the county.

Howard County’s reputation is a tremendous asset and one that we will continue to leverage as we engage new market opportunities. Not only do we have a world class public education system and easy access to major transportation networks, we are nationally recognized for the quality of life the county offers.

Another asset is the county’s positive business climate. We repeatedly hear that Howard County “gets it right for business.” It’s a strength we will build on as we move into the New Year.

The MCE is not only becoming a recognized major center of innovation, but is also a factor in our attraction strategy. From Government Technology Magazine to the U.S. Small Business Administration, the MCE is being acknowledged for its support of entrepreneurs, driving innovation and attracting new businesses to the area.

During a recent visit to the MCE, U.S. Small Business Administration Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet praised its innovative approach, one example of which is the HCEDA’s Accelerator for the Commercialization of Technology (ACT). The program is one of 50 nationwide to receive $50,000 in SBA funding to help federal agencies and institutions commercialize the technologies they’re developing. In a very short time, four companies are in the pipeline, and we’ll be aggressively pursuing additional opportunities in 2015.

Our goal is to make Howard County a world-class center for entrepreneurship and innovation that supports the economic development needs of the county. 2015 is rich with opportunity, and the HCEDA will continue to lead the way in growing the local economy.