In September, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) named the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) as one of 50 winners of its first Growth Accelerator Fund competition. HCEDA’s Accelerator for the Commercialization of Technology (ACT) was selected from more than 800 applicants competing for $50,000 cash awards from the SBA, and was the only Maryland program to win.

Existing as a partnership between local research institutions and HCEDA’s Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE), the ACT is designed to streamline technology licensing. The program’s first Memorandum of Understanding was announced in August, with The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in North Laurel. Agreements with other research institutes are expected to follow.

Coming just one month after that initial agreement was announced, the SBA award underscores the importance of a longstanding strategic partnership between HCEDA and APL. Significant as that relationship has been, though, leaders of both organizations say the new agreement is about to make things even more interesting.

Unique Advantage

First, however, here’s a closer look at the SBA award.

Winners were selected from among 100 finalists by a panel of seven judges who are experts in entrepreneurship, investing and business plans, both inside and outside federal government. The participating accelerators inhabited a spectrum of industries and sectors, ranging from manufacturing startups to farming ventures.

“The SBA is empowering accelerators and startups that are on the cutting edge of successful, innovative new endeavors,” said SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, citing the success that communities like Silicon Valley have had with the accelerator model. “We believe we can export this type of sophisticated support structure across the country to help startups become commercially viable and create jobs more quickly.”

In accepting the cash award, the ACT must commit to quarterly reporting for one year, providing metrics such as jobs created, funds raised, startups launched and corporate sponsors; this, in turn, will allow the SBA to create a useful database of accelerators and their impact, and to develop long-term relationships with the startups and constituents in innovative and entrepreneurial communities.

“We couldn’t be more proud of ACT Director Valerie Gaydos and the team at the MCE, where the program operates,” said HCEDA CEO Larry Twele. “Since signing the MOU, two companies have agreements to license technology, and we expect two more to follow in the next 45 days.”

“With my background as an angel investor, I come at the program a bit differently,” Gaydos said. “Our strategy enables us to get to market faster and cuts down on research and development time.”

Participating companies have access to collaborative space, but Twele said he considers the talent surrounding those companies to be the best resource they have.

“Our Entrepreneurs in Residence make a big difference, because they speak the language and give startup companies the benefit of their expertise and experience,” he said.

Big Numbers

At the APL, 2014 turned out to be a record year for transferring technologies to commercial industry. All told, the lab launched six startup companies, filed disclosures for 257 inventions and recorded 77 agreements to license APL-developed technologies.

The number of invention disclosures increased by 12% from fiscal 2013 numbers. Varying widely in subject matter, they include technology enabling a scalpel with integrated circuits that tells the user what type of tissue s/he is cutting; a socially networked air quality monitor; and light fidelity technology for autonomous transportation and improved situational awareness.

Compared with previous years, there was an increase in biomedical technology disclosures, likely related to APL’s strategic focus on health care, said Heather Curran, senior technology manager in the office.

“There has also been a rise in bio-related sensors and information processing,” she said. “It’s also no surprise, given APL’s strong background in space, that the recent public spotlight and growing commercial investment coincide with an increasing rate of APL disclosures for space and environmental sensors.”

Partners in the Climb

Laboratory innovations led to six new startup companies last year, bringing the total number of APL spinoffs to 34 since fiscal 2000.

They include NexGen Forensic Science, marketing a technology that can identify each individual involved in a real-world crime scene; Articu-Tech, an educational company focused on exploring the science and technology behind mobile devices; Cognoscenti Systems, a cybersecurity firm; Reality Inc., which will leverage a backpack-portable mapping system for use in locations where GPS is not available; WREN Scientific, providing home care products for asthmatic patients; and Bioreactors Technologies, which intends to bridge the expensive development gap between lab research and biomedical tools suitable for FDA trials.

According to Norma Lee Todd, head of APL’s Office of Technology Transfer, several of these new businesses are a direct result of APL’s partnership with the MCE.

“The increases (in transfers) that we’ve seen over the last couple of years also directly reflect the vision and ingenuity of our staff members, the resourcefulness of our tech transfer team and the contributions from lab partners in industry [and] in government,” she said.

Todd credited APL Director Ralph Semmel for placing a strong focus on innovation and creativity within the organization. “It has permanently changed the culture to allow better stuff to move forward and drive our intellectual property portfolio,” she said.

To better support the Office of Technology Transfer, MCE has staffed a panel of business champions who review APL technology and give feedback on what’s good, what might work and any commercial applications the technology might tie into.

“This new partnership exposes us to the right people who can help with commercialization,” Todd said. “Our goal is to have more startup companies formed based on APL technology, and we expect the momentum we’ve experienced over the last year to continue and be amplified through this partnership.”