This article is sponsored by the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development.
It’s an exciting time to be a small business in Baltimore County.
Biotech and edtech startups are thriving locally, thanks in part to Baltimore County’s Boost Loan Fund program, which launched in October 2014.
The Boost Loan Fund is a loan program funded by revenue generated from Maryland’s video lottery terminals. The recipients — small, minority, woman and veteran-owned businesses throughout the state — receive loans of $50,000 to $250,000, which are then used for start-up and gap funding, improvements and acquisitions, and for working capital. To date, over $2 million in loans have been approved for local businesses.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz challenged the Department of Economic and Workforce Development, which administers the Boost program, to exceed the 50 percent target goal of reaching minority, women, and veteran-owned business. The result: more than 75 percent of all Boost Loans went to these business owners. The county is actively reaching out to its next round of applicants to keep the momentum going.
Those businesses span a variety of industries, including companies like Aegis Mechanical, an HVAC and plumbing contractor, which is using its Boost loan to expand its government contracting business, and cybersecurity business Light Point Security, using its loan to grow its customer base.
When Nicole Tucker-Smith founded the Towson-based Lessoncast in 2011, she knew she wanted to be smart and strategic about the way it grew.
That’s where the Boost Loan Fund came in.
The Boost funding Lessoncast received provided working capital that allowed Tucker-Smith to make sure her company’s product and process was scalable and ready for expansion.
Lessoncast is a mobile information-sharing platform where educators create, share and consume “lessoncasts” — short digital presentations designed to address specific instructional needs. Think lesson plans, but shorter and clearer, incorporating digital elements and with more focus on the “why” behind the plan.
“Being in the education space, we really wanted to take time to validate what we’re doing to show there are improved outcomes for teachers and students,” Tucker-Smith said.
To do that properly, Tucker-Smith needed access to working capital to focus on research and increase staff while considering next steps. A loan from the Boost Fund got Lessoncast where it needed to go.
“Prior to having the Boost funds, we had more opportunities than we were able to take advantage of,” said Tucker-Smith. “Now we’re able to increase our team and acquire new customers, since we know we have technology that works and has impact. The working capital allows us to expand our reach and increase our sales.”
Tucker-Smith applied and received her first loan in May. Now she’s working with Baltimore County to pursue other financing opportunities.
“The first round, we were testing the waters, so we applied for a smaller amount,” she explained. “Now we have other people on our list to hire and we’re going to increase capacity that way. We’re also looking at some technical adjustments in addition to increasing the sales force.”
For Kimberly Brown, the CEO and founder of Amethyst Technologies, LLC, access to Boost Fund capital meant her company was able to expand, both in the U.S. and Africa, into new business sectors.
Amethyst provides technical quality assurance and standards compliance assistance to laboratories; the staff is on the front lines of international healthcare, helping eradicate diseases like Ebola.
Thanks to Boost funding, the company will hire new staff. With the cushion the loan provides, the company has also been able to focus on building and developing laboratories of its own.
“Since we’ve been able to obtain that Boost loan, we are poised for significant growth this year,” said Brown. “We’re working on five different projects.”
Brown praises the Boost program not only for how it’s helped her business, but also for how small business-friendly it is. “It’s straightforward, the application process is streamlined and they ultimately want us to be successful,” she said.
The application process starts with a visit to the Boost Loan Fund website, where qualified applicants — small business owners who can provide collateral and personal guarantees for the loans — complete an application with information about the business and the potential use of the funds.
Applicants go through a vetting process and, once approved, receive loans of $50,000 to $250,000, with a reduced down payment and interest rates at or below current market rates. Loans have 20-year maximum terms and the Boost program works with borrowers to create payment plans that work best for individual companies.
“It’s very different than a traditional loan,” Brown said. “This is more focused on how they can help grow your business. It’s more dynamic.”
And for small, minority, women and veteran-owned businesses in and around Baltimore County, that dynamism has resulted in something big: innovation.