Think of Maryland’s many military institutions, and a soldier may be the first thing that springs to mind. Yet places like Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Detrick are also home to thousands of scientists.
It’s the kind of work that’s often been at the heart of discoveries that turn into a commercial product. An initiative launched by the Maryland Department of Commerce is seeking to spur such tech transfer within the state.
DefTech Maryland, or the Defense Technology Commercialization Center, was launched with a pilot program in 2018 at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, and opened a space in Havre de Grace. It has since expanded to other Army installations at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Fort Detrick in Frederick, and has a presence at local innovation hubs including Columbia’s Maryland Innovation Center and Frederick’s FITCI. Funding is provided through the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment and the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, through its Regional Innovation Strategies Program.
Military research has long been a starting point for technology that made it to the federal market. A 2018 report found that Maryland is home to 74 federal labs in all, which is twice as many as any other state. Like the university-based medical research that’s at the heart of plenty of local startups, the military labs have a mechanism that can allow intellectual property to be licensed for commercial use. And given that there’s everything from biology to semiconductor physics, it means lots of potential.
There are plenty of factors involved in bringing technologies to market, but most often they start with people and communities. In the cycle that turns an innovation into a product that fuels a business, the introductions offered and connections made along the way are important factors.
“The thing that underpins all of this activity is networks,” said Gary Evans, who is executive director of the DefTech Maryland program.
Indeed, “DefTech is people,” said Maryland Department of Commerce Grants Program Manager Jennifer White, who coordinates the program within the agency. Along with Evans and the two other team members, it’s about “the relationships they’re building between federal labs and entrepreneurs in the state.”
Evans said there are three levels on which DefTech looks to do that. The first is outreach and spreading awareness that there are discoveries being made at federal labs that could be commercialized. DefTech also has info on available technologies, and works with entrepreneurs and companies to help find patents in the Department of Defense research labs that may be a fit for commercialization.
Another is education. As leaders of the Taking Technologies to Market meetup group, it looks to help entrepreneurs and others understand how they can engage with federal labs productively, as well as navigate the tech transfer process. DefTech has hosted 21 events on topics like product development, customer discovery and funding opportunities.
At a closer level, DefTech also works with companies one-on-one to help facilitate that engagement with the federal labs. It also provides IP “matchmaking,” letting folks in specific areas of focus know if there’s a potential technology available that would be of particular interest.
The work to bring folks together was on display at a recent event held inside Pigtown’s 1100 Wicomico. About half the attendees were clients of DefTech interested in commercialization opportunities, while the other half were from tech transfer offices at the labs and experts in areas like IP and finance. Evans and others from DefTech were actively introducing folks to each other.
Speakers also talked about topics that can help bring a new technology to market, such as product development. Attendees heard from Harbor Designs and Manufacturing CEO Kevin Barnes, and got a chance to tour the company’s space.
As principal of Baltimore-based Early Charm Ventures, Ken Malone is working to bring innovation to market from many Maryland institutions, including military research labs. He said Evans and the DefTech team get that the process is “about connecting people and having conversations that lead to partnerships.”
“He understands how to bridge that gap between how business people talk and think, and how people at federal labs talk and think,” Malone said. “Being able to bridge that discussion is really important in making the right introductions in the right places.”