Think of innovation communities, and typically startups spring to mind first.
When a community is thriving, it has participation from many different kinds of organizations. Some fuel new ideas. Some offer guidance on building a business. Others provide the resources to move the young companies forward. The point is that it makes room for groups of many different sizes to collaborate on developing new technologies and models.
That includes corporations. In the regions Technical.ly covers around the mid-Atlantic, we’ve seen how the largest and most established companies in an area can serve in an organizing role, and bring the perspective of operating at scale. Plus, they’re always on the lookout for talent.
So we’re taking interest in a new initiative in Maryland that is seeking to provide an onramp for corporations to engage directly with the ecosystem: Maryland Business Innovation Challenge (MDBIC) is creating a crowdsource-style mechanism that is bringing together corporations and innovators to solve problems.
“The Maryland Business Innovation Challenge is a great opportunity for our corporate community and our innovators to build new connections, accelerate business opportunities, and raise the awareness of the immense talent of our state’s innovation network,” Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz said in a statement. “We are confident this challenge will help us to grow stronger, more competitive companies, attract investors, and ultimately create more jobs.”
The business challenge will work as a reverse pitch: The participating corporations will issue challenge statements that are distributed throughout the state. Then, innovators from the startup, small business and academic world will be able to pitch potential solutions. The idea is that corporations can get access to the new ideas, uncover technology and meet talent to help move things forward, while innovators can get exposure and build relationships with bigger firms, said MBIA Senior Director of Operations and Programming Betsy O’Neill Collie.
“This is not a competition,” Collie said. “It’s a challenge. The outcomes are the relationships that are developed between the organizations.”
The plan is to kick off the effort with a virtual release series of the initial challenges the week of Feb. 15, leading in to six weeks of development. In the fall, a bigger event will serve to share the learnings and results.
In interviews, leaders from three corporations that signed on discussed their challenges and why they got involved. They see MDBIC helping not just individual connections come to light, but to build a community of Maryland corporations working with startups.
Healthworx, the Baltimore-based innovation arm of health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, sees the pieces in place for a thriving ecosystem, with leading medical institutions, policymakers, and large payers and providers. MDBIC can help to fill the “gaps” between the innovators and corporations, helping the startups to navigate the complex healthcare system that they often must do business with in order to grow, said Emily Durfee. She’s Healthworx’ program manager for 1501 Health, the incubator that the org is launching next month with provider LifeBridge Health.
Specifically, Healthworx is focusing its challenge on healthcare at the neighborhood level and engaging people with tools that they can use to improve health outcomes. It’s not just a matter of the care they receive, but how they’re able to access it, trust and other social factors.
“This is a really amazing opportunity because we are able to say, what are the biggest problems that we see right now and how can we leverage this amazing ecosystem of smart, passionate experts in healthcare to problem solve that with us and to come up with ideas that, with our support and mentorship, will be able to make it to market,” Durfee said.
At Sparks-based management consulting and tax firm SC&H Group, there has long been an innovation committee to identify new technologies and approaches that help their work, and CEO Pritpal Kalsi said the company wouldn’t have have grown without this approach. Now it sees innovation as a “core value.”
“It’s a value that excited each and every one of us to look beyond what is, and challenges them to grow individually and challenge others to help them grow,” Kalsi said.
SC&H Group sees taking part in MDBIC as a way to engage with others who embrace that approach like they do. Its challenge will be around remote work. Kalsi said the team hasn’t “skipped a beat” since the shift caused by the pandemic, and has implemented lots both in process and culture. But it continues to look for the best approaches. So MDBIC will be a chance to learn from others, and return the favor by offering insights when its can.
The challenge can also present a chance to build on nascent strengths for the region. Iconic tech company IBM, which has a cluster of offices in central Maryland, has long worked in developing quantum technology in its labs. Now it is part of a group — which includes government, institutions like the University of Maryland College Park and businesses — that’s seeking to build more connections around applications of the atomic-level advances that could power areas like computing and healthcare.
John Joaquin, who leads IBM’s corporate social responsibility and innovation efforts in the region, sees key pieces: There are federal research labs and academics working on technology, and startup activity moving to commercialize it. And the state’s existing tech strengths in security and life sciences will be important for quantum’s adoption, as well.
So IBM is focusing on quantum with its challenge as an extension of that bridging to learn “who is interested in quantum, what talent is out there and what business ideas or use cases are applicable to quantum computing.”
“We see it as part of that effort to start building out the different areas and identifying players and getting a regional movement forward as an early market leader, and really moving on getting the technology to work better,” Joaquin said. “A lot of technology companies see that quantum is going to be very important in the future. How completely, it’s not known yet, but as it becomes more common, this region wants to lead in the application of this technology toward societal use cases that impact humanity.”
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