New Businesses Learn from Each Other at UMBC’s Cyber Incubator
Phoenix Operations Group, an engineering services company focusing on high-end cyber security solutions, needed support to grow. In mid-2015, the company had six employees. Word of mouth brought company officials to BWTech’s Cyber Incubator and the company soon signed on as an affiliate. Though the company doesn’t rent office space, its staff does attend training sessions, participates in job fairs and listens to its entrepreneurs-in-residence.
“We found it a very inviting environment here,” says Devin Edwards, one of the company’s partners and founders.
And they found plenty of help. They got advice on subjects as basic as accounting and as complicated as building bridges to potential customers. Edwards praised the entrepreneurs for their experience and their ability to listen. “Our needs are about recruiting and building our infrastructure,” Edwards says.
A year later, Phoenix has 17 employees and is still growing. They have nearly as many contracts as employees. And their staff works in Aberdeen, near Fort Meade, in Northern Virginia and as far as Texas and Arizona, according to Edwards.
Because of the tech park’s central location, Edwards says the company is in the process of getting office space at the incubator. In addition to providing a convenient meeting place for its employees, Phoenix hopes to bring on interns for their open source development. “Everything’s all inclusive here,” Edwards says.
The Cyber Incubator was built for companies just like Phoenix. Designed to guide companies as they enter the new and ever-expanding field of cyber security, the Cyber Incubator at BWTech Research and Technology Park at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) brings together small and medium-sized firms to learn as they grow.
“UMBC has an economic development mission as well as an educational and research mission,” says Ellen Hemmerly, executive director and president of the UMBC Research Park Corporation and special assistant to the vice president for institutional advancement at UMBC. BWTech serves all these missions, she says.
Of BWTech’s 120 companies on 71 acres, 56 participate in the Cyber Incubator, according to Hemmerly.
The Cyber Incubator offers support for companies in their earliest development, supporting them as they “commercialize” their ideas with everything from advice on insurance and human resources to UMBC students who begin as interns and continue as full-time employees after graduation, according to Hemmerly.
“Almost 150 students are working at companies at BWTech,” says Jennifer Reynolds, Ph.D., MBA, the tech park’s director of venture creation.
The Cyber Incubator occupies three spaces in one office building. The program quickly outgrew its original first floor offices. In 2013, the Cyber Hive opened. A modern red, grey and white shared office space surrounded by glass-walled offices, it offers meeting space for participating companies, and shared office space for affiliates. Additional office space on the second floor opened in 2015.
State-of-the-art facilities include furnished office space, data connectivity, reception and conference areas, private phone booths, coffee lounge and kitchenette – everything a company needs to set up shop quickly, Reynolds says.
Companies also have access to UMBC’s faculty, as well as its library, dining and fitness facilities.
The incubator began with a handful of companies. As BWTech grew, so did the incubator. “It’s been a very fast growth,” Reynolds says. “Cyber security is an industry that is growing. It happened very organically,” she says. “It was the market demographics we responded to.”
The Cyber Incubator offers proximity to all kinds of resources. In addition to being within walking distance of each other, these companies are only a short drive away from the airport, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Aberdeen, Fort Meade and government agencies and contractors.
Another attraction is BWTech’s designation as a Federal HUBZone, which offers preferential treatment for companies, especially minority-, women- and veteran-owned companies, seeking federal government contracts, according to Reynolds.
Most companies come looking for help with developing business plans, hiring talent, writing contract proposals and a host of other business matters. Proximity to other tech firms enables participants to partner on proposals, spark new ideas and bring CEOs from mature firms together with newer company leaders. “That can be a helpful environment,” Reynolds says.
The incubator offers additional layers of business guidance and mentoring. Currently four of the tech park’s five Entrepreneurs in Residence, successful businesspeople with expertise to share, work in cyber security. A Cyber Advisory Board of thought leaders in industry, academics and government meets with participating companies to offer advice on growing their businesses.
Northrop Grumman has teamed up with the Cyber Incubator to assist up to six companies developing new cyber security products and services.
The CYNC program “has attracted excellent companies developing innovative solutions in the cyber security area,” Reynolds says.
“It’s been an exciting opportunity for us to have a strong partnership,” says Christopher Valentino, director of Strategy, Cyber and Intelligence Mission Solutions Division, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and the lead for the CYNC partnership.
Northrop Grumman officials were looking for ways to build awareness about small and medium size solutions and product-based cyber companies when they turned to BWTech.
In April 2011, Northrop Grumman partnered with BWTech to set up CYNC. It provides free office space, business advice and opportunities to work with UMBC faculty and students, as well as Northrop Grumman. CYNC also funds two of the incubator’s entrepreneurs-in-residence. “They work with the companies on an almost daily basis,” says Valentino.
Most CYNC companies participate for about 18 months or however long it takes for a concept to become marketable or a company with a unique product or service is shepherded through the federal government contract process. “We’ve all been there,” Valentino says.
Applicants range from two-person teams with a concept to more mature companies that need help with security federal contracts to international companies interested in entering the U.S. market.
“It’s highly, highly selective,” Valentino says, noting that for every company accepted into CYNC, 100 apply.
While most companies rent furnished office space and share in the perks of printers, conference rooms, free parking and kitchenettes, others, like Phoenix Operations Group, take part as affiliates and can take advantage of the Cyber Incubator’s many programs, networking opportunities and hiring fairs. Dozens of workshops with banks, accounting firms, human resources professionals and others are offered throughout the year, Reynolds says.
Cybertini, a networking cocktail party, brings participating companies together several times a year. The next is scheduled for Oct. 20 at the Columbus Center in Baltimore, and will be held during the Cyber Maryland Conference, a two-day conference for industry leaders. Some 250 attended last year’s Cybertini.
“We expect the same kind of attendance this year,” Reynolds says. Everything the Cyber Incubator does and offers is done to support participating companies.
“We try to learn from each other,” Reynolds says. “It’s a dynamic, innovative community, a vibrant cyber security community.” I95