Tech incubator opens for business

The Chesapeake Innovation Center, a technology incubator for start-up firms developing homeland security technology, has formally opened its doors, hoping to develop a market with government agencies and the private sector.

The facility is home to seven new companies, including wireless communications firms, security technology companies, a biotechnology company developing a treatment for anthrax exposure and one vendor that develops systems for first responders to gather information about chemical or biological exposure and transmit data.

Incubator officials in Annapolis, Md., have been signing tenant companies since midsummer and have filled 80 percent of the space. They selected companies based on a list of needed technologies that the National Security Agency, a partner in the venture with Anne Arundel County's Economic Development Corp., provided to incubator managers.

CIC Director John Elstner said NSA officials tell him what technologies they are interested in pursuing, and the information shapes his recruiting efforts to select the best tenants. With NSA's guidance, incubator officials are scouting for knowledge management, data-mining and peer-to-peer communications firms.

Nokia Corp. is also a founding partner. Innovent, a team within Nokia, offers collaboration and guidance for early stage communications companies.

The incubator, housed in an Annapolis office park, will expand its space to a total of 24,000 square feet when renovations on an adjacent floor are completed, Elstner said. It will have space for 20 to 25 companies.

The incubator's mission is to nurture small companies. Along with office space, the center provides access to mentors and potential investors. Elstner's task is to manage the facility so that companies can grow, develop their technologies into products and find buyers.

NSA is not usually so open about what kind of technologies it is seeking, but saw the center as an opportunity to cultivate needed technologies, according to William Black, NSA's deputy director.

"The speed with which technology is advancing makes it critical that ideas get put to use immediately," Black said.

The incubator also brings fledgling companies together, opening the potential for collaboration that might not otherwise occur.

The potential is already paying off for at least one of the companies, Realinterface Expert Systems Inc., said its president and chief executive officer, Chris Sleat.

The company is developing technology that will allow first responders to assess victims to determine if they've been exposed to chemical, biological or nuclear agents. Through interaction with other companies at the incubator, Sleat and his team have begun to add new authentication and location-based capabilities to its systems.

"The value is tremendous," said Edgar Kalb, director of channel marketing at ICUC, which is developing a technology to link all of an individual's contact information to a single phone number.

The company believes that the system will make it easier, for example, for emergency responders to communicate with one another during a catastrophe, if one mode of communication should be shut down. ICUC allows users to create e-mail addresses and other Internet communications designations that are based on a phone number.

Kalb said the incubator gives the company more open access to potential customers, including telephone companies and Internet service providers.

Another company, PharmAthene Inc., saw a similar value, said David Wright, president and chief executive officer. The biomedical company is developing treatments for anthrax and plans to begin the process of earning Food and Drug Administration approval in about a year.

"I really wanted to be in an incubator situation," Wright said. "They provide a lot of value-added assets. Maryland is blessed with [several] incubators but only one focused on homeland security."

Elstner predicted a wide market for companies that successfully get their technologies to a marketable stage.

"The homeland security market is a little bit hard to get your arms around," he said. "By our definition, homeland security is everything spent by the federal government to protect the homeland but also everything spent by private businesses to protect their businesses."

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