InConversation with Janice Riley, Manager of the TIC
In recent years there has been a surge of interest in biotech entrepreneurship, with many scientists wanting to take their innovative ideas and develop them into new products and technologies. And what better place to start a business than the up-and-coming BioHealth Capital Region! Entrepreneurship comes with many challenges, though, especially for scientists who are just beginning to dip their toes into the world of business. How do you secure capital? How do you effectively manage your employees? What kind of legal terms and conditions must a biotech business follow, and how do you even get started learning all of this material? What the heck is an “angel investor”, anyways? As somebody with a PhD in molecular biology myself, the thought of starting a business terrifies me. I might be a wizard when it comes to pipetting, but I barely know anything about navigating the business realm!
That’s where Janice Riley and the Hagerstown Community College Technology Innovation Center (HCC TIC) comes in! TIC is considered to be Western Maryland’s largest technology-based business incubator and the main conduit for connecting up-and-coming biotech companies in Western Maryland with local experts in the BioHealth Capital Region, including Saul Ewing, SCORE and TEDCO’s RBI2 program which provides technical and business assistance to small companies and early stage technology-based companies in rural Maryland. A few of the exciting biotech startups coming out of TIC include Scaled MicroBiome and Protein RST, Sequalab and Luminescent MD.
The TIC is also home to InnovaBio-MD, a contract research organization run by Hagerstown Community College to create flexible industry-based research internship opportunities available to both college and high school students. InnovaBio-MD contracts projects from regional biotechnology agencies and interns conduct the work right there at the labs at TIC. This program represents the first partner community college to replicate Salt Lake Community College’s widely successful InnovaBio Program.
Janice Riley currently serves as Manager for TIC and has been with HCC for almost 5 years. She holds a B.S. in Marketing from Shippenburg University and possesses vast expertise in strategic consulting. I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Janice about her career path, her time with TIC, and her passion for community (and international!) outreach and service.
What’s your background before TIC?
“I don’t have a formal science degree, but science has always been a huge part of my life and is something I’ve always been extremely passionate about. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and I spent a lot of time doing things out in nature. Hunting…fishing…gardening…you name it! And even though I have a business degree, I still came back to a career that is rooted in STEM.”
*Ding!* She took a brief break to check a text on her phone. “Sorry about that–that’s my husband. We got our first set of chicks for our new chicken coop today and he just sent me a picture! See what I mean? I might have a business degree, but you can’t ever take me away from nature and science!”
She chuckled, adding, “A big misconception is that you have to be a scientist and have a science degree to have a successful career in science–I don’t think that’s true at all. Having the technical knowledge is certainly important, but I find a lot of scientists struggling to get their business off the ground or file a patent on their technology.”
What is it that first got you involved in biotech?
She recalled her previous position at a small software development startup in Rockville, MD, where she was involved in marketing outreach for the National Space Grant (a part of NASA’s college outreach and fellowship initiative).
“This position is where I really started to get involved in science and biotech, and it was a lot of fun! I had the opportunity to attend a lot of scientific meetings and meet astronauts and big-wigs like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Something I noticed, though, was that when many of these high-level scientists spoke to non-scientists, they still used a lot of science jargon in describing what they do and pitching their ideas. Sure–you might have invented the world’s greatest new piece of nanotechnology that is going to end up curing cancer, but if you can’t explain how it works to non-scientists and stakeholders without using all sorts of jargony, super-technical terminology, your message is just going to go over everybody’s head. You’re going to struggle in getting any kind of support because no one’s going to understand what you’re working on or why they should care!”
“That’s where I really saw the need for people like myself—people who might not have a PhD in the sciences, but who have the business and communication expertise to bring to the table. I started becoming interested in working with scientists and helping them navigate through the business world.”
What brought you to the TIC?
“After the strategic consulting company I was working for became too large for my preference, I moved into my current position as Manager of TIC; which was almost 5 years ago. Since then, my team and I have successfully helped more than 20 startups get their footing to establish themselves in the industry.”
“I really love what I do! Not only do we provide startups with incubator space and personal access to key resources and experts, but we really strive to build relationships and establish community between TIC and the HCC students and faculty.”
What are some ways that TIC helps to build the community?
One way that TIC has helped bring the community together is through the “Mugs & Pitches” program, where investors, entrepreneurs, and other professionals meet monthly to practice their business-pitching skills. At each meeting, two businesses each have 7 minutes to give a practice pitch. Members of the audience then have the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. And, of course, there are plenty of coffee and pastries to go around!
“We started Mugs & Pitches in response to a growing need to bring together individuals in government, business, and academia. It’s started becoming very popular, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback. The neat thing is we also don’t focus it solely on biotech or the cyber realm because we feel the conversation is richer when we open it up to the community at large. We’ve even had pitches for lacrosse equipment!”
“What’s been particularly memorable is that we also see a lot of multicultural diversity in the people who attend these events! And this diversity evolved naturally over time, which is so awesome and makes this event that much more special.”
What do you enjoy most about the work you do?
“I really enjoy seeing people get their first big breakthrough, whether it’s getting that first piece of key data or otherwise. Seeing their excitement in getting their first big result is something that I never get tired of, and at TIC we really feel like we’re a part of that whole journey!”
What are you passionate about outside of your 9-5?
Not only does Janice help build businesses within the Biohealth Capital Region, but her outreach also extends internationally. In 2008 she launched her own strategic consulting firm, Janley Consulting, in which she has co-authored book chapters and hosted workshops focusing on women empowerment. One of her more recent projects has been working toward establishing peer mentoring groups around the Hagerstown area.
“Hagerstown is such a great community for biotech growth, but the problem is that we’re a bit too far out to be able to easily take advantage of all the events and opportunities offered in D.C., Northern Virginia, and Baltimore. If you have a family, this makes it even more of a challenge. We’ve started working around this by hosting many of our own local events and workshops. I think it’s important that people in our area are able to enjoy the same career development opportunities as our neighbors.”
Janice is also very active in volunteer work, both in the local Hagerstown community and in impoverished communities across the world. She and her husband have both attended numerous church mission trips to developing nations, such as the Dominican Republic and India. She has not only taught international workshops through these trips, but she has also helped in constructing buildings and improving community infrastructure.
After talking with Janice, it’s no surprise that she and TIC have won numerous awards for their commitment to fostering entrepreneurial success and serving the local community, including the very prestigious Governor’s Citation that they received in 2016. Janice has undoubtedly proven herself to be an extremely vital part of the BioHealth Capital Region, and we are so fortunate to have her and TIC as a part of our growing biotech community!
Sarah Ellinwood, PhD