The Frederick Innovative Technology Center’s (FITCI) Edge Accelerator Program Mentoring the Next Generation of Frederick, Maryland Life Science Startups
The Edge program recently announced its second cohort of 14 startup companies
The Frederick Innovative Technology Center business incubator and accelerator, or FITCI, as it is better known, has been a linchpin for the Frederick, Maryland life science ecosystem for more than 15 years. BioHealth Capital Region signature companies like RoosterBio, Inc., BioFactura, Theradaptive, KempBio (now Kemp Proteins), and Bridgepath Scientific all made their start at FITCI.
FITCI has assisted 163 businesses in biotech, cybersecurity, IT, renewable energy, and other sectors across its history and the incubator has helped approximately 27 of the 80 biotechs now operating in Frederick get their start. Now the next generation of promising entrepreneurs and startups are making their way through FITCI’s new The Edge Program, which launched in 2019 and recently announced its new 2020 cohort.
“As an outgrowth of our advisory boards, our chairman would get together to discuss the needs of our clients and from that, we’d create coursework to meet those needs. Each of our clients seemed to be missing a piece of their business model or needed work on their value proposition and they were raising money, so we built classes and events around these challenges,” stated Kathie Callahan Brady, FITCI’s CEO.
During an advisory board meeting with Vladimir Popov, the Director of the Partnership Development Office at Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNLCR) and a FITCI mentor, Callahan Brady said, “The clients really need an exceptional accelerator program and he said well let’s do it. Vladimir and Karen McCord, the former CEO of Breezio, were really key to developing The Edge program.”
“I wanted to develop something that we could build on year over year adding to it with each instructor so it never gets stale,” added Callahan Brady.
To get The Edge off the ground and running, Callahan Brady pitched the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce Leaders on Loan Program to help get the community involved. She was chosen to work with a group of leaders to develop the first group of advisors, mentors, and teachers. The group’s goal was getting as many connections into Frederick County Business Leaders as possible. In addition to FNLCR and the Frederick Chamber, Hood College, the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, and the City of Frederick Department of Economic Development are also signatories on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) as the founding partners forming the program. A grant from the Rural Maryland Council provided funding for the accelerator as well as for the program’s curriculum model.
Callahan Brady also knew that FITCI needed a repository of best practices, tools and resources for Frederick businesses that should build on the foundational work of the incubator.
McCord introduced Callahan Brady to the Founder and Partner of Humble Ventures, Ray Crowell. Crowell’s programming was a perfect model for what Callahan Brady wanted to do at FITCI, and through a Rural Maryland Prosperity Investment Fund of the Rural Maryland Council (RMC) grant, Callahan Brady was able to adopt the Humble Ventures model, which became the initial infrastructure for The Edge program. Crowell came on board to teach at FITCI for the first few weeks and then trained the trainers on his approach and coursework.
Today, The Edge is a robust 12-week community growth accelerator program designed for aspiring entrepreneurs and startups. The 12-week program is a boot camp that includes customized mentorship, expert guidance and access to valuable resources and programming to help entrepreneurs speed the learning curve and avoid making costly mistakes. More than 40 mentors and advisors work with each cohort to refine their business models, sharpen their value propositions and build their respective strategies for market research, test strategies and to secure funding. The Edge program culminates in a Demo Day where program participants make their pitch to a panel of investors and judges.
“For the people who go through the accelerator, I wanted them to have a different instructor each week so they have the benefit of different entrepreneurial journeys. I wanted them to pitch to at least five different advisors each week so that their pitches are solid by the end of the 12 weeks. The beauty behind this accelerator are the connections made and the diversity of the instructors. For example, some of the instructors bootstrapped their businesses while others scaled their businesses by raising Venture Capital investments. Very different approaches and learning opportunities.” shared Callahan Brady
The 2019 cohort was a big success for the first year of The Edge program and many of these entrepreneurs have come back to work with the 2020 program cohort.
“The first cohort of 14 entrepreneurs became best friends. They are a diverse group of people who are still helping one another. It’s lonely at the top and having a group of entrepreneurs that will stick with you no matter what is invaluable. I haven’t seen that in any accelerator I’ve been involved with before nor was it something I expected. The 2020 cohort seems to be bonding in the same way,” stated Callahan Brady.
Ivana Shuck, a graduate of Hood College and FITCI’s Community Manager, has really seen this community-focused accelerator close up, as she works intimately with each cohort.
“The network is an obvious benefit for our cohorts. Our 2019 class has built a lot of partnerships with one another, our mentors and business resource partners as well…we also connect the cohorts to other resources and other organizations and we advertise them and promote them as much as possible. We just try to keep helping them throughout the process and even beyond the 12 weeks,” shared Shuck.
Sue Carr, a member of the 2019 EDGE cohort and the CEO of CarrTech, LLC., built her business around her FROG™ system, or Filter Removal of Glass, which is the only all in one package filter and hypodermic needle combined. The FROG™ eliminates 3 dangerous steps where needle sticks and wasted time occur, during filtering of medications packaged in glass ampoules.
Carr had this to say about her experience with the 12-week program: “As an entrepreneur in the life science space, I never really thought about the business side of things. I had a brilliant idea, and I thought I could easily sell it to a bigger company. After forming my company and bootstrapping my way through two patents and a prototype, and raising capital through friends and family, I could not understand why the big guys were still not interested…The Edge mentors were fantastic in helping us determine our value proposition, our customer segments and customer relationships, revenue streams, cost structure, key partners, key activities, and my biggest struggle the ‘Go to Market’ strategy. We then learned to put metrics into our value proposition and we built pitch decks. From day one, we established our one minute elevator pitch and every week, we pitched.”
“The other EDGE entrepreneurs and mentors became my family. We supported each other then and still support each other…My network has grown tremendously. I have since won an investment from TEDCO Builder Fund, and won 5th place and $10K from the Ratcliffe Shore
Hatchery, Perdue School of Business, sponsored by Salisbury University. The EDGE gave me a business foundation and showed me how to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible with the confidence to succeed. I cannot thank all of the members of FITCI enough for their continued support ensuring the success of CarrTech,” Carr added.
Chris Pondoc, a member of Frederick High School’s 2020 graduating class and the Founder of Vita Edo, a startup company that links high school students to jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities, is also a 2019 cohort member. He has returned to FITCI as a 2020 mentor while he awaits in-person classes to return to Stanford University.
“The Edge program can be summed up with one word: direction. While there are a plethora of resources out there to learn about entrepreneurship, it can often feel like trying to navigate through a never-ending labyrinth. Furthermore, considering I was still in high school, the entire process felt like trial and error. Being a part of the EDGE accelerator allowed our team to step back and answer more assumptions, build a deep network of fantastic entrepreneurs and mentors, and launch…our social venture,” shared Pondoc.
“The Edge encourages entrepreneurs to dream big and come up with great ideas but puts into place a process, accountability and focus. As entrepreneurs we have so many ideas but at some point you have to focus. The cohort gets all those ideas out on the table, tests them and then helps to get laser focused. The expansion of ideas and then fine tuning happens several times during the program,” stated Callahan Brady.
“By the end of the program, you have a strong business model and a solid pitch. You’ll have pivoted several times and changed your customer persona and then nailed it by week 12. Not many entrepreneurs will test, examine, produce and do it over again several times but when they do their business model is pretty solid after the 12 weeks program,” added Callahan Brady.
For entrepreneurs interested in joining the 2021 The Edge cohort, FITCI is seeking entrepreneurs who are coachable, that have a compelling “why” and that want to be part of the Frederick community. The Edge program and FITCI are primarily focused on biotech and tech. Callahan Brady shared that all of The Edge mentors and advisors care deeply about the Frederick community and helping it thrive and applicants should ideally feel the same about Frederick. Of the 2019 cohort, about 50% of entrepreneurs and companies have become either FITCI members or have returned to mentor the 2020 class.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the 2020 cohort program to go virtual, FITCI and The Edge program continue to be critical to fostering and mentoring the next generation of Frederick biotech startup companies. The 14 startups that are part of the 2020 cohort, which includes several life science-related companies, are in good hands. The startup ecosystem in Frederick is thriving, and FITCI and The Edge program are a big reason why.
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