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Council and businesses consider innovation to bring in the jobs

Founders of successful Montgomery County businesses discussed why they’re in the County and how they thought it can maintain the inflow of innovative businesses and jobs in a June 20 learning session with all nine County Council members.

David Petr, CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, who organized the event, said the many key components of an attractive package for innovative businesses include: (1) a talented workforce; (2) good real estate space in which to locate; (3) capital access through banking and venture capital; (4) good transportation within the jurisdiction and to the rest of the country and the world; (5) clusters of expertise in particular businesses; (6) good local education systems, both K-12 and university; (7) an effective workforce development program; (8) openness to change and innovation; (9) nurturing small businesses and incubator programs in fields with special promise; (10) and a good community in which to live.

“We crush Fairfax County” on standards such as place to live, education systems, work-life balance and traffic, said Tien Wong, founder/CEO of Opus8 in Chevy Chase, a statement that brought smiles and support from Council members.

But, Tien said, Fairfax still beats Montgomery in attracting many tech businesses. Opus8 is a consulting and conference company for private equity and venture capital investors.

The other founders/CEOs who participated in the discussion were Ting Shih of ClickMedix in Gaithersburg, Mike Simon of Cryptonite NXT in Rockville, and Timothy Chi of Wedding Wire in Friendship Heights.

What attracts a company may be more specialized than the package components cited by Petr. For instance, Shih said that ClickMedix, which harnesses data to improve outcomes and cut costs in health care, is drawn to Montgomery County by the presence of the National Institutes of Health and other health-related government entities and by Maryland hospitals’ unique pricing and budgeting systems, which incentivize cost savings.

Chi said that at least half of Wedding Wire’s 300 employees in the County work in sales, and the company even has four full-time sales trainers. Sales may not be as high-tech as the work in many innovative companies, but it is fundamental for almost every company’s existence and growth, he continued.

Council members Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and Sidney Katz (D-3) said they both did sales work when they were young and that it had little prestige, as “something anyone can do.”

Both agreed that is not true and said that developing sales skills, whether on the job or in training classes, is essential for many people.

Council members Elrich, Craig Rice (D-2), and Hans Riemer (D-At Large) discussed whether the County is training enough competent people in computer and biotech professions to meet the needs of innovative companies. They noted that some business people say they can’t find the tech people they need in the County.

Rice asked how the County is missing important areas of tech skills training, when Montgomery College, the Universities at Shady Grove and the County public schools are working to produce graduates possessing a wide variety of skills.

Wong said that, while the County’s educational institutions are meeting most technical needs, some businesses need “role players” to fill highly specialized skill needs.

Simon, whose firm produces both hardware and software for cybersecurity needs, said he can find very competent people in the County to fill jobs. The County needs an attitude and reputation as “a place to build things” to become a stronger magnet for tech companies, he noted. Petr added that, apart from the contributions of the schools and colleges, job training for people already working is essential to maintain the County’s competitiveness. In this area, he said Workforce Montgomery, under its CEO Ellie Giles, is doing an excellent job by asking employers what skills they’re looking for, devising specialized training for those skills, and finding the right people to take the training.

Council member Nancy Navarro (D-4) said that the Council and County government had scored many individual successes to foster business innovation, such as establishment of small-business incubators, various subsidies and grants, building spaces for new companies, and certain changes in land use.

“The question is,” Navarro continued, “How do we put it all together in a holistic, comprehensive way” to sustain and expand the County’s role in the innovation marketplace?

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