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Montgomery County Gives Lift to Entrepreneurs With Innovation Network

Innovative businesses from a wide range of industries choose Montgomery County for its location, infrastructure, and robust support services.

By Kevin Litwin on May 2, 2014

Innovation is par for the course in Montgomery County, where location, infrastructure and robust support services foster entrepreneurial growth.

Fifty businesses based in the county are on the Inc. 5000 list, which catalogs the nation’s fastest-growing companies, and the Milken Institute ranked Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick in the top 25 percent on the 2012 Best-Performing Cities Index.

Biotech for a Healthier Future

Rockville-based Neuralstem, which develops neural stem cell therapies for incurable conditions, is the first company to make such therapies commercially viable. The therapies are currently in Food and Drug Administration trials for treating ALS, acute and chronic spinal cord injury, stroke and major depressive disorder.

“Everything we do is first-in-human for treatment of these conditions,” says President and CEO Richard Garr.

The company’s co-founder, Dr. Karl Johe, discovered neural stem cells while working at the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health. Garr says Neuralstem has benefited most from Montgomery County’s proximity to key biotech institutions like the NIH, Johns Hopkins and the Rockville-based Maryland Biotechnology Center. Networking opportunities, easy access to wet labs, and abundant banking and legal options have also helped the sector grow.

“Everything we needed to build and grow a successful biotech company was already here,” Garr says. “Montgomery County’s biotech sector has its own gravity – it’s at the heart of the biotech industry.”

Data Collection for Weather Safety

From its home base in Germantown, Earth Networks operates the world’s largest lightning detection network. The company provides data for severe weather forecasts and warnings to a host of clients, including the National Weather Service, NASA, school systems, professional sports leagues and major utilities. Earth Networks’ latest ventures include partnering with developing nations to set up affordable weather-tracking technology.

And tens of millions of consumers worldwide use WeatherBug, the company’s mobile app for Android and iOS, to track severe weather in real time.

Amena Ali, the company’s chief marketing officer,  says Earth Networks’ Montgomery County location is crucial to the company’s success.

Germantown is close to the federal agencies that are the company’s key partners, and the region’s proximity to three international airports makes it easy for Earth Networks’ international team to travel efficiently. The skilled workforce is another advantage.

“For a fast-paced technology company, finding the best talent is key to building a successful business,” Ali says. “Our location makes it possible for us to access the brightest, best-educated and most talented professionals in the metro region.”

Financial Education for the Online Generation

Rockville-based Griffin Enterprises is innovating in an entirely different direction: MoneyU, the company’s game-based online course, teaches personal finance to young adults ages 17-25.

Katherine Griffin, the company’s founder, first came up with the idea for MoneyU while teaching workshops through Kensington’s Parent Encouragement Program, where she is a longtime board member.

“Most of the financial literacy programs out there have been created by the financial industry,” Griffin says. “I saw a need for consumer-centric content with no conflict of interest. I wanted to focus on young adults because that is where the illiteracy is most acute and the potential for trouble is greatest.”

Most of Griffin’s clients are colleges and school districts that purchase MoneyU for their students. But she’s also seeing increased business from job corps, workforce placement and credit counseling programs.

According to Griffin, her Montgomery County location is a major factor in her company’s success. Griffin Enterprises was born in a Montgomery County Innovation Network incubator, where Griffin says mentors helped her every step of the way, from “kicking the tires” of her business plan to securing funding.

“This is also an area with a lot of think tanks and policymakers who are thought leaders in education innovation, and I appreciate being able to meet them in person and have extended conversations with them over time,” Griffin says. “Montgomery County is just extremely innovator-friendly.”

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