The Role of University System of Maryland in Economic Development

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Since being named president and CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) in August 2016, I’ve spent a great deal of time speaking with academic, government and industry leaders about the challenges and opportunities that exist for attracting top talent and businesses. And these conversations have not been limited to Montgomery County: If having three finalists for Amazon HQ2 has proven anything, it is that this region works best when Maryland, Virginia and DC work together.

I recently connected with Tom Sadowski, Vice Chancellor for Economic Development for the University System of Maryland and we thought the conversation would make for a compelling Q&A post that I’ve included below. Tom, a life-long Marylander, has spent more than 25 years at the state, local, and regional levels working on economic development. Among many accomplishments, he has shepherded more than $10 billion in projects which included over 50,000 new jobs.

MCEDC has been working closely with the University System of Maryland to help develop the regional talent base. More broadly, what role do you believe USM should play in economic development?

To me it’s about nurturing great minds and a talent base that is essential for growing the regional economy, forming collaborations with industry and emerging businesses to seed, develop, and commercialize the latest technologies.

What we’re really working hard at is identifying those things that we (our institutions, students and faculty) do well, evaluating the commercial potential if innovative ideas and then investing in them and/or partnering with industry so these ideas make their way out into the marketplace. For example, we recently announced a new $10 million Venture Capital fund (Momentum Fund) that has already made three new investments in the past several months. We are also creating new internship programs for our students to work with tech startups, launching a new apprenticeship program, and looking at new STEM funding from the State.

We’ve been highlighting Maryland’s investment in STEM education and strong student interest in STEM fields. Is the region producing enough STEM graduates, and if not, how do we address that?

We graduate 10,000 new STEM professionals annually, and with the new funding provided by Governor Hogan and the state legislature we can generate another three-to-four thousand per year. We’re also working to expand regional education centers like Shady Grove, Hagerstown, Southern Maryland and Towson University’s campus in Harford County.

More broadly, we are working with the secondary schools, K-12, as well as the community colleges to make sure that what they are offering students align with the programming we have to offer. For example, the Shady Grove Aces Program provides academic coaches to targeted high school programs in Montgomery County to pursue cybersecurity and STEM-related degrees. We are also facilitating dual enrollment programs in high schools to start earning college credits before graduation. 

MCEDC’s own shift to more of a public-private model and viewing businesses as true partners has been driven by how we see economic development evolving. What changes or improvements have you seen in economic development since you began your career?

What I’ve really seen evolve is how we now treat companies more as customers and partners. That’s what innovation requires, and without this approach, we just wouldn’t be as successful. We’ve embraced the collaborative spirit, and recognize the important role of business and industry, both for our current standard of living but also for the future. There is also greater focus on diversity and inclusiveness, making sure that everyone has access to opportunities. There are new metrics as well. We are now competing in a global marketplace, where companies are searching for culturally rich locations that offer highly value and a quality education. 

We have such a great story in MoCo, and it’s one I’ve been focused on sharing as much as possible. But there is always an opportunity to do more; from the perspective of the University System, what do you see as key ways for the region to improve its economic development efforts?

First and foremost, we need to do a better job of telling our story. We do groundbreaking work here, but don’t celebrate success enough. We benefit from great cultural and economic diversity, and I think the fact that the region has three locations under consideration for Amazon HQ2, no matter the final outcome, is a testament to a great story here that needs to be told.

Second, we need to be more welcoming of industry and return back to the roots of building things from the ground up. That means software development, robotics, medical devices and healthcare service delivery, to name just a few. We must embrace collaborative partnerships with both government and industry to foster innovation while we are nurturing the best and brightest minds looking to build their own startups.

The trick is letting both companies and entrepreneurs know that they can grow here and find the right mentorship and support. We know that NIST, FDA, NIH, and the Federal labs are tremendous assets; they need to be supported and leveraged in the right way and not taken for granted or relied on too heavily to drive our economy alone. We don’t want to be developing great talent, companies and ideas only to lose them to Silicon Valley or elsewhere.

We are trying to do our part. Across the University System for Maryland we have more than 170,000 students enrolled, and up to 80% stay upon graduation. That’s a very good return on investment. We set a goal to create 325 new companies a decade ago, and we have nearly doubled that – with more than 600 new companies facilitated. But we need to retain and grow these new firms, and their employees, here in Maryland as we go forward.

David Petr is President and CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC).