The Daily Record of Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) — “I’m a winner! It’s gonna be me!” That’s Raj Williams, CEO of the consulting company Green Sensitive Design, who just finished pitching her business growth plan at an event for startup entrepreneurs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

As Williams excitedly recounted her experience, others milling around behind her practiced their pitches and waited for their chance to step up — literally.

To present their business plan, each individual climbed inside a bright yellow bus — the outside splashed with the Maryland flag pattern and the inside outfitted with a recording studio.

The eye-catching bus was parked outside the university’s research and technology park, bwtech@UMBC, as part of a two-week bus tour and business competition launched by Startup Maryland, a regional initiative of the Startup America Partnership.

The statewide Pitch Across Maryland tour targets dozens of hopeful entrepreneurs from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland. At each stop, participants meet and receive feedback from top business leaders and have the opportunity to record a four- to six-minute business pitch inside the bus studio.

A panel of business professionals will judge the entries and choose several to advance to the next round. The winners will fine-tune their pitches for showcase at the Entrepreneur Expo, an event on Nov. 13 sponsored by the Maryland Technology Development Corp., or TEDCO.

And participants, who were mostly seeking funding to grow their businesses, said they were thrilled to have the chance to secure needed capital and publicize their ventures.

“I think Startup Maryland is really ahead of other states, because it’s awesome to have this opportunity to pitch,” Williams said. “It gives you the confidence, and also makes you spit it out and explain succinctly what it is that you do.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley told a crowd of about 50 people at the event why their entrepreneurial spirit is crucial to boosting Maryland’s economy, creating jobs and making the state more competitive in the business arena.

“(Maryland) is in fact a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said as he discussed the necessity of commercializing ideas developed in universities and business incubators.

The UMBC stop was about midway through the tour, which lands at economic development agencies, business incubators, conferences and other colleges across the state — about 25 total locations.

Organizers said the goal is to put entrepreneurs in the spotlight and give them a bigger megaphone so they can increase their chances of finding investors.

“Nothing sells your idea and your business better than you,” tour Co-Chair Mike Binko said. “So let’s give them the opportunity to pitch to people who wouldn’t otherwise have heard it.”

Ajibike O. Salako-Akande, a 58-year-old primary care physician from Carroll County, was among the seven people who pitched their ideas at UMBC. She is trying to find funding to manufacture and bring to market a line of natural pharmaceuticals that treat addiction, she said.

She’s been preparing for this moment for 16 years, she said before stepping onto the bus.

Turnouts have already exceeded organizers’ expectations, Binko said. More than 75 contestants have registered, and Binko said the team expects to record about 100 pitches by the tour’s last stop in Columbia next week.

The tour wraps up with a celebration at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sept. 28, and by the middle of October, organizers will upload all the pitches to social networking websites for public voting. This “fan favorite” won’t automatically advance in the competition, Binko said, but will hopefully benefit from the exposure.

In early November, a panel of venture capitalists, officials from economic agencies and other professionals will review the pitches and choose the eight entries that show the most potential for growth, Binko said.

These finalists — “the Great Eight” — will receive extensive mentoring and assistance from established business owners, lawyers, accountants and other experts before presenting longer, more detailed presentations at the Entrepreneur Expo on Nov. 13.

Then, another panel will select a winner and a runner-up, who will move on to regional venture capital conferences, such as the Southeast Venture Conference, Binko said.

“We are basically positioning the Pitch Across Maryland as a feeder to some of these larger events that come up in 2013,” he said.

The Startup Maryland team next heads downtown, to the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business on Thursday and to Mother’s Federal Hill Grille on Friday for a happy hour event in the popular South Baltimore bar.

TEDCO and the Department of Business and Economic Development are co-hosting the tour, and Binko said his team is heavily promoting the Maryland Venture Fund — a pool of state money for early-stage technology and life sciences companies.

Maryland has sometimes come under fire for what some people call its unfriendly business climate compared to neighboring states. But several other initiatives are in place to spur investment and innovation.

In the General Assembly’s special session in May, the legislature renewed a biotechnology tax credit that acts as an incentive for individuals or companies to invest in startup biotech firms. Investors can receive a credit of up to $250,000, and the state has allocated $8 million for the program.

O’Malley said higher education plays a key role in nurturing the state’s business environment, but it’s crucial to facilitate collaboration between the researcher community and the business community, and to provide a mechanism for startup firms to move beyond early stages.

“(We need to) push ideas out of the labs,” he said, and help them become strong enough to be picked up by venture capitalists.

Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore,

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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