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Nurturing Success: Growth in Store for Towson Incubator

Clay Hickson, executive director of TowsonGlobal Business Incubator
Clay Hickson, executive director of TowsonGlobal Business Incubator - Steve Ruark
When Clay Hickson talks about technology and innovation, he isn’t limiting himself to IT, biotechnology or robotics. The executive director of Towson University's TowsonGlobal Business Incubator is also talking about Transcending Cosmetics, a recent TowsonGlobal graduate that developed a line of long-lasting concealers for scars that comes in a range of skin colors. Another TowsonGlobal graduate, NeWo Technology, makes wearable sensors to monitor the body’s vital signs and send them to a coach or athletic trainer.

Hickson is helping the university position itself as the go-to place for regional technology startups as TowsonGlobal plans to more than double in size. Hickson was also elected president of the Maryland Business Incubator Association in August. 
The native Texan has an undergraduate degree from George Washington University and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His career reflects his interest in cross-cultural communications and international business. Hickson has lived and worked in Taiwan, is fluent in Mandarin, the primary Chinese language dialect, and was president of the Maryland-China Business Council.
Hickson chatted with BmoreMedia about his plans to expand TowsonGlobal, which operates with an annual budget of $350,000, and the Maryland Business Incubator Association, which has a $15,000 budget.
BmoreMedia (BM): Tell me about the move. 
Hickson: We are currently housed at 7801 York Road, 5,100-square feet of off-campus leased space. At the end of 2012/early 2013, we are moving to a new space at 7400 York Road, a  four-story, 40,000-square foot building Towson University bought and is renovating for its Division of Economic and Community Outreach. We will occupy one floor, about 10,000 square feet. Towson University had leased most of the building for many years, then decided to buy it. [See related story.]

BM: Your responsibilities at TowsonGlobal changed recently. Why?
Hickson: Towson University is positioning itself as the facilitator for innovation and entrepreneurship in the region. We want to strengthen the innovation that resides on campus and spin out from the campus to support the broader community. President Maravene Loeschke is encouraging that.
I've been TowsonGlobal’s director since opening in 2007. In 2012, my position was upgraded to executive director and my responsibilities expanded. In addition to helping the entrepreneurial audiences, part of my responsibility is to facilitate the development and expansion of innovative activities on the Towson campus by making cross-discipline connections among faculty, staff and students.
BM: How does TowsonGlobal operate?
Hickson: The incubator is for Towson University faculty, staff, students and anyone affiliated with the university. But you don’t need an affiliation. We work with a mix of entrepreneurs in industry sectors from technology to commodities.
We provide secure office space, internet and fax and support services like a mentor to fine-tune tenants’ business plans. Membership fee is based on square foot of office space, from $300 to $600 per month. Associate members pay $100 per month now, but that may change in the future.

BM: What companies have you/ are you working with?
Hickson: Video gaming, solar energy, medical-related devices. We’ve worked with a specialty coffee importer, a furniture importer, the insurance industry.  At the end of 2011, we had 100 percent occupancy in our current space – 15 companies, of which 12 were residents. When we move, we can increase the number of resident members, potentially to 20.
In spring 2012, Towson Global had its first graduates – Transcending Cosmetics, NeWo Technologies and Chesapeake Compensation Solutions, a human resources company.  We expect to graduate at least four companies by the end of 2012.
BM: Let’s turn to Maryland Business Incubator Association (MBIA). What does it do?
Hickson: We are a 10-year old professional association for leaders and managers of incubators. Our members [represent]  95 percent of the nonprofit incubators in the state. Of our members, 55 percent are technology-oriented and the others host other industries. Typically, nonprofit incubators are affiliated with universities or with economic agencies.
Our mission is to present a united voice for the advance of business incubation in Maryland and to maintain the growth and viability of business incubation through shared best practices. We also promote a variety of resources to support incubators.
Our members do not include for-profit incubators and accelerators put up by venture capitalists. That’s not to say we wouldn’t want them as members but at present, they’re not.

BM: What are your plans for MBIA?
Hickson: I have formed a task force that is in process of strategic planning. Once the plan is finalized, I want to grow the budget. We are an all-volunteer organization but it would be nice to have at least a part-time executive director. We are looking at corporate sponsorships and grants, and to identify different revenue sources for our members.
BM: Rumor has it you were a child entrepreneur. 
Hickson: I started my first business when I was in the fourth grade. With a grant from my parents, I bought a bunch of hens whose eggs I sold to customers. Eventually, the rising price of feed was more than I could charge for the eggs. That was my introduction to entrepreneurship.
BM: How did you get from eggs to incubators?
Hickson: My first job out of graduate school was with Burson Marsteller, a multi-national marketing, communications and public relations company. Then I worked at the World Trade Center Boston. I spent eight years at Rhoton Hill Group where I did market research and strategic planning for large and small companies domestically and internationally. Then I decided to do something different.
BM: Is that what brought you to Baltimore?        
Hickson: I knew Towson University was launching an incubator to help companies succeed in the global economy. My work had increasingly expanded from Asia to consulting projects around the globe. It seemed like a good fit.
Barbara Pash is BmoreMedia's Innovation and Jobs News Editor and can be reached at [email protected] Pash writes for Maryland Life magazine and is a former contributing editor to MarylandReporter.com.  

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