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Jodi Cook, founder of Thesia Medical LLC - Arianne Teeple
Jodi Cook, founder of Thesia Medical LLC - Arianne Teeple

Jodi Cook is no stranger to startups. She's been involved in two budding medical device companies in the past, but the third time around would be different. She'd be in charge.

"I wanted to start my own," says Cook, a Baltimore City resident and founder of Thesia Medical LLC.

Before, when she was one of nearly two dozen employees trying to get a product off the ground, she says, "you're just heads down and doing it."

This time, she wanted to have a hand in the finances, the business plan, the marketing efforts. But she needed help, and turned to a program out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County designed to help women entrepreneurs commercialize a technology ventures.

Women taking charge

UBMC's ACTiVATE (Achieving the Commercialization of Technology in Ventures Through Applied Training of Entrepreneurs) program recruits mid-career women usually with about five to ten years of experience and a drive to start a business, but who perhaps lack the knowledge and support to do so.

The program was started in 2005 with a three-year $712,000 National Science Foundation grant aimed at supporting underserved populations in this case, women, who tend to be few and far between at the helm of technology startups. This would be a way to foster so-called technology transfer, providing the people needed to scale up an idea for development and commercialization, says ACTiVATE program manager David Fink.

Initially, there was a heavy emphasis on the technology transfer, so the participants were introduced to technologies being developed by Maryland universities. Later, the program evolved to allow women to pursue their own technologies and ideas, ones they were already passionate about.

"The whole idea is to have a process that lasts a year, and they learn by doing," Fink says.

So far, the program has graduated nearly 100 women and started more than 30 companies. UMBC officials are actively recruiting for the sixth year, which starts in February.

Back to the classroom

Unlike some university-based tech transfer programs, ACTiVATE targets mid-career professionals, rather than degree-seeking students, notes Stephen Auvil, director of UMBC's Office of Technology Development.

"Our objective was to start companies, and we have been successful doing that," he says, adding that although not every technology venture pursued will be successful, the participants will have the introduction and foundation to commercializing a product.

Part of what makes ACTiVATE unique is that it is limited to women, giving them the supportive and comfortable university setting in which to take a risk in the business.

"We are clearly underrepresented," Ellen Hemmerly, executive director of UMBC's Research Park Corp., says of women as heads of technology companies.

Depending on whom you ask, women tend to learn differently than men, and ACTiVATE sets out to give them the supportive environment ideal for excelling.

Second, the university foundation gives the women access to the top experts in the field, not just at UMBC but also at partner universities and labs in the area. UMBC has housed a business incubator since 1989, so through ACTiVATE, experienced entrepreneurs who have been through it before and prevailed can come in and work with the budding entrepreneurs, Hemmerly says.

With the supportive environment and connections to successful business leaders, Fink adds, "We are developing a community of women that doesn't exist in this area."

Women at work

For Carol Covin, a computer science engineer living in Northern Virginia, the program gave her the support she needed to pursue a product she had already been researching and developing for a couple of years before joining the program.

The 2007 ACTiVATE graduate wanted to develop a natural cancer treatment found to be successful in the 1980s, but that never made it to market. She had been compiling data and was working with a consultant, but needed help with "the next step," she says. She needed the structured environment in which to write business and marketing plans, cull the documents needed to acquire funding and scale up the venture.

She had the medical and clinical part down for her product, but didn't know the first thing about the market place, budgets, or business development.

"When I came to the ACTiVATE class, I didn't know if it was viable as a business," Covin says. "I didn't know if it was going anywhere."

The rigors of the program helped her realize it was. Although she needed more than the program's one-year timeline to get everything in order, she had laid the groundwork.

Her company, Sky Blue Pharmaceuticals LLC, incorporated in May 2008, and she has applied for grant funding with plans to approach the FDA for a Phase I clinical trial.

"The program was just exactly the right fit for me to say, 'This is what I need for my company,'" she says.

Like Cook's, Covin's path was paved with entrepreneurial efforts, hers less-than-successful. She started a publishing company in 2000 that suffered after a "change in business model," notably the technology industry crash that made her books for computer professionals a tough sell.

She also tried her hand at a real estate business, buying and managing commercial and residential properties, a venture that fell apart with the real estate crash. Now, she says, she's got more of a foundation.

"For one, I've got the papers," she says, referring to the marketing and business plans. "Two, they give you tons of experience in standing up and explaining your project."

Trial and error leds to success

Of course, not every venture to come out of ACTiVATE or any incubator program is a guaranteed success, and the effort is often chalked up to experience.

That was the case for Cook. "You have a lot of mis-starts, go down a path and realize it doesn't work," she says.

Cook, an audiologist and 2008 graduate of ACTiVATE, was developing a device to monitor patients receiving regional anesthesia. Earlier this year, she won an annual business plan competition run by the Rockville Economic Development Inc., which came with a $10,000 prize to help her begin building a prototype. (Covin was a finalist in the competition.)

But recently, Cook realized that a license deal on the product could not be completed, so they decided to stop moving forward on this particular device.

"It's not unheard of," she says. "It's part of doing a good plan upfront, and prevents you from spending a lot of money and five years and then not going forward."

She's not deterred, though, and is already talking with other investors with other technologies.

"I can branch from what I've done and look at other technologies," she says. "I anticipate this is another work experience that I can take and transfer into the next business opportunity."

Sara Michael, who lives in Remington, is a writer and editor who has written about health, science and technology.

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