UMD’s public-private incubator celebrates five-year anniversary
The Discovery District, an incubator for tech firms and start-ups established by the University of Maryland (UMD), celebrates its fifth anniversary in 2022, and with it, looks to its future in partnership with the City of College Park.
“We worked collaboratively with folks in the community to create our Vision 2030,” said Ken Ulman, chief strategy officer for economic development with the University of Maryland College Park Foundation. According to Ulman, this plan includes transportation options – “more bikeability, more walkability,” in his words – as well as more opportunities for locally owned businesses to set up shop. The plan also calls for more student housing close to the UMD campus.
The Discovery District is located on two tracts of land across Route 1 from the main campus; both parcels are owned and managed by the university. A business incubator previously occupied land around the College Park Metro station; that parcel was merged with land acquired in 2017 and became the Discovery District of today.
Ulman noted that the Discovery District has been a stepping stone for a number of UMD graduates: “Brednan Iribe created Oculus on the West Coast. Sergey Brin built Google on the West Coast. Ethan Brown took Beyond Meat to the West Coast.” Ulman underscored that while the West Coast has an appeal, staying put in Maryland offers advantages, too. The Discovery District is now home to more than 60 businesses, and Ulman pointed to one in particular, IonQ, that chose to stay close to its UMD roots.
IonQ was founded in 2015 with $2 million in seed money and joint technology licensing from UMD and Duke University. The company’s mission is to bring quantum computing to the marketplace; it has maintained its headquarters in College Park since its founding, and even signed a deal in September 2021 for a new initiative, the National Quantum Lab at Maryland (Q-Lab), at the university. The new enterprise will be housed in a $20 million facility that will give researchers access to the most sophisticated quantum computing technology available.
“The University of Maryland possesses more than 200 quantum researchers … it is one of the largest hubs of quantum talent in the world,” wrote Dillon Olagaray, an associate with the strategic communication firm Mission North, on behalf of IonQ in an email. He went on to say that IonQ has invested in the community because it sees this area as being an important hub for the industry in the future.
Ulman is well aware that convincing talented engineers to stay in College Park can be challenging in today’s competitive market. He said that catering to the full range of young workers’ needs is critical to retention. “Mass transit is at the heart of [our development strategy],” he said, noting that the Discovery District’s first residential space, The Atworth, is ideally situated for access to the Purple Line and planned bike lanes along Route 1.
Residents throughout the city are turning to eco-friendly transit, too, which fits with Ulman’s vision for a more sustainable community. Members of the North College Park Community Association (NCPCA) met on June 9 to discuss a planned apartment complex along Baltimore Avenue, and many participants, including now-NCPCA president Alaina Pitts, expressed strong desires for the developers to add more substantial bike paths as they finalize plans for the development.
Ulman, an avid cyclist himself, is looking forward to those Baltimore Avenue bike lanes, but he’s set his sights on more. UMD’s computer science and engineering programs are among the largest in the nation and offer an enormous talent pool. “We have proximity to an anchor institution with 41,000 of the best and brightest, and connectivity to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.” he said. He anticipates that College Park will see significant growth as more companies take up residence at the Discovery District.
Although most of the businesses incubating at the Discovery District are in technology and aerospace industries, other sectors are represented, as well. Ulman cited a number of promising biomedical firms in residence and is particularly proud of the partnership that is growing between creatives and the incubator.
Jauvon Gilliam, a faculty member with the UMD School of Music and a timpanist with the National Symphony Orchestra, opened The Shed, a facility offering instrument and equipment rentals, as well as rehearsal space with 24-hour access. Ulman said that members are welcome to use the space to create and collaborate whenever and however they like, “whether you just want to go and grab a guitar and play, or your band wants to record their sound.”
More than 6,500 employees currently work in businesses incubating at the Discovery District, surpassing the number at BioPark, the UMD biotech-focused incubator in Baltimore. Ulman said that he hopes to see this number nearly double to 11,000 Discovery District employees by 2030.