Small businesses are facing challenges right now. Maryland Tech Council is using its network of advisers to help them thrive

The organization’s Business Continuity Task Force pairs executives with experienced advisers to provide support and guidance.

Gaithersburg-based EzBiome was struggling with one of the most prevalent issues that businesses are facing in the pandemic — hiring new staff.

That is, until the microbial identification and microbiome sequencing company reached out last year to the Maryland Tech Council’s (MTC) Business Continuity Task Force.

The task force launched in May 2020 to offer guidance for technology, life sciences and B2B businesses having a hard time during the pandemic through a network of senior executives serving as advisers. Nearly 100 companies in Maryland have taken advantage of the program so far.

Small and medium-sized businesses need help. Facing pandemic-prompted challenges from supply chain issues to a shift to ecommerce reliance to self-doubt among executives, company leaders can benefit from guidance from those who have weathered past storms.

In EzBiome’s case, the task force adviser suggested the company implement earlier screenings and questionnaires so prospective employees could be identified and narrowed down faster. The adviser also recommended shortening the time period between giving an offer letter and acceptance of the hire, and they referred the company to some new job portals.

“Those changes helped us interview people who we may not have gotten a chance with before,” said AbdulShakur Abdullah, EzBiome’s business development and operations manager. “We were able to hire a lab specialist and a new person for our bioinformatics section.”

The structure for the task force mirrors MTC’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) program, which offers a network of more than 140 executives and volunteers who provide support for CEOs as they raise capital and build their companies.

Many of those VMS mentors had run businesses during prior financial crises like the dot-com bubble and 2008 recession, serving as a massive advantage when forming the task force.

“It was just a matter of focusing a small group of these mentors on a specific task,” said MTC CEO Marty Rosendale. “They’re giving their time freely and supporting these companies, which is a phenomenal offering on their part. We want companies to understand that they have peers who are willing to share their knowledge and be a sounding board.”

Once a company reaches out to the task force, they’ll get a “discovery” call back within 24 hours so the adviser can learn what challenges the company faces and prioritize accordingly.

From there, it’s up to the adviser to decide how to move forward. They may have the knowledge to help solve the issues at hand or have to refer the company to another expert internally or even a third party. If the mentor feels long-term guidance is needed, they may make a referral to the VMS.

Now, EzBiome is looking to launch a microidentification service for pharmaceuticals so its team can identify various contaminations. The company is aiming to hire more staff, too.

“The pandemic cost us a lost year,” Abdullah said. “It slowed down building out our lab and facilities, getting our name out there, and basically everything for a year. Now that we have that support group and people who we can bounce ideas off of, we’re still moving forward.”

Veralox Therapeutics CEO Dr. Jeffrey Strovel stressed that one of the greatest benefits of the task force is getting to speak with individuals who have a wealth of experience and knowledge.

“I’ve been in the field for quite some time, but there’s no substitute for having different minds apply their energy to your problems,” he said. “It’s good to take in the knowledge of people who have focused on it and done it, and the MTC has a lot of those people who are willing to help you.”

Veralox’s primary candidate therapeutic, called the VLX-1005, is designed to treat a rare blood disorder known as heparin-induced thrombocytopenia and thrombosis, as well as Type 1 diabetes. The company had reached out to the task force for assistance with navigating legal regulations, intellectual property and finance negotiations.

“It’s one thing to develop a new product, but to get it to market is a whole different thing,” said Steen Nissen, a VMS mentor and task force adviser. “You can have the best product in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the skills and resources to get it to market, so I enjoy getting involved in the decisions these people are making so I can help them avoid making the same mistakes that I did.”

Each business may face unique day-to-day challenges during this pandemic, but VMS mentor and task force adviser Dr. Idong Essiet-Gibson believes there’s a simple practice that can be implemented by any company to help keep stability.

“In today’s world, the most critical resource as a business is your people,” she said. “When navigating COVID, it’s critical to talk to your people. You have to understand what their challenges are in order to help them, whether it’s child care issues or not feeling safe. When you understand that, you can create solutions that are feasible for your business while also addressing the employee’s needs.”

Though the task force provides reliable short-term help for companies, the goal of the program is to make sure these companies come out of the pandemic in a position to make money and grow. Rosendale aims to keep the program going post-pandemic, potentially folding it into the VMS.

“We want to make sure that the pandemic doesn’t crush [these companies],” Rosendale said. “We want to put them on the best possible footing to have immediate growth coming out of this pandemic so that they can get right back on the path they were on pre-pandemic.”


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