Over the past five months, the US state of Maryland has set in motion a soft-landing programme that lets foreign businesses test their product or service in the country. Its goal, which is particularly pertinent to smaller ventures, is to take the fear out of entering the world’s biggest economy. 

The programme, which launched in June, matches entrepreneurs with one of 17 local incubators and accelerators, where they can locate two staff for a three-month period, pay discounted rent and receive a host of personalised services. Maryland Department of Commerce deputy secretary Signe Pringle told fDi about the rare, obligation-free opportunity to explore the US. 

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Q: What’s the motivation behind this programme? 

A: From talking to foreign start-ups and even mid-size companies while travelling the world, we realised they had a common fear of getting lost in the US market. They can’t invest millions, but they are far enough in their business development for the US to make sense. We thought we could help close the gap with a programme that puts us on the map, and helps them gain a foothold in the country in a more organised way.

Q: What does the programme offer? 

A: In addition to physical space, companies can receive mentoring advice, networking opportunities and matchmaking meetings. It can also involve training and accessing finance. That’s beyond the usual support we provide in navigating regulations, getting registered and so on. 

Q: Must participating businesses set up a permanent presence? 

A: They don’t need to register as a business in Maryland to be part of the programme. Think of it as a trial run, to understand if there is a market for them and become comfortable knowing they have a partner here. We want to make a strong impression that Maryland is the right place to access the US. But if they determine the US is not for them, that’s ok. They aren’t wasting time and resources by having to make a full investment right off the bat.

Q: How is this different to other US soft-landing programmes? 

A: As far as we are aware, this is a one-of-a-kind, state-wide programme. Others might call themselves a soft-landing programme, but they offer working space on a case-by-case basis. We’ve taken the coordinator role, formalised all resources and existing support for various industries, and we match businesses with incubators based on their needs and intentions. 

Q: There are similarities between Maryland’s cyber company exchange programme and a programme from the Netherlands in 2016. What’s the relationship here? 

A: That was a small, tailored pilot that became the launchpad for today’s bigger programme. We didn’t expect the Dutch agreement to grow into this model we have now. But, given the success and feedback from the cyber exchange — plus interest from other countries — we launched this programme and decided not to limit it timewise. It will continue to grow and additional services may be added in future. 

Q: How many Dutch exchange firms remained permanently in the US?

A: We are aware of at least one company, but more may follow suit. So we believe there are probably more that arrived after the programme completed.

Q: What types of businesses are interested in this new soft-landing programme?  

A: We’ve had a lot of interest, especially from smaller companies. Maryland is known for cybersecurity, life sciences and advanced manufacturing, so I naturally see us moving towards these industries. But that doesn’t mean others won’t find the programme successful. We are already working with the UK, Netherlands and Canada when it comes to specific companies, but see interest from all over, especially Korea and Japan. 

Signe Pringle is deputy secretary of economic development agency the Maryland Department of Commerce.

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