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Growing healthy entrepreneurs

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: We know that in order to grow a plant, you need the seed and put it in the soil and give it plenty of water and sunlight. It turns out that growing a business requires similar ingredients. Entrepreneurs need contacts, financial support and expertise. Researchers call that an "entrepreneurial ecosystem." Today we visit one in Maryland that helped to create a trial-blazing computer simulation company. From the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk Steve Tripoli reports.


STEVE TRIPOLI: A computer simulator at a company called SIMmersion has me playing the role of an Army chaplain.

It's a training exercise where I'm questioning a troubled young recruit named Billy Parker.

Billy's a videotaped actor and the computer picks his answers based on my questions.

TRIPOLI: It seems like something's been bothering you lately. How are you feeling?

BILLY PARKER: (Sighs) I dunno. Nothin's goin right. I keep getting into arguments with everyone. Just I'm so mad all the time.

The questions are supposed to gauge just how troubled Billy is without driving him away.

Billy lets on that's he thought of harming himself. A new question brings more revelations.

TRIPOLI: Billy, help me understand why you're thinking about suicide now.

BILLY: Cause my life sucks. Cause I'm goin' home to visit my Mom and I've gotta explain to her and the rest of the family how I'm such a screw-up, that my wife can't stand to be with me, that she's leaving me.

Don't worry, we won't leave you hanging about poor Billy.

SIMmersion got its start in Columbia, Maryland because founder Dale Olsen was a veteran of the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. Hopkins has lots of smart people, a key ingredient in what business folks call an "entrepreneurial ecosystem."

Dale Olsen says those contacts helped his startup from outside when he wasn't big enough to have their skills inside.

DALE OLSEN: What I had is really strong people, people who made movies who were willing to stick their neck out to help, go a little bit above and beyond. People who wrote software and were willing to put a little extra time in to make sure things were done well and done right. There was a lot of pieces put together.

Hopkins colleagues also helped Olsen with computer, editing and budgeting support. And Olsen's many years with those people brought his startup more than brains.

OLSEN: I had earned the trust and confidence of the people around me. And so they gave me more latitude than they might have given somebody without having, done what I'd done.

One way they helped? Olsen says the Applied Physics Lab didn't insist on timely payment for some services when he was struggling.

Joe Hadzima helps loads of startups worldwide through the MIT Enterprise Forum near Boston. Hadzima says stories like Olsen's follows a familiar entrepreneurial recipe.

JOE HADZIMA: The base components in my mind are knowledge and information on how to do an entrepreneurial thing, role models and the network that allows you to connect with people and ideas and money.

Back in Maryland Olsen's startup has a logical customer base among federal agencies. They buy training simulations teaching everything from courtroom questioning to sensitivity to Middle Eastern cultures.

My simulation revealed at the end that poor Billy Parker wasn't at high risk for suicide, but before I knew that I'd extracted a promise.

TRIPOLI: OK Billy, tell me your understanding of what we're gonna do.

BILLY: I'm gonna come and talk to you tomorrow.

Hmm, maybe I'm in the wrong line of work.

I'm Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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