From Healthcare to Gaming, Local Businesses are Innovators

Frederick County is home to an amazing, innovative, creative business community. These featured businesses are making an impact on their industries, workplace, and community — thriving in today’s ever-changing environment.

After choosing the Top 50 innovative businesses for 2023, the Frederick County Office of Economic Development selected five companies to highlight as good examples of innovation in their areas of expertise. 

@VR Virtual Reality

As Shantay DeMar’s sons were growing up, local entertainment options mainly consisted of moon bounces and trampoline parks. The kids instead were big into the gaming world and DeMar was inspired by their passion to create @VR, a virtual realty gaming location, in 2019.  “I just wanted to do something different for them and give them a different experience and also lead by example in regard to entrepreneurship in this technology in general,” he says.  He also wanted his children to be able to think creatively when seeking a passion that’s not a typical 9-to-5 shift. 

Instead of traditional gaming with players sitting at a console using a controller, the Frederick-based business offers guests HTC vive pro head sets linked to computers so they can feel like they are actually inside a virtual world. With these premiere headsets, there’s basically no lag time with seamless motion which decreases the chance of motion sickness and provides a higher picture quality for a full immersion experience. “When you are turning your head or doing any movement, the automation is right there currently with you so there is no lag and no drag,” he says. “It is real time.”  

@VR has over 70 games for patrons to chose from including escape rooms, adventure, sports, roller coasters, puzzles and destination games. “It is literally for every age,” DeMar says. “…There is something for everyone to capture everybody’s interests.” 

Innovation is an important part of @VR because DeMar not only wants to give customers the best experience possible but also help the community learn more about the growing technology. “Virtual reality is at the ground level,” he says. “I think it has so much opportunity for growth. Technology is always evolving so there are so many things coming up in the very near future. I just think virtual reality as a whole is so innovative with so many opportunities for companies to be able to provide training and guidance and all types of stuff. The sky’s the limit for virtual reality and obviously we want to grow with it as it evolves.”

Frederick Health Precision Medicine and Genetics 

No two people are the same, so why are people who have certain medical conditions treated in the exact same manner? Frederick Health is aiming to change this narrative. In July 2020, the medical and health organization opened a section devoted to precision medicine and genetics. With a focus on personalized medical care, clinical experts are able to put together individualized disease prevention and treatment plans, leading to better health outcomes and personal wellness.  

“There has been a rapid evolution and proven efficacy of using a gene informed approach now,” says Patricia Rice, clinical director. “That has really accelerated the demand for genetic testing and personalized medicine at the same time. Therefore, we as a healthcare organization wanting to be on the cutting edge, needed to develop a unique program that could provide this type of service.”

General medicine historically treats patients reactively. They come into a healthcare facility with an issue and medical staff treat that issue. “Precision medicine and genetics allows us to be proactive in our medical care and providing care that is unique to that individual’s makeup,” she says. “We have learned over the years that the one-size-fits-all approach to medical treatment is no longer and probably will not be standard for very long. We will be using more of a gene informed approach because every individual is unique based on their genetic makeup and that is why treatments fail and they are not effective.”

The team looks at family health history, personal medical history, the patient’s genetics/DNA profile, plus current medications. Their areas of focus include cancer, heart disease, behavioral health, endocrinology, neurology and rare conditions. In addition to performing genetic testing, Frederick Health has integrated the genomic information into their electronic medical records. 

“That puts our genomic information right in front of our providers so as they begin to use it in daily practice…they can apply their medical treatment based on that unique individual’s makeup,” Rice says. “…We truly believe as an organization that this precision medicine approach is going to provide our patients with better health outcomes, less treatment failures and less need to visit the hospital. We believe genomics and genetics in precision medicine provides a unique approach that is definitely going to be more effective for our patients. When you have a healthy patient, you have a happy patient and subsequently a happy community so that is really our vision and our mission.”

Rice foresees genetics to be on the forefront of medicine. “I truly think the first step in someone’s diagnosis in the very near future is going to be genetic testing and then go from there to make the best approach for treatment,” she says. 

District Farms 

Brothers Ali and Ibraham Sharifzadeh, along with Jason Stern were all attorneys, but didn’t find the work gratifying or fulfilling. “We were looking for something a bit more hands on, a bit more impactful for the future,” says Ali Sharifzadeh. “We are all very passionate about what we eat. After we visited our first greenhouse, we fell in love with it and knew what we wanted to do.” 

In 2017, the trio founded District Farms and yielded their first crop in 2019. The Frederick-based facility is unique in that its entire farming operation is all indoors in a four-acre greenhouse. “We grow hydroponically in a closed loop watering system which means we recycle pretty much nearly all of the water that is unused by the plants,” Ali says. Some of their best sellers include green butterhead lettuce and loose-leaf lettuce spring mix. 

Before opening their farm, the three men saw how climate can be controlled via sensors, computers and other electronics. “That was a pretty incredible thing to see that it would allow us to then grow produce year-round,” Ali says. “We are not confined to a certain growing season. Our growing season is 365/24/7.”

Additionally, higher yields are possible in a smaller area. “Those were big motivators for us and so far, it has proven right,” he says. “We are able to grow in the winter and we also want to use the power of the sun…We have special glass that evenly distributes sunlight within our greenhouse, so we get nice uniform growth of our leafy greens.”

The Kroger Co.

Final preparations continue on on The Kroger Co.’s Customer Fulfillment Center in Frederick with hopes of opening in the spring of 2023. The supermarket giant has partnered with Ocado, a grocery e-commerce technology company, to create an automated warehouse facility with digital and robotic capabilities to better serve customers across the region.  

Kroger, along with other grocers, partner with gig delivery services. However, this vertical integration delivery allows Kroger to own the entire process from end to end. The customer places an order, robots move the products around to associates who build the order based on the products that are brought to them. The automation increases the speed at picking items to about a sixth of the time that they can do in a store. 

“The artificial intelligence that controls the building really optimizes everything from end to end for the customer,” says Bill Bennett, vice president of e-commerce. “They bring products for bagging in the right order so that you don’t have a loaf of bread on the bottom of the bag with canned goods on top. Really the whole packing (system) is done in a very thoughtful way.” 

With a dedicated facility, staff is not competing for inventory with customers that are in the store. “We know exactly how many units we have of every single item in our entire inventory, Bennett says. “We can perfectly rotate the inventory when something gets close to expiration. We can put it on a flash sale to make sure we move it out before it goes bad. You really just have a lot more control over the freshness and that enables us to run at an incredibly low waste rate relative to how we would run in a brick-and-mortar location.”

The company also strives to optimize its routes during delivery shifts which run eight to 10 hours. Refrigerated items arrive to customers’ doors rock solid because they are delivered in refrigerated trucks. Full-time Harris Teeter associates with benefits will be doing the deliveries and checking over the entire order with customers. No tipping is allowed during deliveries. “It is a very different experience than dropping groceries at the doorstep and leaving like a lot of other services do,” he says. 

Kroger signed the contract to work with Ocado four years ago with its first automation center opening up last year. “I think that kind of forward thinking is really critical to continue to provide customers new and different services that differentiate us and really invite customers to come back again and again because they are so thrilled with it,” he says. “…Customers are going to move more and more to delivery over time and I think this service is very well positioned to capture that growth.” 

Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (Leidos)

Innovation in cancer research allows scientists the opportunity to create new approaches and equipment to better understand the disease and ways to fight it. 

The Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (Leidos) is home to the National Cryo-Electron Microscopy Facility which is a relatively new field of study where scientists use technology to see the very small details of specific proteins that they have never been able to view in the past. 

“It lets you see all these pockets and corners on a protein and that insight, and that knowledge will allow you to create a drug that will be able to better attach to this protein more effectively,” says Vladimir Popov, Ph.D., chief innovation officer, who directs the new center for Innovation and Strategic Partnerships. “By more effectively attaching, it will have a higher efficacy and that is what makes the drug better…The more you know about the proteins that are troublesome, the better you can figure out how to approach them, how to stop them and how to inhibit them.”

The facility hosted a training program in September to get young scientists interested in the field and prepare them to pursue it at their home institutions. Through this new field of study, patients will benefit by being able to get better treatment whether it is through improved diagnostics to diagnose earlier or therapeutic approaches such as creating better drugs and treatment. 

The Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research is also home to the Laboratory-
Directed Exploratory Research (LDER) program which sparks innovations from local scientists who respond to demands in biomedical research. This may include the creation of a new laboratory fulfilling specialized imaging needs for NCI and external researchers and the invention of an instrument now available for licensing that fills a gap in precision radiation measuring. “Through funding this research, we basically promote and foster the innovation,” Popov says. “We let them pursue those projects—that thinking outside of the box. Usually, those results from those projects are very unique and very interesting and they open up new horizons and offer some new insights into cancer research.”