There’s been an explosion of interest in new “startup accelerators,” incubation, coworking, startup funding, and new-manufacturing efforts in Baltimore in the last few months; unfortunately this appears to say less about Baltimore than it does about the growth in interest in these efforts worldwide.
Here’s a list of some efforts in this space:
- “Accelerate Baltimore” at ETC Baltimore
- Accelerator led by Cangialosi and Lane
- ETC Baltimore itself (Canton and 33rd street)
- Baltimore Node, Hackerspace on North Avenue
- Sizeable Spaces, coworking in South Baltimore
- Capital Studios, coworking on Central Avenue
- Beehive Baltimore, coworking at ETC Baltimore
- Accelerator effort being driven by Mike Brenner
- Accelerator/cyber/techspace in Harbor East, led by Karl Gumtow
- Innovation Alliance effort being led by Newt Fowler
- Theater/workspace being discussed by Chris Ashworth/Figure 53
- Shared warehouse workspace being discussed by Andy Mangold/Friends of the Web
- Baltimore Angels (Cangialosi et al)
- Invest Maryland fund (DBED)
- TEDCO’s Innovation fund
- Abell Foundation fund (tied to Accelerate Baltimore)
- Wasabi Ventures fund (investing in city, affiliated with Loyola)
- Fabrication Lab at Towson University
- Fabrication Lab at CCBC
- Fab-lab ideas discussed by John Cutonilli
- Highlandtown workspace development led by Ben Walsh
- Mike Galiazzo, pushing Local-Made, (head, Regional Manufacturing Institute)
Did you know about all of these things? Amazingly, many of the people leading these efforts don’t. Or if they do, they’ve not actually talked to the people involved. To me, this is a problem.
Why? Because folks attempting to gather support for these efforts don’t have all the facts. They either haven’t sat down and listened to people’s motivations, and they’re flying blind. Or it means that they have been unable to sell other like-minded entrepreneurs on their vision, which probably means their vision is not that compelling. And that’s even worse.
But this is not all that’s wrong.
Two Serious Problems
One: there’s a tremendous amount of duplication of effort represented in the list above. Why duplicate all of that administrative, accounting, legal, and governance overhead? By pooling more of these efforts together, that overhead can be minimized and shared.
Two: we don’t have enough human capital to support all of these different efforts. We simply DON’T. Many seem to think it will somehow materialize, but from where I sit, with possibly the widest-angle view of the landscape here of anyone, I don’t see that flow of new startups or even new individuals that can support all of this. It just doesn’t exist.
Baltimore has an opportunity to become a regional and even international destination for people looking to start or join entrepreneurial enterprises. But for that to happen, we need to have stuff here that can actually become a destination.
And unfortunately, the efforts currently underway are not likely to become that destination because duplicated overhead will keep each effort small and parochial.
However, if more of these efforts pooled their resources and talent – and most importantly identified a BIGGER and more IMPORTANT vision for what it is they are trying to achieve, there would be many positive effects, such as ample governmental and foundation support. And that would be hugely helpful in funneling in the sorely lacking regional and international *human capital* that we so desperately need here!
One Possible Vision
Baltimore has an opportunity to become the hub for digital manufacturing and mass-customization technology on the east coast.
Cangialosi and Lane are already talking about supporting some basic fabrication capabilities at their proposed facility on Key Highway. Gumtow’s effort has placed fab-lab capabilities high on its priorities list. CCBC and Towson have fab-labs, though it’s my understanding they may be underutilized. If you’re going to spend money on fabrication equipment at all, it should be utilized 24×7 in order to maximize the asset.
Something bigger – like taking over the WalMart in Port Covington, or the Meyer Seed Warehouse in Harbor East – could support an accelerator, fab lab, and shared workspace. Thinking a little bit bigger would also have the effect of lowering per-square-foot costs dramatically, and even dramatically altering the real-estate ownership structure.
Baltimore is already home to Under Armour, and at some point in the near future (similar to what happened with Ad.com) it will start throwing off new entrepreneurs with experience in consumer products and manufacturing. Where will they go? Will we keep them here in Baltimore?
Focusing on the intersection of manufacturing and technology is important because it represents the one shot we have at rebuilding even a little bit of a middle class here in Baltimore. Because of that, you’ll find abundant support for such efforts — support that can further reinforce Baltimore’s reputation as an international destination for digital and manufacturing.
The More the Merrier?
I am a fan of placing many, diverse bets rather than making a few large ones. But it’s also important to make strong bets. Unfortunately, Baltimore is right now setting itself up to have many weak positions instead of a smaller number of stronger ones.
I strongly urge the folks leading these efforts to get to know each other and coalesce around a bigger unifying vision that can turn Baltimore into an important regional and international destination for entrepreneurs.
Because without agreeing on a bigger vision, it’s likely that these efforts – each led by well-meaning individuals but with individual motivations – won’t ultimately amount to much, and it would be a shame to waste so much time, effort, and talent.
Thanks to Brian LeGette for his collaboration on some of the ideas underlying this post. Also, everyone on this list is a friend: happy to make introductions and advance the conversation.