The Opportunity Baltimore Is Missing

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.

The Opportunity

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 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.


#1 David Anderson on 12.21.11 at 2:08 pm

Spot-on Dave.  The same thing is happening here in Washington DC.  DC Entrepreneurship Week has been working hard to bring together the stake-holders in the DC area, if only to introduce them to one-another.

#2 DanielDubya on 12.21.11 at 2:33 pm

I’d be curious to know what those barriers are. When I read this post, my first thought was to perhaps have some sort of un-conference to get these people together in a room. But it sounds like you’ve had issues with that? 

#3 Dave Troy on 12.21.11 at 2:37 pm

Some of the barriers are cultural. Some of these people don’t “unconference.” That’s a problem. Ultimately you’d like to think these folks would find each other. That really hasn’t happened very effectively.

So yeah, there’s an effort to push for it, but really, why isn’t that interchange happening on its own? Why does it take external folks like me and whoever else (who ostensibly have no dog in the hunt) to broker that exchange?

#4 Mike Subelsky on 12.21.11 at 3:18 pm

It’s definitely strange how we’ve gone from “famine to feast” on this issue. We’ve all been making noise about the need for such things for years and it’s like all of a sudden city leaders caught up to us or heard us, all at once!

#5 Dave Troy on 12.21.11 at 3:26 pm

I think it’s just that this stuff has become fashionable, and a lot of people want to be a part of it – and that’s great.

But there has to be a deeper “why” and I think that’s getting lost in the rush to be first to do something cool. That’s a natural phenomenon and not a bad thing, but we should be conscious of it and maximize our opportunities.

#6 Andrew Hazlett on 12.21.11 at 4:07 pm

I hate to say “stay tuned,” but the mutual awareness problem is among the things that the evolving GBTC will be tackling directly.
I had heard (at least in rumor form) about almost all the initiatives on your list, Dave, and there are some others that aren’t even on there (e.g., design community stuff that qualifies as entrepreneurial).  It’s more than I can track and it’s been part of my *job* for the last few months.

It’s an explosion of activity that many have been hoping to see for years.  If the pendulum has swung from talk to action very quickly, that’s a great thing. However, you can’t “J.F.D.I.” without things like teaching, learning, connecting, trust-building, collaborating… things that can *look* like a lot of hot air when viewed out of context.  Can we all agree that “talking” and “acting” are mutually supporting activities? 

In addition to fostering focused, goal-directed conversation, it seems as though we really need to work on the supply-side… perhaps starting with the local universities. Towson, UMBC, UBalt, Morgan, and even MICA are trying to establish connections to the local tech scene (though Johns Hopkins remains oddly aloof).  We need to siphon off more talent from the students and faculty of all the local colleges.  Baltimore needs brains!

#7 Dave Troy on 12.21.11 at 4:29 pm

Totally agree Andrew. The educational institution piece is one I’ve discussed with others and we are doing a very bad job of integrating the resources we have here into our community.

Ultimately, the more that Baltimore becomes a destination, the more new supply of brains we’ll attract – from Baltimore itself, regionally, and internationally.

#8 Heather on 12.21.11 at 5:16 pm

This is a wonderful article! Incredibly helpful in condensing all the activity going on and lays out some great potential next steps – you’ve cut my work out for me. Thank you!

#9 Adam Edelman on 12.21.11 at 5:32 pm

It seems like the above “efforts” have evolved due to a sincere desire to organize and meet the perceived needs of the community. Is now the time to “organize” and perhaps, standardize the basic business functions (like Dave spoke about)? 
There is also a perception out there that all the above “efforts” are mainly focused on the coders and developers of the community. Sounds like we need a bit of a high level strategic pow-wow to make sure all the “efforts” are communicating the same vision to all entrepreneurial groups.Not sure if this helps, but I am coming from the branding and business development POV.  

#10 Brian Le Gette on 12.21.11 at 6:42 pm

Thanks for capturing the/our/others thoughts, Dave.  I feel like we have beating on this topic for 2 years…

For what its worth to those your read this blog, I am 100% in sync with this line of thinking. All of the small-groupl action and passion summarized above is great (really, it is), as we have discussed for months, but from an impact perspective it feels like 1+1+1+1… and in some case 1+1-1+1-1… due to resource dilution/competition.  It feels lik it will for which will only yield a building here and there, a company here and there…  good, but uninspired, with a promise unexplored…

If we could, A) focus that talent, energy and investment on a handful of unique, high-impact, forward leaning umbrella areas for incubation/acceleration, like single-destination, multi-industry, integrated tech manufacturing with our already vibrant software/apps/SAAS/cloud/social, and B) do it in an(some) underutilized, location-rich targeted area(s) of the city, that has(have) inexpensively convertible anchor buildings but also offers surrounding blocks for expansion, we would be on to something.  

No city in the country or on the planet for that matter, is the premier entrepreneurial hotspot for, as an example, App-cessories, wearable-tech and other hard and soft integrated solutions, and yet this space is about to explode with activity.  Our clothing, cars, toys, school desks… everything will eventually require the integration of electronics and fabric, cases and apps, desks and smart phones, etc.  

Baltimore could be that city and fast. We have top-tier gaming, military, healthcare and consumer companies (and startups) in and around the city, and a host of people in and outside the city, state and country that would jump here, if this became reality.  

This is within our reach, in my opinion. For example the following ingredients could form the basis: a good expandable location (as discussed above); some targeted mission-focused property tax credits with minimal guardrails; a huge free location-specific interent pipe (not expensive); a commitment for pro-bono services from the “creative-bureaucracy” professional service firms (they’ll be lining up); some TEDCO, InvestMaryland, Abell, ETC, GBTC, EA, GBC, Mayor, etc. investment (they are ready); and a simple minimal-guardrail “let-the market-do-its-thing” plan that combines light desktop manufacturing technologies for prototyping and small run production, with coders and creatives of every flavor (or some other powerful area of focus that brings blue and white collar jobs).  In my opinion, our city would swell from the impact…

Instead of 1+1+1+1, we would have 1+2+4+8… because we would move from incubating companies, to incubating the structure of a whole new paradigm.

Happy to be a part, but please, let’s “struggle against the dying of the light”, and importantly, if this can happen, let’s not let it become commandeered by the few, or the many (of the cliques of the few) will fight against it.  I don’t want to look back 2 years from now and say, if only…  and see this happen in Croatia or Singapore or Charleston or wherever, first.

#11 Mel Brennan on 01.20.12 at 4:06 pm

There’s no question that many fields of endeavour – from tech to service non profit to governmental to even spiritual – suffer in this city from a failure to synergize and maximize impact with resources.  Change, I think, requires leadership; we need to make the clear articulation of a vision for Baltimore in 2020 THE requisite for being in leadership now.  As of this writing, you have cities like Vancouver declaring their commitment to be zero footprint by 2020; I worry that our City Hall can’t even produce an artists rendering of how they see different areas of Baltimore looking in the future.  If you don’t know where you are going, how are you ever going to get there?  This administration is in face highly capable of partnering with leaders in other areas (who also need to establish an interdependently contrived vision for the city/region), but to this point this is not a priority, when, for me, after picking up the trash, shoveling the snow and paying the people, thisis the ONLY priority!  Where are we GOING?!?  How are we going to GET there?!?  There’s power in the exploration, fully, of those answers, in the maximization of potential and resources in undertaking that journey.

#12 Rob Brulinski on 02.08.12 at 9:00 am

Insightful write up David. I wish there was a more direct collaboration between the schools, artist community, and prospective entrepreneurs of any degree. That disconnect is just too wide.

#13 Lynie Copywriter on 12.19.13 at 8:28 am

Change, I think, needs leadership; we have to make the clear articulation of the vision for Baltimore. There’s also a perception available that all the above “efforts” are mostly focused about the coders and developers on the community. Freelance Copywriter