Washington-area business leaders and government officials have been working to turn the nation’s capital into one of the premier destinations for innovative entrepreneurs. With news last week that two of the region’s top tech hubs are merging, creating a more connected and collaborative environment for D.C. area start-ups, that effort seems to be accelerating.
Not far north, something similar — albeit on a slightly smaller scale and with far less fanfare — appears to be taking place in Baltimore.
“Over the past four or five years, the city has seen this constant stream of momentum behind start-ups and innovation,” said Jennifer Meyer, who runs one of the premier business incubators in Baltimore. “There’s this sense of community among entrepreneurs that we didn’t see before.”
Meyer’s incubator, called Betamore, is spearheading the city’s effort to sustain that momentum and cultivate that innovation-minded community. Started a little more than two years ago with about 8,000 square feet of space in the Federal Hill neighborhood, the operation was first set up as a for-profit venture, with a pay-for-deskspace model for young tech firms, coupled with highly technical education offerings, like coding and software classes.
Over the past year, the structure and mission of the organization has evolved, starting with a move to a nonprofit model and continuing late last year with the group absorbing the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, a membership organization that had run into financial troubles. This week, the Betamore team offered a glimpse into where their retooled organization is heading and how they plan to turn Baltimore into a thriving start-up hub.
First, the organization is rolling out a new business model by selling memberships to entrepreneurs throughout the Baltimore region (taking a page out of the tech council’s book), including those with companies that are not housed in the Federal Hill space. Members will receive access to events and discounts on classes held at Betamore, along with access to mentor networks and other resources. The group has also built a new Web portal where its members can interact, collaborate, plan events and share news.
While the move clearly provides new streams of revenue for the group — which for the first time has started a waiting list for its incubator because the space has reached capacity — Meyer says it’s also about bringing more of the region’s tech community together and fostering collaboration and partnerships, even if there’s not enough physical space for everyone to work side-by-side.
“We have basically taken the foundation we had in place at Betamore and paired that with some of the member programs that worked well at the Greater Baltimore Technology Council,” Meyer said.
In addition, Betamore is expanding its educational platform to include business courses (with classes in subjects such as marketing, sales and financing) as well as classes for entrepreneurs in arts and design fields. The programs will now feature 12-month curriculum that entrepreneurs can move through with the help of an assigned mentor.
Some of those mentors will come from a new advisory board the group has formed, with a roster including venture capitalists, business executives and entrepreneurs from across the state, all of whom will be available to work one-on-one with member companies.
“It all comes back to breaking down the silos and bringing the community together, be it entrepreneurs, investors, mentors — everybody,” Greg Cangialosi, one of the founders of Betamore (he now sits on its board), said in an interview. He noted that Maryland has dozens of business incubators and technology hubs, but it lacks a single organization to link them together.
In that sense, it’s difficult not to draw striking comparisons between Betamore’s efforts in Baltimore and what 1776 has been trying to do in Washington. Both incubators opened in the same month (January 2013), and while the latter has taken steps to cultivate a more global tech network, both 1776 and Betamore have led an effort to create a dense, connected and collaborative start-up community in their respective back yards.
Right from the start, 1776 has employed a similar membership model to the one now being adopted by Betamore, which founders Donna Harris and Evan Burfield have said allows them to bring in more entrepreneurs from across the region and cultivate a larger network of potential business partners, counselors and investors for their member start-ups.
And much like Betamore, 1776 has put plenty of emphasis on education, offering an array of technical and entrepreneurship training courses in partnership with a group called General Assembly.
One area where 1776 has separated itself from Betamore has been the group’s rate of regional expansion. With partnerships already inked with incubators in Montgomery County, Md., 1776 recently gobbled up Disruption Corp. in Crystal City, giving it control of one of the largest start-up incubators in Northern Virginia.
In a blog post announcing the merger, Harris explained that the move was part of her team’s mission to “bring together all the tremendous assets this region has to offer.” She later added that 1776 has always focused on “creating new opportunities for regional innovation and unfettered access to the networks that exist across regional borders.”
It’s that type of regional network that Meyer and Cangialosi are trying to stitch together in Baltimore — one they believe will help the city build a reputation as a start-up town.
“When you have people with different experiences and different networks start to engage with these early-stage companies, that’s when those beautiful collisions and synergies start happening,” Meyer said. With Betamore, she added that she hopes to create “a place where you can find out what’s going on in Baltimore in terms of technology and innovation, giving entrepreneurs an easy way to plug into the community and more quickly build their companies.”