Frank

Frank

Some people ask me Why Baltimore? Couldn’t you do what you do from anywhere in the U.S.? Isn’t this the place where the acclaimed HBO series The Wire was filmed? Has Baltimore ever been on a tech entrepreneur-friendly list? Aren’t there more voluminous entrepreneurial hubs? While the concise response is pegged to an authentic and ever-congealing entrepreneurial ecosystem more focused on the act of doing (the scoreboard) than a Top Ten List, the more interesting answer is found in an array of professional and personal attributes. Let me paint a picture as to why Baltimore is a great city to build a business, a career, a life.

 

Baltimore has a nearly three hundred year history of resilience and determination. What many do not grasp is that Baltimore is a top twenty U.S. city by population with a small town feel. Okay Cheers (“Where Everybody Knows Your Name”) was set in Boston but could easily have been at Mother’s in Federal Hill or John Stevens in Fells Point. But while Baltimore was once the towering urban hub over its Potomac River cousin, the District of Columbia, it is now a federal feeder of sorts. While it was once a thriving manufacturing, railroad and port town, a conduit for most things Midwest, now the maker movement portends to enliven some manufacturing roots but is well overshadowed by service orientation at the feet of university, healthcare and federal institutions.

 

Fort McHenry, where, in 1814, the Star Spangled Banner was invoked. Credit: Tim Tadder/Maryland Office of Tourism

Fort McHenry, where, in 1814, the Star Spangled Banner was invoked. Credit: Tim Tadder/Maryland Office of Tourism

Music & the Arts
Baltimore has a rich and continuous history of supporting and imbuing music and the arts. From the Peabody Institute and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Modell Center at the Lyric Opera, Baltimore ‘gets’ classical music across at least two centuries. In 2008, the Rolling Stone chose Baltimore as the best music scene in the Country, not for classical but for contemporary music. For the visual arts, MICA, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Walters Art Museum have international renown. The more recent Visionary Arts Museum depicts Baltimore’s unique acceptance of the macabre. Even the rich film scene has long utilized Baltimore; Baltimoreans Barry Levinson (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon) and John Waters (Hairspray and Serial Mom) are some of the main reasons Baltimore has attracted many Hollywood and New York filmmakers.

 

Baltimore Museum of Art. Credit: Broken Plate Pendant Co

Baltimore Museum of Art. Credit: Broken Plate Pendant Co

Sports
No city is complete without a lively sports offering. Baltimore has long been a baseball and football town; after ‘replacing’ the Colts with the Ravens and a vastly improved performance by the Orioles, the citizenry cheers loudly again. We’ve had long tenures with baseball hall of famers such as Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson , Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Frank Robinson.

 

On the gridiron in two organizations over a decade apart, we cheered on several championship teams by the likes of Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry and have been amazed by the Ravens rise to prominence on the backs of legends such as Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden. These men and others are indelible reasons why Baltimore has tenacious sports fans and whose teams are apt metaphors for the city’s style: A never give in mentality, the underdog, the lesser respected opponent. Of course, there is also great college and high school lacrosse and acclaimed horse racing, not to mention Baltimore as the birthplace of Babe Ruth and Michael Phelps who did fairly well in their own right.

 

Neighborhoods
At its essence, what truly defines the City of Baltimore is its neighborhoods. The residential and workplace hubs are charming in places, desolate in others. Each of Baltimore’s 300+ officially designated neighborhoods has its own uniqueness, authenticity that, in aggregate, produces a diverse and distributed urban community, adorned with crime and tattered building in in places, vibrant, safe and family-centric in others. Baltimore is a very real depiction of an urban U.S. city struggling with the tension of right versus wrong, affluence versus poverty, at the center of a 2.7 million metro region.
 

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Charles Village neighborhood. Credit: Greater Homewood Community Corporation’s Healthy Neighborhoods program

Johns Hopkins University
As in most mature urban centers, institutions of higher education play a critical part of Baltimore’s economy, its cultural legacy. Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital are world renowned and together are the largest single employer in the city. The University of Maryland at Baltimore, the University of Baltimore, Loyola University Maryland and other postsecondary institutions have long been key determinants of sustainability and intellectual and social design for the region.

 

Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech)
The Greater Baltimore metro area has a several decades long history of tech company incubation, pegged to government and university economic development, as well as out of private and corporate coffers. The first Maryland business incubator, today called Mtech, was founded in 1983 at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Clark School of Engineering.

 

Maryland Business Incubation Association
The Maryland Business Incubation Association, Maryland TEDCO and Maryland DBED (Department of Business and Economic Development) indicate that the State has over 20 incubators, 7 in greater Baltimore. Since 2002, Maryland incubators have created nearly 12,000 jobs, the fifth largest job producer in Maryland.

 

bwtech @ UMBC Research and Technology Park
UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) created bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park in 1989 and has led the way for scaled university incubation, particularly in cyber security with the 2011 launch of its Cyber Incubator.

 

Emerging Technology Centers (ETC)
The Baltimore Development Corp-backed ETC (Emerging Technology Centers) began in 1999, at the run-up of the dot-com bubble, and has proven sustain worthy with graduate winners such as CSA Medical, Millenial Media, Moodlerooms, R2 Integrated, Straighterline, and Visicu. The ETC has two sites: one at the old Eastern High School, the south side of the site of former Memorial Stadium and a new site in Highlandtown in an economic zone.

 

Towson University/TowsonGlobal
In a partnership with Baltimore County in 2007, Towson University launched Towson Global Business Incubator, with an international differentiation and very definite interoperability with the TU undergraduate population. A more recent tilt to edtech, born largely by yours truly, provides two legs of a generalist incubator eight miles north of downtown Baltimore, serving Baltimore County and points north.

 

Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship
Howard County Economic Development launched the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship in 2011 and is showing the fruits of thoughtful design and implementation with the 2013 launch of 3D Maryland and the Conscious Venture Lab.

 

Betamore
A group of private investors and entrepreneurs launched Betamore in 2012 to much acclaim. The ‘incubator’ is more of a community and adult training hub for all things tech than a classic business incubator. Betamore has attracted over over twenty seed and early stage businesses since inception and is a key cog in the Federal Hill and Baltimore Inner Harbor entrepreneurial community.

 

Maryland TEDCO & Baltimore Angels Network
Alongside the formal incubator community is an active and ever-growing seed funding and mentor community. Angels are diffuse but dozens are active in the Baltimore Angels Network. With regard to angels, Baltimore is more about who you know than where to go. Of course, the incubator network, a slew of meetups, and Maryland TEDCO, the Propel Baltimore Fund and the Maryland Venture Fund and the Invest Maryland Challenge as part of Invest Maryland and are valid destinations for the right seed or late seed stage equity or grant opportunities.

 

Under Armour, Bill Me Later, and Advertising.com
Baltimore has produced many inspirational stories of entrepreneurship and personal disruption, of the socioeconomic and social impact journey going from a little to a lot. Since the dot-com downturn, Baltimore has availed such winning stories as Kevin Plank (UnderArmour), Vince Talbert (Bill Me Later, now GiveCorps), Scott Ferber (Advertising.com, now Videology), and Wes Moore (The Other Wes Moore, stealth startup). Baltimore represents a gritty city where entrepreneurial intent can put a dent in the world, can be the hub of most things right with the world.

 

On the personal side of Why Baltimore, there’s a longer story to be told that stems from more of the give, than the get. Simply put, my return to Baltimore ten years ago has availed a successful career as an edupreneur and more recently a facilitator of university entrepreneurship. Most of all, this Charming Gritty City and its concentric rings have provided an environment from which to build and grow career, family, friendships for the long haul. For that, I am eternally thankful.


About Frank Bonsal III

Frank Bonsal is Towson University’s first Director of Entrepreneurship. For 25+ years, Frank has served as teacher, coach, mentor and investor of people, teams, and companies. He also mentors or advises at various East Coast accelerators and incubators and keeps turning over stones, as some of them have a lucky stripe. Frank blogs about EdTech, business development, and entrepreneurship.

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