Baltimore - a Tech Hub?

10/5/17

“A successful Baltimore needs a vibrant economy supported by annual convenings like Baltimore Innovation Week, ...it’s important we work together to connect Baltimore to a national conversation.” Deborah Tillett, ETC President.

Baltimore, a tech hub? Are people kidding themselves or is there a hidden dimension out there?

People not embedded in the innovation geek economy of apps, co-working and start-ups sometimes have a hard time getting their minds wrapped around what exactly those innovators are talking about when they make their "pitches" or talk about "innovation" and "smart cities". The tech talk is full of lingo and the new economy full of highly valued companies that have little to show in terms of tangible elements. In the "old" industries, such as manufacturing, there was little question what General motors did when it produced transmissions or Astro vans in Baltimore; but what does OrderUp make and what happened to it after it was bought out by Grubhub?


Tech entrepreneurs and social capitalists Michael Scott (far left), Jill Sorensen, Elijah Kelley, Nneka Nnamdi, Melody Short, Angela Patton and Innovation Village moderator Andree Robinson (right)

To make it at least easier to visualize the multiple industry sectors in central Baltimore, Technical.ly and the Downtown Partnership created Innovation Mapped, showing the status of 2016. Traditional players also support this week's Innovation Week, for example ETC, listed as a co-organizer together with the tech media company technical.ly. ETC is actually an arm of city government and as a non-profit created by the Baltimore Development Corporation as early as 1999.

The ETC, a venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, is a 501(c)(3) technology and innovation center focused on growing early-stage companies. The ETC provides four programs for entrepreneurs: a tech focused incubator, Incubate Baltimore, a seed accelerator program, Accelerate Baltimore, a coworking space open to innovative individuals and teams, Beehive Baltimore and 9-week idea stage boot camp, Pioneer Baltimore. The ETC promotes economic development, providing business, technical, and networking connections to help these companies grow. Since 1999, the ETC has provided assistance to over 450 companies, 85% of which are still in business, creating more than 2,500 jobs and raising more than $2.4 Billion in outside funding. The mission of the ETC is to foster a community of creative technology entrepreneurs, looking for support to grow their businesses and make a transformative impact on the City of Baltimore and state of Maryland. (Innovation Week website)

Of course, this begs the question: How does Baltimore compare to other cities as an innovation hub and tech city ? Is it really a heaven for start-ups?

In June 2017 Time Magazine reported that the job search site ZipRecruiter recently analyzed its database of more than 8 million active jobs, and ranked the 20 fastest-growing tech markets based on year-over-year data. Job growth for engineering, software, and IT and landed a top 20 spot in America's hottest tech cities (#10), impressive until one realizes that Huntsville Alabama is ranked #1 and cities like Kansas City and Albany sit above Baltimore in the list and Cincinnati and Cleveland right below Charm City while Seattle is positioned #19. The article explains that growth in tech has moved from the coast to smaller cities. One can imagine how the established tech cities in Silicon Valley will find the list funny. But the shift of innovation to previously marginalized places is not a joke and possibly a sign that new technologies present an opportunity for better equity.

Equity through technology is certainly what Innovation Village West Baltimore promotes. At Monday's Innovation Summit at BCCC the vast majority of participants and presenters were African Americans and equity was the central big topic. For example when innovator, entrepreneur York Eggleston. a Baltimore native, Harvard Graduate and CEO of Semantic Labs said in his keynote address that what is needed is "more than just innovation". It is necessary "to build human capital" and be "inclusive from the beginning", because "technology mirrors those who developed it", he said and that "we must not just be consumers but drivers" [of smart cities and] do the analysis and the math ourselves." 

Speaker Jeff Cherry, CEO at Conscious Venture Labs in Baltimore, an architect by training, went a step further and declared that this is a time when "value is created by what you believe in". He emphasized that "Smart city in itself is not a thing. You have to ask to what end". He suggested that one has to think new and differently about economic development by fostering the creation new companies instead of relocating old ones, the latter "a zero sum game". He speaks of the "financial impact of culture and refers to "Conscious Capitalism" by Rajendra Sisodia and John Mackey as a book that influenced him.

How innovation can be applied to even small towns was illustrated by Mayor Eugene Grant, who uses technology so that "our residents can be the mayor". His town of Seat Pleasant in Prince George's County was a precedent for a UN commission where Grant presented which caused Innovation Village and moderator Richard May to compare small Seat Pleasant with the small country of Estonia which after the fall of the Iron Curtain advanced to a leading tech nation. Innovation Village Baltimore collaborates with with York, PA, Richmond, VA and Seat Pleasant, MD.

The Innovation summit provided additional examples of what tech means in the real world of equity and empowerment: Wole Coaxum, CEO of Mobility Capital Finance observed that "53.5% of Baltimore's African Americans are "underbanked or unbanked" which posits regular disadvanatges when it comes to managing money or applying for credit. "We have an opportunity to use technology to give people access to financial services" he stated and decsribed how his company gives Individuals immediate access to banking services via the app MoCAFi. His company is currently in the process of working with low income housing authorities and landlords for accepting the app for rent payments. Mr Coaxum told the summit that current labor statistics are often misleading when up to 30% of the workforce work in one form or another as part of work what is often called the "gig economy".Work is changing, he said. Mike Fried, CIO of Baltimore's Health Department described how his agency is partnering with start-ups to provide our health services and is looking how current government procurement may stifle local business. Finally, speaker, Michael Scott, CEO of the health equity company Equity Matters, another Baltimore based company, reported from his insights from recent trips to Korea and China with excursions into complexity science and emergence. "Most problems will not be solved by government" he predicted. "Governments which support innovation on the quantum level will have a higher return than those who don't."

Start-up panelists Melody Short and Angela Patton of Girls for Change, both from Richmond and Baltimore entrepreneurs Jill Sorensen: ("Baltimore is top ten cities for electric vehicle readiness. She is promoting mobility hubs as a gathering spaces) and Elijah Kelley who invented the anti unemployment app Be a Boss ("I love electric vehicles, I had three Teslas) through which 3000 people found employment to date, added additional on the ground examples of work in disadvantaged communities while Baltimore Nnika Nnamdi spoke about her Fight Blight Baltimore App. (video)

Maybe Baltimore is, indeed a tech city. Below is the list of companies and venues on the above mentioned map including well known entities such as the Maryland Science Center, the University of MD BioPark.

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