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Nov. 6, 2013 11:15 am

Does Baltimore need an ‘innovation district’?

Pockets of innovation exist throughout Baltimore. But does the city need a specific geographical space for entrepreneurs?

In late 2003, a contingent from the University of Maryland, including Jane Schaab, visited then-mayor Martin O'Malley with this photo of the blighted intersection of Baltimore Street and Fremont Avenue and a plan. Now it's the heart of a growing 12-acre research campus.

Full disclosure: Betamore cofounder Mike Brenner is a partner with Baltimore, which works on occasion from the Federal Hill incubator.

There’s value in placing entrepreneurial people around one another, as executive director of the University of Maryland BioPark told Baltimore in September.

“Being in the cluster holds high value,” said Jane Shaab, who has lived in Baltimore city for 37 years. “Smart people, entrepreneurial people—the juice is people, it’s ideas, it’s people being together and being able to formally and informally push ideas forward.”

This type of thinking is at the focal point of conversations around whether Baltimore should create an Innovation District. The Abell Foundation, in a report published in August, even recommended that Baltimore should follow Boston’s lead in establishing some type of entrepreneur-specific district:

The goals of such an effort would be multi-faceted: to encourage current regional residents to explore entrepreneurship, to help reduce “brain drain” by making graduating students in Baltimore-area schools feel more open to staying in Baltimore to start their technology careers and to attract aspiring entrepreneurs or even startup companies from other cities looking for a place to launch.

TEDCO board member Newt Fowler takes up the idea again in a recent column, writing that several areas in Baltimore could have become something more akin to a formal innovation district:

  • There was the Tide Point development housed around 80 companies, “but as, and then Under Armour, grew, the tenants were crowded out and shrank to just one — which is absolutely great for Baltimore but those companies displaced more often than not didn’t stay in the city.”
  • The Emerging Technology Center‘s old location inside the Can Company could have served as an anchor in a part of the city where many other startups, including publicly-traded Millennial Media, are located. “But their lease came up and as rents rose, they moved to North Haven Street and cut their rent nearly in half.”

Read Fowler’s full column here.

The crux of Fowler’s argument seems to rest on keeping companies from leaving Baltimore city. In considering whether a “hub of innovation” existed in town, Baltimore observed that pockets of innovation are scattered around the city. Such places as the BioPark, the Johns Hopkins University, Betamore and the new Highlandtown location of the Emerging Technology Center are not fully-fledged districts, but they do play a role in attracting startups and bringing jobs, in the BioPark’s case, to overlooked areas of the city.

“Entrepreneurial activity — there are no borders to that,” said Shaab in September.

For those toying with the idea of a Baltimore Innovation District, there is one exception to Shaab’s sentiment: Baltimore’s city limits.

Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City,, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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