Universities have long nurtured the development of new ideas. Over the last decade, they’ve increasingly become key incubators of new ventures.
Throughout the Baltimore region, university leaders are seeing students and faculty just as interested in entrepreneurship as they are in an academic discipline. In response, they’ve invested a wave of new resources to bolster these activities. Every nearby university now has a hive of startup activity, educating community members on starting new businesses and showcasing their work through pitch competitions. In many cases, universities have specifically created entrepreneurship centers and hired teams to lead these efforts.
Taken together, it’s a clear marker in ecosystem development. Anyone looking to connect with the startup and innovation community in Baltimore can’t ignore what’s happening at higher education institutions. These leaders are also forming community with each other, as shown most clearly by Innov8MD, a coalition of 15 entrepreneurship leaders that came together to support student entrepreneurship throughout Maryland.
And increasingly, these centers are prime ways that universities are making an impact in the city where they are based. Centers like University of Maryland, Baltimore’s The Grid and Johns Hopkins University’s FastForward spaces are clustering resources from around the city and serving as linchpins in changing neighborhoods. At the same time, annual accelerators and business competitions from the University of Baltimore, Maryland College Institute of Art (MICA), Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) and Loyola University Maryland’s centers are serving Baltimore residents building businesses in communities as well as their own students. And they are increasingly leading members of Maryland’s entrepreneurship community, through organizations like the Maryland Business Innovation Association and local economic development councils.
“We’re a really important part of the ecosystem, and we’re committed to being part of the ecosystem,” said Wendy Bolger, the director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Loyola, which runs the Baltipreneurs accelerator and other programs supporting social impact-focused entrepreneurs from across the city.
In October, that community and city connectivity will be on display as the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers’ annual meeting arrives in Baltimore, with UB and Loyola serving as hosts. The Oct. 13 through 16 conference, which is being held largely at Loyola’s North Baltimore campus, has a lot to offer this cluster of leaders.
There’s a lineup of speakers that the features national leaders like Philip Gaskin, VP of entrepreneurship of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. They’ll also learn from entrepreneurs out of university programs that are growing companies in the region, with including Lor Tush cofounders Nnadagi and Louise Isa, Clearmask CEO Allysa Dittmar, Flikshop founder Marcus Bullock and Mozzeria CEO Ryan Maliszewski.
It brings attendees from across the country, so there’s a lot for local leaders to learn.
“The GCEC is a premier leadership organization in connecting and supporting university-based entrepreneurship centers,” said Taylor DeBoer, marketing and operations specialist at The Grid, which is UMB’s entrepreneurship colocation space. “Being able to tap into that expertise, as well as collaborate with other educators around the nation will help us better serve our students.”
The local centers are rising at a time when universities nationally are investing more into entrepreneurship. It’s a new step in higher education.
“The centers are the heart of where deep learning in entrepreneurship takes place on campus and it’s also often the place where the translation between the things that are learned in the classroom and the action to take on ideas based on that learning take place,” said Phil Weilerstein, CEO of VentureWell, a 25-year-old national organization galvanizing innovation and entrepreneurship at universities that works to scale science and technology, and conference sponsor. He has seen the rise of these centers across the country, as programming grew from an academic or business-school initiative into a full center.
“It’s typically been one of the better conferences in the space and one that succeeds in being very cross disciplinary, in connecting people not just in the business school, not just in engineering, but people who have a cross-campus function,” he said.
But it’s not just about how universities can support entrepreneurs, organizers said. It’s about how those efforts can bolster cities. That’s reflected in the theme: “Leading with entrepreneurship, succeeding in revitalization.”
The conference gives Baltimore a national stage for the efforts that have grown over the last decade, and can raise the profile of how the city is harnessing the “engine of university entrepreneurship as a driver for economic development,” said Henry Mortimer, the director of UB’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which has programming supporting students who are mostly residents of the city.
“Communities can be sustained and revitalized through entrepreneurship,” Mortimer said. These centers are “preparing students to go back into communities, run businesses and add to the economy.” Mortimer and Bolger put together the proposal that brought the conference to Baltimore in 2019, and are spearheading organizing of the conference.
To get a look at where that work is happening, attendees will see university-run spaces that are activating entrepreneurship around the city through a series of hosted gatherings.
At John Hopkins, a nearly-decade-long effort to support startups led to more than $1 billion in capital being invested in companies affiliated with the university in the last year. The university has looked to kickstart an engine that transforms discoveries coming out of faculty labs into companies, but it’s also bolstering student entepreneuship with funding, accelerator programming and spaces in East Baltimore under its FastForward U programs. It is also growing ties between these founders and Baltimore, as students who start at the university take space in the city’s innovation spaces as they grow.
“I am a big believer in the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and the connections it can lead to for our teams,” said Josh Ambrose, director of student ventures at FastForward U. “We welcome and even encourage intercollegiate teams in our accelerators” — each team must have at least one JHU student cofounder — “so this is part of that overall vision.”
Showing a connection to the local ecosystem beyond universities, the attendees will visit ETC, the East Baltimore incubator that has counted university spinouts among its companies, but is home to a wider array of companies. It’s an up-close look at economic revitalization: ETC transformed a space that, as its president Deb Tillett points out, was seen in an episode of “The Wire” — that is, the HBO series that’s shorthand for the city’s generational poverty and corruption.
These programs can be an important building block for the city’s future. The universities and citywide leaders are also interested in how entrepreneurship can help connect students to the city, and remains as residents of the city after they graduate.
“Our goal is to keep as many of our student startups here in the community as we can, to have a transformative effect on the Baltimore skyline,” Ambrose said. There’s been progress: “The number of teams choosing to stay here in Baltimore is steadily climbing. Continuing to sow into the ecosystem is a high priority for us as we work with many local partners to make our engagement as sticky as possible.”
There is real intention to grow that ecosystem for all. University entrepreneurship centers are bolstering founders who are women, BIPOC and from other groups that are underrepresented among VC-funded startups.
The conference is also seeking to create an inclusive community among the leaders of those centers. VentureWell, together with the Kauffman Foundation, is sponsoring 25 registrations for attendees from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As shown locally by efforts at Morgan State and Coppin State, HBCUs are creating entrepreneurship centers and serving as community connecting points. Over the last year, rekindled Black Lives Matter protests and a nationwide reckoning over racial equity showed that disparities played out in areas of startup growth, like access to capital and resources to support innovation. Intention is needed for change to happen.
“The HBCUs in particular are building that capacity [and] leaning into innovation and entrepreneurship, so I think it’s critical that leaders from those programs have the opportunity to participate and be members of this community,” said Weilerstein, the VentureWell CEO.
And what university-based founders are building matters.
“They’re born in Baltimore, but they’re impacting the world,” said Bolger.
UMB has a distinct focus on health and social innovation; that’s now the name of a master’s degree you can earn at the university, too. Dr. Jenny Owens, an assistant dean at UMB who leads that programming, said that, along with more resources, she’s seeing “more people raising their hand, who aren’t afraid to take up space and make mistakes.”
“It’s encouraging to live in a place where people have so much love for their community, and who give their time and resources for it to be more just, more beautiful, and more accessible,” she said. “Sometimes that looks like a group of women forming a cooperative kitchen, organ delivery by drone, or advocacy and education through dirt bikes. I’m encouraged by people who have a vision for a world and then figure out how to build it. Universities are a pipeline for social impact and innovation, and we’re grateful to be able to play a small role to support a convergence of innovators and educators in Baltimore.”