(Photo by Stephen Babcock)
It’s a road trip on a bus, but the Rise of the Rest isn’t only about the map.
Along with drawing attention to startup ecosystems outside New York and the Bay Area, the trip organized by investor Steve Case is also about highlighting the people from those communities who could be in that ecosystem but aren’t yet.
During his daylong Rise of the Rest visit to Baltimore on Monday, the AOL cofounder and current CEO of Revolution Ventures told two separate groups of startup, business and political leaders that they didn’t, for the most part, look like the rest of the city.
“It’s not just that most of the capital went to a few places. Seventy-five percent of venture capital last year went to California, New York and Massachusetts,” said Case. “Most of the capital went to white guys.”
"I think there is a really unique opportunity for Baltimore to not just be the Charm City but also to be the comeback city ... to be a model for social enterprise, for impact investing, for social entrepreneurship."
Case said the fact that women and people of color are still outnumbered in startups is a question of equality. “There’s also an economic growth aspect to it,” he said. “If we have everybody on the field playing, we’re more likely to have more successes than if a bunch of people feel left out.”
The attention to issues of inequality in the months since Freddie Gray’s death made the conversation timely. During the visit to Baltimore, Case’s bus stopped at Impact Hub Baltimore, a space on the ground floor of the Centre Theatre in Station North that will soon house social entrepreneurs. One of the future tenants, Sisu Global Health, won the $100,000 pitch competition that Case convened to close out the day.
In a flavor from Taharka Brothers Ice Cream called Chocolate Lives Matter, Case witnessed a blend of the struggle on the streets with a product that’s for sale. Martina Lynch said the company is making flavors designed to spur conversation around social change. She even performed a spoken word piece for the occasion.
Case said Baltimore’s challenges shouldn’t be ignored, but he added that they have created a specific kind of entrepreneurship.
“I think there is a really unique opportunity for Baltimore to not just be the Charm City but also to be the comeback city … to be a model for social enterprise, for impact investing, for social entrepreneurship,” he said.
Picture of health
While Case brought up issues of equality several times, it wasn’t the only conversation that took place throughout the day. Another message that repeatedly popped up was the need to connect startups and entrepreneurs with the large organizations that the city already has in place.
In health-tech, Case said, “It feels like there is a cluster of entrepreneurs.”
At Johns Hopkins’ FastForward East incubator, Case got a look at how Johns Hopkins officials are looking to provide resources to grow startups out of ideas that hatch at the university. He talked with Robert Lord and Nick Culbertson of Protenus.
Case also sought to get one big institution talking to the other.
Standing alongside the harbor at Under Armour’s Locust Point headquarters, three health-oriented, Johns Hopkins-affiliated startups pitched UA executives on potential ideas.
ShapeU, eMocha Mobile Health and Aezeon pitched how their platforms involve apps and wearables — a space UA is increasingly eyeing.
“Like the reps from Under Armour and Johns Hopkins, my team and I share a much larger vision to create great products for people from all walks of life to lead healthier lives,” said Tatiana Rypinski, an undergraduate who is leading Aezon’s efforts to build a system using apps and wearables that diagnoses 15 diseases.
After the pitches, Case walked into an Under Armour gym, where employees were working out during lunch hour. He gravitated toward a screen that displayed fitness data for each of the people working out.
“We’re gathering data and figuring out what to do with that data on the Under Armour and the Hopkins said,” said Sagamore Ventures’ Demian Costa.
Hearing from entrepreneurs
In visits to some of the city’s more established tech hubs, Case was also sure to focus on the entrepreneurs themselves. There were some startup moments when he stood around the pool tables at R2integrated and somehow resisted crawling into OrderUp’s giant hammock. ZeroFOX also brought a giant fox mascot to Betamore. But for the most part Case focused on listening to entrepreneurs.
On the 11th floor overlooking the Inner Harbor, Case asked the founders of R2integrated about scaling a business from Baltimore. CEO Matt Goddard said retaining talent and the relatively low cost of living made Baltimore attractive. He described how the company opened new offices on the West Coast through acquisitions this year.
“We find ourselves traveling a bit more, but people are very happy to have the work being done by a Baltimore company,” said cofounder David Taub.
At Betamore, Case was introduced to cybersecurity in the form of ZeroFOX and Red Owl Analytics. He then heard from a pair of edtech companies in eThink Education and Citelighter.
During the Citelighter pitch, he asked CEO Saad Alam about his relocation from Baltimore to New York. Alam talked about the $4 million the company raised. Case quipped, “It’s easier to raise money in Baltimore than New York City, is that my takeaway? It’s not.”
Alam said the success to date was mostly about the community, and schools that allowed the company to use the product.
“It all had to do with the fact that people care,” Alam said.
Another success story came was told when Case visited OrderUp’s in Canton, which his own firm invested in prior to the food delivery company’s acquisition by Groupon this summer.
“Collectively, if we can lift up the next 100 OrderUps, I think there really is an unusually strong opportunity for Baltimore to emerge not only as a strong startup community, but a thriving startup community,” Case said.
Emerging Technology Centers President Deb Tillett pointed out that the organization started in the Can Company, where OrderUp’s offices are located. ETC company Millennial Media, eventually grew large enough to occupy the entire original ETC space.
“We took another outpost in Highlandtown,” she said of ETC’s Haven Campus. “That building is full. This is what economic development does.”