(Photo by LeAnne Matlach)
The mission of universities is to prepare students for jobs, so it’s no surprise that nurturing startups is becoming a focus of colleges in this entrepreneurial age. Often, the reach goes beyond the university.
In his role as director of the social entrepreneurship–focused Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University, Darius Graham is looking to serve more than students when it comes to building out Baltimore’s startup community.
“We wanted to make sure we had an impact locally,” Graham said of the Social Innovation Lab. “We wanted to make sure we had ventures that were having an impact on the city.”
At the Center Club Wednesday night, Graham and other incubator leaders highlighted the importance of growing a strong, diverse startup community in Baltimore. The City Genius event, organized by Citybizlist was held during Baltimore Innovation Week.
At Graham’s Social Innovation Lab, resources are made available to the broader Baltimore population. He said a Hopkins ID card isn’t the magic key to gaining access to support.
“We recognized that we have brilliant faculty and students on campus but there are also other people in the city with great ideas,” he said. “Our last cohort had four teams led by community members. There is no differentiation between community members and students.”
He offered the example of B360, a Social Innovation Lab graduate. The company teaches STEAM skills by harnessing young people’s passion for dirt bikes. Founder Brittany Young grew up in West Baltimore and saw many opportunities for dirt bikes, but few for science. She went on to become a chemical engineer and is working to give kids more educational opportunities.
For Henry Mortimer, the new director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Baltimore, he has to make sure students from different backgrounds and departments feel welcome at the center, which is anchored at the Merrick School of Business.
“A university is a natural incubation center, but a university can still be very siloed,” he said. “But an incubator can bring students together with business entrepreneurs from outside the university.”
He credits University of Baltimore’s entrepreneurial roots with the success the center has seen so far. UB was established nearly 100 years ago with the intention of offering educational opportunities for people in the workforce. Mortimer said UB’s solid city roots means the school draws its population from all over Baltimore. He added that most students and would-be entrepreneurs stay in the city.
He counts fintech, pet tech, and edtech companies as part of UB’s portfolio. There is even an entrepreneur working on a mobile makeup company targeted at Russian immigrants.
“What’s really impressive to me is 80 percent of UB graduates stay in Baltimore,” Mortimer said. “They launch these businesses and then stay in their communities.”
The panel also included Towson University Director of Venture Creation Frank Bonsal III, who oversees an incubator that has become a hub for edtech companies in the area, as well as student startups.
While the size of the companies may be small, pooling efforts into programs also helps to show how startups can have an economic effect. Deb Tillett, president and executive director of the ETC, is proud of the jobs the city-backed incubator with locations in Highlandtown and on 33rd St. has created, along with others around town.
“My job is to help people create jobs, and if one person is successful, then the city of Baltimore is successful,” she said. “We’ve been around the longest but in one calendar year alone ETC companies had a $1.2 billion impact on Maryland. This is why we do this, it’s important and raises all of us.”