Over the latter half of the recently completed decade, Baltimore’s tech community gained plenty of resources like shared workspaces, accelerators and local investment dollars. At the heart of it all, it’s worth remembering that this is all about building new ventures.
The leaders and partners that coalesce around each hub are working to bring along the next generation of founders that will grow new models, build teams and make a big impact in the city.
More than ever, they’re doing so in increasingly specialized areas: Where once there was a handful of incubators and coworking spaces that fell under the catch-all of tech, now there are programs and facilities with a specific focus on medical devices and social enterprise, resources coalescing under banners like digital health and cybersecurity and makerspaces and manufacturing labs supporting a new wave of consumer products and tech-enabled hardware.
It can be a sign of health that a community has specific places for founders to plug in. Those pathways should be embraced, and mapped. Yet it can also be tougher to get an overall temperature of the place, especially when companies are looking to work in increasingly different marketplaces with different kinds of sales and development cycles.
But that gauge is still something that is sought. I hear it every time a founder asks what’s going on in a different side of the city, or when someone from outside of Baltimore asks what the local tech community is known for. And, most often, I hear it when someone asks about the best companies in town.
So, all that is to say, we bring you this year’s RealLIST Startups with an additional note that it’s getting harder to put together in year four. Don’t worry, it’s the good kind of challenge: It’s good for the community that there are more companies overall, and they have increasingly bigger ideas that are harder to compare in a kind of apples-to-apples fashion. And as a news organization that tracks companies, it remains well worth it to sit down and consider, “Who’s real?” In fact, we’re expanding the series, with RealLIST Engineers having debuted in fall 2019 and new lists on the way in 2020. (Find the full RealLIST series here.)
First, a word about how we go about selecting the companies. While there’s plenty to weigh, we do have some common criteria. To be considered, startups must:
- Be no more than three years old — That sunset period stems from Technical.ly cofounder Christopher Wink’s 2012 definition of a startup. This sunset period took away lots of members of last year’s list, as well as companies that have successfully moved out of that early stage where they’re figuring out their business model. We had to draw the line somewhere.
- Make the majority of their revenue from a product — That means agencies were not eligible.
- Have not exited or undergone an acquisition, IPO or something close to that nature
As we’re considering companies, we look at indicators of growth, such as funding, early client traction, office space and work to establish a repeatable model. We have a preference for companies that chose the big idea, and we look at the tenacity and track records of the founders and teams.
So, let’s get to it: Baltimore’s RealLIST Startups 2020. These are the companies we consider most promising, and we’ll be tracking them with some added interest all year.
(One important caveat about this list: Not making this list does not mean we deem a startup “unreal.” This is simply a snapshot of what we’re most excited about right now.)
It’s becoming increasingly evident that bolstering worker protections and voices will be important to the tech industry’s next decade. So it makes sense that new models will emerge to correct where old ones fell short. Tribe has one such intriguing approach. It’s a tech staffing worker cooperative, where developers, data scientists and designers have ownership. With a software platform, it’s also taking new approaches to how companies and technologists connect, by addressing unconscious bias and overhead alike. With roots in the Baltimore Black Techies Meetup, the Impact Hub Baltimore-based co-op is set up for members from all over.
There’s lots of forward thinking in Nest Collaborative’s model of breastfeeding support via video chat, and it’s covered by most health insurance. After relocating from San Francisco, founder Amanda Gorman got support locally through Annapolis’ FounderTrac, then got selected earlier this year to pitch on a regional stage at the LifeBridge Health/CareFirst Innovation Challenge. She assembled a team of lactation consultants that’s working with folks in all 50 states, setting up a model with a foundation to grow.
Johns Hopkins’ Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, better known as CBID, has proven to be fertile ground for technology that has commercial promise. During a master’s program at CBID, Aaron Chang saw the need for a new approach preventing acute kidney injury, and set to work on developing a hardware/software system that could monitor for factors that could lead to the condition. After a $25,000 win in the fall at Beta City‘s annual pitch competition and taking up residence at Port Covington’s LaunchPort at City Garage medical device accelerator, the company is looking poised to make moves in the market in 2020.
Claire Cianos and Katie Carroll drew on experience in child care to launch an app that connects families with child care. It brings convenient babysitter booking and flexible scheduling, and adds safety via partnership with SafetyPIN (see below). The ETC-based company gained a user base by putting the focus on community, and more expansion is in the works for 2020. For the cofounders, it’s also about changing perceptions of babysitters. “We wanted to put both families and sitters in a space where they were receiving the respect and mutual appreciation for the job thats being done,” Cianos said in a recent interview.
Founder Jenny Thompson tapped into a key currency in the on-demand economy: trust. Across apps for dog walking, homesharing and dating, it’s required from both parties to make a two-sided marketplace work. Collaborating with criminal justice experts, Thompson developed a platform that provides a SafetyPIN following a check that includes criminal background, financial history and a behavioral screening. Partnering with Napp helped the company gain early traction. With the technology built and a recent stint in the Conscious Venture Lab complete, the Fells Point-based company is moving into sales and marketing mode for 2020.
Freddie Ephraim and Mike Laroque won the big check of $100,000 at Accelerate Baltimore demo day in the spring. That night, they pitched a business model fully formed: a car wash and detail service that’s booked via app, and partnerships with the places that have parking garages and folks that would be interested in the service. With a rinseless solution, add eco-friendly to the ways it changes car washes.
On a mission to spread financial intelligence that helps educate folks about personal finance and money decisions early on, Ortus Academy began with in-person lessons in local classrooms. Late last year, the company emerged with a tech platform, called Money Club, that has it poised to spread the lessons further, and add content like video, mini-games and guides. In 2020, the team will be out spreading the word. But we were glad to sit down with CEO Aaron Velky recently to reflect on the journey so far, as the time building the product yielded its own processes and lessons that plenty of founders could learn from.
This Locust Point-based startup is bringing new tech tools to companies for talent evaluation and development. The cofounders drew on experience in those areas: CEO Lisa First-Willis saw the importance of talent acquisition and retention as VP of human resources at Baltimore mobile advertising darling Millennial Media and owned an HR consulting business, while cofounder Gerry Sandusky, who is known in Baltimore as the “Voice of the Ravens,” saw opportunity to apply a talent evaluation process used in football for all types of companies. With the technology developed and a rebrand from Trigger Transformation recently complete, the company is set up for more customer growth in 2020.
2. Sonavi Labs
The company is bringing a digital stethoscope platform to market that combines noise cancellation, AI and opportunity to increase healthcare access around the world. Growing out of research at Johns Hopkins’ engineering school and based out of Harbor Designs and Manufacturing in 1100 Wicomico, it has amassed a number of partnerships that extend beyond Baltimore. It is also proving to be influential in the wider startup world.
In November 2019, the company closed a $1 million seed round, becoming one of the few companies led by an African-American woman to raise seven figures. That came after CEO Ellington West took third place at the Startup World Cup. The funding points to more growth on the horizon for 2020.
The startup which aims to protect websites, apps and publishers from malvertising was voted the 2019 Technical.ly Awards winner for Startup of the Year, and we agree with readers. Drawing on Baltimore’s advertising technology roots to address the problem of “bad ads” that freeze screens and infect devices with malware, the company moved fast in 2019. It brought on former Millennial Media executive Matt Gillis as CEO, and shortly, a team drawing on Millennial Media’s alumni network was assembled and grown to 35 people, a rebrand from Clean Creative was complete and the company raised $2.5 million in seed funding.
Yet it was the customer growth that stood out. clean.io signed a partnership with Xandr, which is AT&T’s ad company, and also works with The Atlantic, imgur and The Boston Globe. Gillis said it had 10x revenue growth year-over-year. The company is expecting more in 2020, with a recently completed move to office space in Natty Boh Tower in Canton making way. With adtech and information security, the company is uniquely Baltimore as it brings together a pair of areas where the city has lots of talent, especially at a time when we’re seeing a fresh energy to create startups in these tech verticals.
- MindStand Technologies: The UMBC students that developed an AI chat monitoring platform to detect online harassment and hate speech have bolstered the company by tapping into Baltimore startup resources. Among them: It’s a current cohort member of Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab.
- Minnowtech: With a $600,000 seed round closed, the company led by Suzan Shahrestani is aiming to deploy imaging devices at shrimp farms in markets like Southeast Asia.
- knctrr: The ETC-based platform for gig economy workers launched with a warm intro to the local tech community in 2019. We’re looking out for what 2020 holds.
- NeoProgen: The latest startup led by former Harpoon Medical CEO Bill Niland has $1.5 million raised and a roadmap to grow. Taking aim at heart attacks could prove widely impactful.
- AlgenAir: After releasing its home algae air purifier, The Aerium, in 2019, the startup founded by IMET Ph.D. candidates is setting out for consumer growth.
- ReVased: The company that delivers flowers from events that would otherwise go to waste, and donates a portion to nonprofits, is fresh off a win at Conscious Venture Lab’s demo day.
- HostHome: Led by Ava Pipitone, the recent Conscious Venture Lab startup developed software tools connecting people experiencing homelessness to homesharing programs by linking hosts, guests and social workers.
- Happy Teacher Revolution: By providing training for those seeking to start teacher support groups, former Baltimore schoolteacher Danna Thomas galvanized a mental health-focused network that has expanded worldwide. Closer to home, the former teacher earned recognition at Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab in 2019.
- CLLCTIVLY: Jamye Wooten set out to support Black-led grassroots organizations in Baltimore with an asset map that identifies efforts and funding.
- Capsulomics: Picking up a win in 2019 on a national stage at Techstars’ Patriot Boot Camp, the cancer detection startup has a licensing deal with Johns Hopkins.