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32 Baltimore tech leaders on how 2020 will shape the future

To close out the year, we asked: What trend or change that accelerated in 2020 do you think will be with us going forward? Here's a look at the responses.

The Baltimore harbor. (Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash)

This editorial article is a part of Technology of the Future Month of's editorial calendar.

At the end of a hard year, it’s tempting to want to leave 2020 behind. But in truth, we’re likely going to take a lot from this year into the future, even after a vaccine.

A year of pandemic, economic crisis, reckoning over racial equity and elections left us remaking plans as we sought to meet each moment. Amid lots of change, new approaches and ideas that were previously seen as something that we’d address in the future suddenly came to the forefront.

Curtailing in-person activity for safety meant we needed to rely on digital tools to stay connected, and it exacerbated the disparities that already existed in society. For many, this meant moving things to the front of the line that could help respond to a crisis, or keep things pushing forward while apart.

Virtually every conversation I had with a technologist or entrepreneurial leader about these changes came with an acknowledgement that changes were made out of need. Plus, they happened quickly. But eventually, it would always circle back to an insight — how something a team tried might stay with them going forward. The need to adapt also showed another way.

So, as the year is ending, let’s look at what we might take with us. I reached out to a bunch of tech and innovation leaders in the Baltimore area with the following question:

What trend or change that accelerated in 2020 do you think will be with us going forward?

Some offered a few thoughts, while others helped to center what’s really important. Here’s a complete look at how they responded:

Claire Broido Johnson, managing director of the Maryland Momentum Fund, the venture fund of the University System of Maryland

  • “Remote work is here to stay. People will not be going into an office five days per week. People will not be traveling 16 hours for a two- to four-hour meeting anymore. We don’t need to waste so much time traveling and commuting; we can be productive on Zoom calls.
  • Wealthy investors, companies, and entrepreneurs are leaving Silicon Valley. Can we get them to move to Baltimore?
  • Digital healthcare is changing the way healthcare works, more than ever.
  • While it’s not new at all, it’s becoming more clear that investors invest in founders that “look like them,” and that we’re missing out on opportunities because of it. I hope putting a spotlight on that this year means that investors everywhere take a harder look and provide more safe spaces for people who don’t look like them to pitch.”

Rose Burt, contant and digital marketing manager at software development agency SmartLogic

More fully remote teams and more flexible work options

“We entered 2020 with staff in three states; we’re wrapping up the year with staff in nine different states. We closed the office and began working from home full time on March 11, and around late summer we made the call that it was time to let go of the office entirely and formally become a fully remote team. We reallocated the funds that would otherwise be going to rent, and established WFH budget for home office improvements as well as a team travel budget for the post-COVID world, when we plan to bring the whole team together a few times a year. We’ve always prioritized flexible work options, with WFH Mondays and Fridays and limited core business hours.

We were on the path to becoming a fully remote team but the pandemic absolutely accelerated that trajectory for us, and likely for other teams, as well.”

Professional growth and community-building opportunities beyond in-person events

“Our team has engaged in a number of remote professional development and community-building activities this year, including online conferences and meetups, an accessibility training session hosted by an org from the UK, and our ongoing technical podcast, Elixir Wizards. While we’re all looking forward to getting back to in-person activities, we expect that people will continue to get expert content outside the bounds of costly conferences and in-person meetups going forward.”

Jeff Cherry, executive director of impact-driven accelerator Conscious Venture Lab

“At the Conscious Venture Lab, we’ve been pretty amazed at how well our founders are adapting to online training. While it’s not perfect, the adoption has been extremely high and it has allowed us to craft a training program which is much more tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each team. We partnered with the team from FounderTrac in Annapolis. The model they’ve crafted, which one of our founders dubbed “Wiki for startups,” has been really well received and extremely useful in guiding mentorship and feedback. And yeah, I know we’re all getting Zoom fatigue, but I do think post 2020 we’ll see more programs like ours going to a hybrid model where we use multiple learning modalities to reach more entrepreneurs and serve them more specifically.”

McKeever Conwell, founder of pre-seed fund Rare Breed Ventures

“For me, the trend we saw in 2020 that will continue moving forward is the work-from-home employee. Thanks to COVID-19, many were forced to work from home for long periods. While it might have been uncomfortable at first, now many are used to it and welcome it. This is important for the Baltimore tech ecosystem, as the idea of being able to attract talent has been flipped on its head. If you want to be based in Baltimore but attract talent from anywhere in the country, you can, without the need to put an office or move to a different location. This also means you can continue to live in Baltimore and still get a job at any top company or fast-growing startup, as the need for actual office space is diminished. No more will students from Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State, or UMBC have to move out of state for their jobs as Maryland and other states can thrive in ways previously impossible due to the “brain drain” of our top talent.”

Nick Culbertson, CEO of Fells Point-based healthcare analytics firm Protenus

“It should go without saying that 2020 was a challenging year. We’ve endured months of personal insecurity due to the pandemic while watching systemic injustice across our country. Beyond 2020, employees will be looking even harder at their company leadership, asking if they’re doing everything they can to set a better example and fight systemic bias and racism. This year, company leadership needs to ensure they have a clear, expressible understanding of how they are increasing diversity in their workforce.”

Emily Durfee, leader of 1501 Health, an investment and incubation program and partnership between CareFirst innovation arm Healthworx and LifeBridge Health

“The pandemic has spotlighted inequities in healthcare and the populations that are unserved or underserved by our current system. As a result, we’ve seen an acceleration in startups working to understand and respond to social determinants of health, whether that be economic stability, social and community context, education, neighborhood and environment, food, or healthcare – all which intertwine to determine someone’s overall health outcomes. If real change is going to be made in health equity, we must continue to connect people to the resources that they need for better lives and thus improved health.”

Adam Echelman, cofounder of the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition and executive director of Libraries Without Borders

“The unequal distribution of technology in Baltimore and across this country stems from decades of racist policies. The murder of George Floyd pushed many people to finally reckon with the racial prejudice in our police, our laws, and our everyday lives. As an advocate for digital equity, I’m thrilled to see more and more people are talking about issues like “digital redlining,” i.e., the systematic ways that racism has shaped the design, distribution, and improvement of technology and digital training. In June, for example, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance wrote that “limiting broadband investment to ‘rural only’ discriminates against Black Americans and other people of color.” I’m cautiously optimistic that more awareness around racism and technology in 2020 will lead cities, states, and even this new presidential administration to finally address the disproportionate effects of digital inequities on Black Americans, indigenous folks, and people of color.”

Baltimore students and city leaders from around the country called for digital equity. ((Photo via MediaJustice)

Baltimore students and city leaders from around the country called for digital equity. ((Photo via MediaJustice)

Guy Filippelli, managing partner of enterprise software-focused VC firm Squadra Ventures

“Virtual interactions and less business travel are here to stay. It makes us more efficient at meeting people. We can meet 10 people from across the world in a given day rather than three people in one city. It allows us to interact with people and ideas without being constrained by where we are. That and hand shaking is dead. The fistbump is the new handshake, it has been truly elevated — handshaking is going to feel dirty for a long time.”

John Foster, COO of downtown Baltimore-based federal facing software firm Fearless

“We’ve seen a trend this year within the government which we believe we accelerate in 2021 around increased understanding and increased robustness of the services that the government has to offer its citizens. From telehealth to increased loan access to small businesses, COVID has brought about this idea that government needs to increase the kind of ways it services its people. This has created a need for increased digital services that are mobile-friendly, easy to use, and can be scaled as customers’ demand increases.”

Michelle Geiss, executive director of Station North based social innovation space Impact Hub Baltimore

This year taught us that the only constant is change. We have been pushed to adapt, pivot, respond, refocus, and let go in ways we never could have predicted. While the layered crises of 2020 have come with so much loss and grief, this year has also revealed vulnerabilities in our systems that desperately need our attention. If we can bravely push through uncertainty, we can build systems that are far more resilient and invest our resources directly into the fault lines of inequity. One lesson of 2020 has been that we need to commit to caring for ourselves, our communities, and our natural world in new ways. Embracing change will guide us forward.

Ron and Cyndi Gula, cofounders of cyber-focused venture firm Gula Tech Adventures

During an interview, Cyndi Gula pointed to how the pandemic advanced use of “the technology that we’ve had available for telemedicine,” adding capabilities and regulatory approvals that allowed healthcare providers to reach people in their home and take a personalized approach. Maintaining privacy alongside that capability will be important going forward, she said.

“The pandemic has really showed us just how connected we are, not just from a supply chain perspective but also that IT is really whats connecting a lot of our businesses,” Ron Gula said. I’m hoping that at cyber can capitalize on that and make things safe and secure for everybody.

Daraius Irani, VP of strategic partnerships and applied research at Towson University

  • “Work from home will continue albeit at a lower percentage and there may even be hybrid models. Some people love it and it may be a perk. For companies in high cost real estate locations, the working from home model will likely yield higher productivity (drive ’til you qualify for in-home purchases makes for some very long commutes) and happier staff.
  • The DoorDash/Uber Eats/grocery delivery/liquor delivery will continue. Households have gotten used to the convenience, especially when working from home
  • Streaming services will continue to increase and many new releases will go direct to ‘on-demand.'”

Chris Jacob, global VP of threat intelligence engineers at cybersecurity company ThreatQuotient

“One of the things that we have seen in 2020 is BIOS/UEFI targeted as an attack vector. Both the BIOS (basic input output system) and the UEFI (unified extensible firmware interface) are used for the initial boot process of a computer. They are responsible for low level checks and inventory of the hardware and getting the bootloader started which in turn starts the operating system. The BIOS is starting to be considered legacy as more and more manufacturers are moving to UEFI. In late October we saw this type of functionality added to the longstanding TrickBot malware, which can now inspect the UEFI or BIOS of the victims machine. This could allow an adversary to do things such as maintain persistence or remotely corrupt the BIOS/UEFI. I think we will see a continued rise in frequency and sophistication of this type of attack because there hasn’t been much focus on it from security researchers and vendors.”

Tonee Lawson, executive director of youth development organization The Be. Org and cofounder of Baltimore Legacy Builders Collective

“One important thing is that it is okay to slow down and focus on self and family, as opposed to falling in love with a fast-paced lifestyle, glorifying being ‘busy.’ This year has taught us to value a work/life balance. Employers have been forced to evolve company culture to be more accepting of a work-from-home lifestyle and I think it is here to stay. Zoom meetings, video chats, automated workflows, and other team based technological tools have seen more widespread use to support remote productivity.

To that end, we now see that technology, the access to equipment, basic technical skill, and resources are a necessity and not a luxury. It is my hope that the digital divide in the city continues to narrow and that all students and families will permanently be equipped with laptops and access to the internet in their home; as well as the opportunity to receive basic tech instruction.”

Gretchen LeGrand, CEO of Station North-based computer science education nonprofit Code in the Schools

“Virtual programming! While we’re definitely looking forward to going back to face-to-face, in-person, mask-less programming, we’ve realized that having a virtual option removes a lot of barriers to participation, whether it’s young people taking our after-school coding classes or teachers being trained in new computer science curricula. The Code in the Schools team members are experts in our virtual platforms now, so I’m sure we’ll always have a virtual option from now on.”

In a pandemic, device distribution is part of Code in the Schools' tech access work.

In a pandemic, device distribution is part of Code in the Schools’ tech access work. (Courtesy photo)

Tammira Lucas, executive of director of the Warnock Foundation and cofounder of parent entrepreneur-focused coworking space The Cube

“The 2020 trend that will be with us going forward is the ability to work wherever you are. For so many years we were focused on being physically in places (which I am sure will resume at some capacity), but I think we all realized that we could use technology to do a lot of things in business. In 2020, many people also learned to do it scared with the unknown. We now know we can make it through the unknown!”

Ken Malone, cofounder of venture studio Early Charm Ventures

“2020 raised awareness of how weak our manufacturing sector has become. There will be a lot of action at the state and federal level to address this in the next few years. Senators Ben Cardin [of Maryland] and Marco Rubio [of Florida] had some great legislation drafted last year to grow small manufacturers that never got out of committee. I think it moves forward in 2021 along with other pro-manufacturing legislation.”

Todd Marks, founder and CEO of Locust Point-based tech development agency Mindgrub

“COVID-19 has changed the equation for virtual reality experiences, and our new reality could serve as the pressure cooker that accelerates VR’s journey across the chasm. While the pandemic has pressed fast forward on technology innovation and application, it has limited accessibility for many. VR is well-positioned to address this challenge — and what’s more, immersive experiences delivered from home are more important to consumers than ever before. While there are countless ways VR can be applied within our new normal, four that stand out are travel, immersive media, remote workforce development, and accessibility and access.”
VR tech by Balti Virtual.

VR tech by Balti Virtual. (Courtesy photo)

Ed Mullin, CIO at transformation and consulting firm Think and founder of youth-focused Baltimore City Robotics Center

“I think there are many ways that the experiences of 2020 will permanently change us. The perceived need for face-to-face meetings turned out to be vastly overrated, and virtual meetings will take on a more significant role. Businesses will definitely be accepting more remote workers, and many people will be working from home forever.

During a recent Potential of Edtech meetup, I realized that education is never going to be the same. Folks that would never have considered homeschooling are now switching over as some school systems’ offerings just aren’t working for their kids. Education systems will forevermore be accepting of alternatives to the current “everyone on-premise” model. Students will be allowed to move at their own pace and learn the way that works for them instead of being trained as a “herd” by a teacher with one teaching method. Perhaps the “agrarian model” of public education will be deconstructed and replaced by a model that educates at the individual student’s speed and level. These “adaptive learning systems” have been around for years, but the pandemic has pushed them past the entrenched system’s friction. I dream of a world where every student has ‘their own personal Mr. Rogers,’ which maximizes their skills and encourages them in the way that they most appreciate.”

Sean Pennington, head of recruiting at Mindgrub

“In the past, office perks have played a sizable role in a company’s level of attractiveness — things like ping pong tables, cold brew on tap and free lunches. Now that those physical perks are no longer an option, employers and potential hires alike are realizing that company culture is worth so much more than those tangible perks; they’re realizing it might not be about perks at all.

This year has forced a lot of companies to figure out how their culture will translate to the virtual, office-less world. By removing physical perks, you lift the fog, helping establish what makes a good company, a good company – things like a flexible work schedule and coworkers who will go to bat for you. Moving forward, I think we’ll see more companies redefining themselves accordingly.”

Patrick Rife, cofounder of Morrell Park-based photobooth software company Pixilated

“I think one trend that we didn’t see coming (nor did investors who passed on Zoom) is the explosion and mass exodus to virtual event platforms. We’ve obviously known that virtual meetings and technology could be a massive disruptor, but there’s nothing like a global pandemic to accelerate adoption.

What started as a dire need will evolve to become standard practice as organizations realize virtual events allow for greater monetization, a far broader audience, and increased ROI all around. Expect all events moving forward to offer a virtual element. The opportunities will far outweigh the challenges and help us to redefine what we expect from the events ecosystem.”

Lindsay Ryan, venture development director, University System of Maryland

“Greater understanding of and commitment to positive change in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s hard to say that and not feel naive, considering the past (even my own). But I believe it, and I feel like we need to for it to happen.”

Michael Rosenbaum, CEO of Arena Analytics and executive chairman of Catalyte, tech firms applying data science to hiring

“This year like no other, we have become cognizant that the way that our economy is assembled is unsustainable. Those of us who are members of underrepresented minorities, and those of us who lack the credentials or family socioeconomic status to have pathways to economic mobility, face barriers to economic security that we are all much more focused on than we were a year ago. That attention creates an opportunity to build an economy on the other side of COVID that unlocks each of our potential, and creates the opportunity for each of us to find dignity, happiness and security.  The devastation of 2020 has led us to this place, and we as a society and an economy now have the opportunity and, I hope, the will to do that work. That is the acceleration that I am optimistic will be with us going forward.”

Marty Rosendale, CEO of Maryland Tech Council

  • “Cashless society: The speed at which we are moving to a cashless society will continue and accelerate further in 2021.
  • Cybersecurity: With the pivot to working virtually, a focus has been around cybersecurity. (Our hands have been forced at addressing issues that for a while may have been way too lax).”

Dan Schepleng, creative director at Canton-based creative agency Kapowza

“We expect remote working to stick around for a bit and be implemented in a more flexible way. What our employees have shown us is that with communication and a few check ins along the way, work is being completed successfully without everyone being in the same space. We’ve also seen flexible hours pay off; allowing employees the ability to get their work done after hours or before hours, provided some opportunities to practice some self-care, visit friends, go for a hike, what have you, and the work still got done.”

Dan Sines, CEO of Highlandtown-based personality assessment company Traitify

“Many companies are focused on how to measure Diversity, Equity and Inclusion [DEI], but are not actually coming with solutions to solve the issue. While 2021 will not be the year that HR leaders guide their companies to overcome a lack of diversity, I think it will be the year companies finally identify the places where bias seeps into their talent attraction and employee engagement processes. Certain assessments, interview questions and even managing styles have been tailored to the preferences of the default majority. Companies with bold leadership will finally start to dismantle some of that bias and pave the way for greater diversity, equity, and most importantly, inclusion in 2021 and beyond.”

Deb Tillett, president of City of Baltimore-backed incubator ETC (Emerging Technology Centers)

“Given the way we’re all working remotely, and have been for nine months, I think more of us are going to start thinking through a curriculum for a degree in virtual operations and I also think that we will see companies and corporations naming a director of virtual operations.

We have to learn how to do it better because we’re not going back. I think it’s going to stay with us in some form. When you’re in office and everyone’s there that’s one thing. When you aren’t around and everyone is remote,
how do you make sure that things are efficient and operationalized for the organization.”

Members of the 2020 AccelerateBaltimore cohort.

Members of ETC’s 2020 AccelerateBaltimore cohort. (Courtesy image)

Aaron Velky, CEO of financial intelligence company Ortus Academy

“The word wellness in 2020 took on a tremendous amount of growth and evolution, and going into 2021, I still see this continuing as a trend in benefits and general awareness. We’re now seeing business owners develop a deeper awareness of employee familial life and needs, the costs of remote work in production and collaborate, and how financial challenges (of employees or their family) have an impact in the workplace and to the bottom line. The latter is certainly our area of focus (financial wellness), but more generally speaking I expect to see wellness represent a new echelon of priority for businesses — physical, mental, emotional and financial.”

Jessica Watson, CEO of Inner Harbor-based design, interactive and branding studio Points North Design Studio

“This year forced us to see people beyond the labels and boxes we put them in, and recognize them as whole. In the work environment, we often view our fellow colleagues under the lens of job title and skillset. But, the COVID-19 pandemic and the spotlight on systemic racism in 2020, has forced us to collectively dig deeper for how we see each other, and how we are complicit in a larger system. As a result, I’ve seen more discussions and actions around empathy in the work environment, understanding the American history not taught in schools, creating space for honest conversations, and ensuring team members feel supported while working from home. As business leaders, we hold the power and responsibility to cultivate diverse work environments where our teams flourish and our community members feel seen. This viewpoint, and the shifts in responsibility, is something I think will stay with us well into the future.”

Brittany Young, CEO of dirt bike culture-centered STEM program B360 and cofounder of Baltimore Legacy Builders Collective

“A long overdue awakening in health was accelerated in 2020: mental health, policies and practices, racial equity/ justice and overall the health of people. This is the first in my lifetime where everyone across the globe experienced the same problem together and was forced to grapple with the fact that we need to do better together or fall apart; we see the falling apart as displayed by the numbers of people who died because of COVID complications, racial uprisings and protests, the closing and failure of businesses, the technology divide and so much more. What I’m hoping is the awakening was not a trend but a change to reimagine the world and remove the flawed systems that have been accepted.”

Dan Young, CEO of Columbia-based cybersecurity software company QuoLab Technologies

“A shift I’ve seen in 2020 is organizations moving away from an on-prem security operations center (SOC) to outsourcing SOC capabilities, but not necessarily because of the pandemic. I think earlier projections were right in that as organizations continue to digitize and become more aware of their cyber vulnerabilities, the more likely they would be to try to streamline their security operations. Managed service providers (MSPs) and managed security service providers (MSSPs) were already gaining popularity as viable options for outsourced, streamlined and robust security operations, and companies were already putting a tremendous amount of time and effort into empowering these groups so they could handle the increased demand.

As companies who have benefited from a more flexible, remote work model decide to keep things that way—even when a vaccine becomes widely available—I expect demand for MSPs/MSSPs to increase even more. However, companies should exercise caution as they assess which managed service to use. While any MSPs and MSSPs do have streamlined security operations for quick and effective detection and response, their offerings typically do not include the proactive capabilities needed for truly robust security operations, such as threat hunting and information sharing. Digital transformation is going to continue to accelerate, and organizations outsourcing their security operations need to have a full view of their vulnerabilities and potential threats in addition to efficient incident response for truly effective security operations in 2021 and beyond.”

Companies: Kapowza / Ortus Academy / CareFirst / Fearless / Mindgrub / Pixilated / Protenus / University System of Maryland / Conscious Venture Lab / Code in the Schools / Emerging Technology Centers (ETC Baltimore) / SmartLogic
Series: Technology of the Future Month 2020

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