Last Thursday, about 100 people gathered on Dickman Street in the Baltimore Peninsula to celebrate the launch of an entrepreneurship center and the latest iteration of an early-stage business accelerator.
The newly launched nonprofit, the Novella Center for Entrepreneurship (NCE), serves as the home for the Conscious Venture Lab accelerator. The long-standing accelerator celebrated the start of this new cohort with a gathering of dignitaries and company friends.
Among the notable attendees were Ken Ulman, a former county executive in Howard County, and ex-Plank Industries head Tom Geddes. Jeff Cherry, the managing general partner of the separate entity Conscious Venture Partners (CVP), highlighted Geddes as a significant supporter of nearby Under Armour, its founder Kevin Plank and Baltimore-based investment management firm Brown Advisory. They joined past and present cohort members and staff for a fireside chat at the NCE HQ, located just behind City Garage, while also welcoming this latest group of founders and companies.
With the continued support of Annapolis’ FounderTrac, this accelerator is designed for a diverse group of founders who are leveraging technology to dismantle barriers to access and promote a more equitable society. In a phone interview with Technical.ly, Cherry highlighted the themes of diversity and technological innovation possessed by founders in this cohort.
“It’s a good group,” he said, adding: “As you might imagine, there’s lots of AI driven ventures, or ventures trying to use AI, and some really interesting social impact businesses — one that is sort of focused on helping the people with what they call ‘invisible disabilities’ find work. So we’ve got we’ve got fintech, we’ve got manufacturing, we’ve got AI, we’ve got food as medicine.”
Cherry noted that the cohort of 12 companies boasts 11 with BIPOC founders, with half being based in Baltimore. While the program hasn’t changed much in the last three or four cohorts, he said, it now has the key difference of being hybrid — similar to a cohort run in Mexico City last year through a partnership with a Mexican university. It also shortened from a 16-week model to a 12-week one.
“COVID came and we developed, with our friends from Annapolis, FounderTrac, an online learning management system to help us do more things virtually, and sort of developed a virtual program,” he said. “And this is the first time that we have both virtual and in-person programming at the same time.”
CVL offers customized and bespoke programs designed to assist founders in building purpose-driven companies that not only aim to generate profits but also seek to make a positive impact. At the conclusion of each CVL cohort, there is an investment committee with CVP that evaluates each company within the cohort. If a company is selected for a $125,000 convertible equity investment, approximately $20,000 of that amount is allocated to support future cohorts — specifically covering fees for upcoming founders. This approach is referred to as the “pay-it-forward model,” as confirmed by CVL Program Director and 2023 RealLIST Connector Marianna Pappas.
“It costs us about $20-$30,000 per company to run the program, but we raise philanthropic dollars to support that program, so everyone gets in for free,” said Cherry. But as you get investment at the end, we have a pay-it-forward model where those companies who get investment pay it forward into a scholarship fund, essentially. That allows us to essentially become evergreen.”
Here are the founders and companies in this cohort, according to the Novella Center:
- Suvin Seal, Aidin Org LLC (Baltimore, Maryland): An AI co-pilot, endorsed by surgeons, that is tailored for operating room staff and leveraging AI expertise.
- Darius Lawson, Balance (Baltimore): A fintech company that streamlines data exchange among banking product lines, clients, departments and others to ensure due diligence.
- Mariah Barber, Invisible Strengths (DC): An HR company that connects businesses with capacity-building training and culturally-aligned talent by specializing in underrepresented candidate matching.
- Nichole Sullivan, Keppel and Kismet, LLC (Baltimore): A company aiming to empower microbusinesses to reach their full potential by offering customized manufacturing solutions.
- Nabeel Siddiqui, Modulus Tech (Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan): A company providing housing tech for social and enviornmental impact.
- Don Horan, Netra AI (Miami, Florida): An AI specialist making technology that enables computers to interpret, comprehend and respond to visual data.
- Cyrus Azamfar, OpenDoc AI, Inc. (New York, New York): This company offers a chat-based analytics platform that enables users to seamlessly connect to their data sources, harnessing its capabilities to unlock valuable and actionable insights.
- Julius Valentine Maina, RepusNFT (Baltimore): A company mixing civic engagement with blockchain and NFT technology.
- Richard Trinh, SecureFOOD (DC): A company fighting chronic illness by using technology to help people access healthy pre-prepared meals.
- Nicole Foster, sommos (Baltimore): A venture focused on intergenerational connections and sharing of stories.
- Sadeq Safarin, Vector ML Analytics (New York, New York): This cohort participant uses AI in the service of SaaS financial planning for lenders and banks.
- Willmeisha Hall, WorldSafe1st Inc. (Baltimore): Fintech that hastens emergency financial resource distribution to individuals and communities in need — all in service of tackling the “survivor gap,” according to the Novella Center’s description.
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