To founders, the path of leading an early-stage company can seem like one that’s never been traversed before. Yet the Maryland Tech Council (MTC) has found that having a group of experienced mentors in different facets of building a business is helping CEOs get to the next stage of growth.
MTC’s Venture Mentoring Services (VMS) offers a team-based approach to mentorship that’s designed to help CEOs as they look to raise institutional funding and beyond.
“It’s so easy to put head your down and be so focused on the next development stage and the next milestone and lose sight of the fact that there is a network out there that you can rely on,” said MTC CEO Martin Rosendale. “What this program does is it brings that back to the forefront.”
After forming out of a merger between the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council and Tech Council of Maryland in 2017, MTC emerged as a group that combines members in biotech and life sciences, as well as cyber and software companies. It produces events, such as today’s Bio Innovation Conference that’s taking place in Bethesda, and serves as an advocacy arm in Annapolis.
It’s also involved in the work of helping ventures in the state get to their next level. And in talking to CEOs, Rosendale said one main area of need is raising capital. While MTC doesn’t provide funding, its new mentoring services program seeks to provide companies support in key growth areas, including getting ready to raise.
VMS’ processes and team approach were designed at MIT, the prestigious university across the river from Boston. At MTC, it’s free to CEOs who participate, and takes a team approach to helping entrepreneurs.
Once accepted, the CEOs are teamed with a pitch coach who provides guidance, and discusses what they want from the mentor relationship and what they need at their particular stage of development.
Then, the CEOs attend one of the organization’s monthly breakfasts, where they pitch to a group of mentors. Following the pitch, a group of those mentors volunteers to help and establish a lead, and the CEO then signs off on the group themselves.
Rosendale said the program has found that three to four people per group is an ideal size. All volunteers, the mentors each provide a different expertise: The group of 90 mentors on tap includes former CEOs, legal experts, financial experts, sales experts and HR pros.
For the ventures, a big milestone that they’re often working toward is raising a next round of funding. Rosendale said the 38 ventures in the program so far have raised a total of $50 million.
The program started mostly with ventures in the Howard County and Montgomery County areas, though after receiving a grant from the Maryland Department of Commerce in the last year, it’s expanded to the Baltimore area. So far, nine ventures from the Baltimore area have joined, raising a total of $8 million.
“The folks who start in Baltimore get attached to city and really want to build in Baltimore and grow in Baltimore,” said Emily English, the CEO of Federal Hill-based Gemstone Biotherapeutics, a company that spun out of research at Johns Hopkins University to bring skin regeneration products to market. “People are dedicated to the city and feel connected. I could see this program as it grows into Baltimore reinforcing a thriving community of entrepreneurs that already exists and is growing.”
English joined VMS at a time when she was looking to expand her network. She said being able to make connections on a local level was essential.
“One of the real strengths of being a Maryland company and going through this program is making the connection locally to folks,” she said. “It’s one of the best opportunities to do that as an early-stage entrepreneur.”
So where does the program fit within the other resources that are available in the state? Distinct from programs that offer support at the earliest stages of formation, Rosendale said that most of the ventures that participate are beyond need for an accelerator or incubator, and past the friends and family stage of funding. Typically, they’re gearing up to raise a larger round that’s from outside investors.
Towson-based TransitioningU was one of those ventures, having entered the program prior to raising a round of funding. CEO Mustafa Wahid said the company, which provides personalized student support for universities through a mobile platform, has a team of four mentors. It includes two people with experience in the edtech space, and each provides a different level of support.
“What really makes the program unique is having a team with a diverse skillset, from operations to marketing to management,” Wahid said. And if they don’t have an immediate answer, “they are willing to go through their networks and say, ‘We are going to put you in contact to see who can help you with this.'”
For English, the specific experience the mentors offered about raising money was insightful.
“When you get around a table with a group of people who have been there and done that, one of the things that I think is a learning process is to put yourself in the shoes of the investor and to think about how you communicate your company,” English said.
Even after a round is complete, there’s no defined end to the program. After raising a round, CEOs can keep participating, and even change up mentor teams along the way based on their needs. Rosendale said VMS has recently been looking to work with more companies transitioning into the growth phase, which comes after initial traction starts to grow into repeatable sales processes.
For Wahid, the conversation has also turned to how to keep growing post-funding. He said the process is designed so it’s easy to access and not wasting anyone’s time, but can provide support when needed.
“They have the flexibility and have a lot of experience to be able to help you at any stage,” he said.
One of TransitioningU’s mentors is Tom Thomson, who said the chance to mentor different kinds of ventures was compelling. He worked at large consulting companies over 20 years, and over the course of gaining experience, he began mentoring others in his firm as well as companies coming up.
He joined VMS a little over two years ago on a referral from another mentor in the program, which is required for mentors. He’s working with a variety of ventures — along with edtech, he’s also helping a medical device company, among others — offering guidance on organizational development, communications, regulatory matters and leadership skills. Others on the teams he’s a part of provide different kinds of guidance. Thomson said the goal is to ask questions and help to come up with solutions to problems, but ultimately it’s the CEO who will decide what to do.
“None of us have a financial commitment or interest of any kind,” he said. “We come into it with basically a clean slate, and so we’re able to be able to provide hopefully thoughtful, committed advice based upon our experience and knowledge that could serve the best interest of the startup CEO.”
As a volunteer, Thomson said he works with the ventures with an eye on the future, as the next wave of companies will create opportunities for new generations.
“What I enjoy is the aspect of the contributing back to organizations and to efforts that are trying to advance economic growth, advance job opportunities and advance success in the marketplace,” he said.
Ultimately, having a group to turn to can also provide a boost during the process of building a company.
“Building an early stage company is hard work. Building an early-stage life sciences company adds a whole couple of layers of challenges, so you need people that you can reach out to,” said English. “They’ll lift your spirits.”