Startups

23 tech leaders on the opportunities that can shape Baltimore’s future

Local leaders answer our question: What's the biggest learning or opportunity to emerge from the last two years that will help Baltimore move forward?

The first equitech city?

(Photo by Flicker user Craig Fildes)

How is the future being shaped today?

As any entrepreneur will tell you, hard moments can bring opportunity to improve, or change things up altogether. You can learn a lot from what you didn’t plan for, and find new approaches along the way.

That has been evident in Baltimore’s community of technologists and entrepreneurs during 2021. After a year of pandemic, pivoting and a renewed push for racial justice in 2020, the following year has brought more sustained solutions, a wave of coalition-building, and focused efforts to build in a new way going forward.

Crises can be cyclical like that. They have a tendency to bring to a boil what was previously simmering just beneath the surface, and the focused work necessary to solve the immediate challenge can create more resolve to make lasting change. It can even present opportunities we didn’t expect.

As Omicron reminds us, this tumultuous period isn’t over. Yet, two years in, there has also been enough time to take stock of all that’s emerged, and what we’ve learned. It’s also a moment that can build the future, with a newly mobile knowledge workforce that can choose to live anywhere, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding set to arrive, a mayoral administration that’s engaged like never before, and leaders who are jumping in and bringing folks together.

It’s why Technical.ly’s December editorial theme is Lessons on Resilience. With that in mind, we reached out to Baltimore leaders with a question to help us gather thoughts on all that’s changed, and what might help us push forward:

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What’s the biggest learning or opportunity to emerge from the last two years that will help Baltimore move forward in the future?

Here’s a look at their responses:

Wendy Bolger, director, Loyola University Maryland Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

I’ve run across a couple of quotes that rang true about the last two years. One is: “We all went through the same storm, but we were not in the same boat.”

Some of us had the resources to float through the pandemic. Many of us did not have that kind of a ship at our disposal, and we’re still bailing. Looking back, Baltimore has a long history of shipbuilding prowess, dating all the way back to the canoes crafted by the region’s indigenous peoples. During the pandemic, the way the community came together, often virtually, to create new resources suggests how we can move forward in the future. The collaborations and the commitment to the city that emerged as a response to COVID-19 also demonstrate that Baltimore has what it takes to thrive. We must lash our vessels together. To extend the boat metaphor, the opportunity for Baltimore is to chart our own course using local skills and talent, not just wait on a lifeline we hope is coming from somewhere else.

The other quote is from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, who said, “Work is no longer a place you go. It’s something you do.” That’s liberating and suggestive of opportunities for Baltimore’s future if our creative and tech talent can stay in the enriching, supportive Baltimore ecosystem and find even more options to do the work they do, without having to relocate to find funding and new prospects.

Pothik Chatterjee, AVP of innovation, LifeBridge Health

The biggest learning to emerge from the last two years that will help Baltimore move forward in the future is this enduring and clear lesson: We are stronger when we reach out and partner together across industries and silos to solve the biggest crises in our lifetime.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced so many challenges. Ensuring healthcare delivery to take care of all of our sick patients, getting our population vaccinated and building trust with communities who have been treated unjustly historically, health inequities and access barriers and the digital divide.

At LifeBridge Health, we saw firsthand the value of partnerships to save lives and protect our healthcare providers and staff during the pandemic — partnering with Under Armour to design and produce face masks and PPE through massive supply chain disruptions. We launched 1501 Health, a ‘payvider’ partnership with Healthworx, the innovation and investment arm of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, to incubate and invest in early-stage digital health startups, like Live Chair, that focuses on the barbershop setting to engage black men around prevention and treatment of chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes and obesity by providing health assessments and education. We partnered with Higi, the nation’s leading smart health stations provider, and the American Heart Association to develop clinical content around prevention, hypertension and heart health across 70 kiosks in supermarkets, community and fitness centers in the greater Baltimore area.

Stephanie Chin, Hutch program manager, Fearless

Everyone’s ability to adapt and persevere over the past two years has been tested to the extremes. This is particularly true for entrepreneurs. We’ve seen those who have a strong foundation and a network of support have been able to pivot as needed, but we must learn from this experience to make sure entrepreneurs have the opportunities and access in the first place.

Tasha Cornish, executive director, Cybersecurity Association of Maryland, Inc.

In the last two years, our regional cybersecurity ecosystem experienced remarkable growth, highlighted by landmark investment, acquisitions and exits. Of course, the roadmap for this growth was created long before Dragos became the first industrial cybersecurity unicorn, or three DataTribe companies were acquired in one month, or ZeroFox announced their intent to go public. We’ve known for years that Baltimore has the ideas and the talent to lead the cybersecurity industry, and we’re attracting, while building, the other resources (e.g., funding, advisory, etc.). We need to realize that potential.

Dianne Conley, COO, Code in the Schools

The last two years have made obvious that East and West Baltimore’s black neighborhoods suffer from digital redlining as much as they suffer from discrimination in other areas.  The people of these communities know how to solve their problems, but resources designated to help still go in large part to organizations and institutions outside of these communities. We have an opportunity to change that in 2022 and beyond, which will in turn benefit all of Baltimore.

Yair Flicker, president, SmartLogic

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that internet connectivity is crucial for providing access to job opportunities — and creating wealth. Given Baltimore’s history of redlining and its treatment of marginalized citizens, I’m excited to see investments at the city, state, and federal levels in broadband and Wi-FI; basic internet access is increasingly critical for participation in modern learning and work environments.

Beyond physical infrastructure, career connections and learning opportunities are necessary to help bridge the gap to high-paying tech jobs. We’re looking forward to seeing the impact of new programs like the Baltimore Tracks City Schools internship as they hopefully grow and build pathways for Baltimore’s young people to join the local tech community.

John Foster, COO, Fearless

The biggest lesson learned for me, especially during Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, not everyone is treated equally. I think we always have assumed this, but the combination of those two things really brings to light the inequity in the world. Baltimore has and continues to see this and experience it firsthand. What we can’t do is see the problem and revert to the same old policies, procedures, and way of doing things. We need to lean into the uncomfortableness of it all every day.

Will Gee, CEO, Balti Virtual

One silver lining from the last two years is that the move to Zoom/remote has started to level the playing field and increase opportunities outside of traditional tech hubs like SF/NYC/LA. For a company like ours, this has made finding and collaborating with clients a bit easier than it used to be in the business-travel-centric days. Hopefully, this trend continues to help Baltimore-based companies work with more clients nationwide.

Michelle Geiss, executive director, Impact Hub Baltimore

In the past two years, Baltimore has formed some important and formidable coalitions with a laser focus on equity. Whether our end goal is building resources for small businesses, improving digital equity, or investing in diverse founders, we will always achieve more when we work together. The city can only move forward by intentionally shifting resources to the people and places that have been historically underinvested. While we’ve known that for some time, the past two years have created a sense of urgency to take real action and to build strategies that leverage the collective knowledge of committed leaders from the grassroots to the grasstops.

Koffi Harrison, president, UpLight

Baltimore has so much to offer, with unlimited potential. It is a gem. Take a moment to close your eyes and dream with me, something a mentor does. Envision a Baltimore where everyone is walking in greatness. A city that has tapped into the highest peaks of its potential, positively impacting and enhancing the lives of residents and those that have an interaction here. A place that is pushing boundaries, a change agent for other cities. How do we get here? Empathy!

Leading with empathy has been the biggest takeaway from these last two years, from my perspective, that could help Baltimore move toward the city we just closed our eyes and dreamt of. The experience of an ongoing pandemic, social unrest that was broadcast for the world to see (in your face), amongst other things led to many individuals and organizations changing behavior. There was a need to take a step back and be intentional or considerate of the potential impact an interaction or action could have on another. For example, thinking about what someone could be going through at home (e.g., childcare, new virtual world, job, loneliness) was essential. If we can lead with empathy, voices would be uplifted and that diversity of thought and/or perspective will result in more informed decisions, interactions and solutions to challenges on the path to greatness.”

Dr. Tammira Lucas, cofounder, The Cube Cowork, Moms as Entrepreneurs

The biggest learning opportunity from the last two years that I think would help Baltimore move forward is paying attention to the “small fries.” So often we are looking at the talent we consider heavy hitters but those that are working small and steady are also having a huge impact on our city.

Todd Marks, CEO, Mindgrub

During COVID, particularly for school-aged children and our underserved communities, we did not have the broadband infrastructure, computers and training in place to provide adequate education and work-from-home opportunities. These technologies should be ubiquitous like water, septic, and electric utilities. We know we can do better and several initiatives such as the Maryland Tech Council’s T12 Committee, UpSurge and Baltimore Tracks have shown up this past year to help change that.

Ken Malone, executive officer, Early Charm

Manufacturing matters. As much as I love the port expansion and the tunnel heightening, it is all meaningless if we don’t develop a manufacturing base that uses those assets for export. It’s not just bad economic development practice to ignore manufacturing but, as is now very clear, a matter of basic survival.

Jamie McDonald, CEO, UpSurge Baltimore

What do we know? That we have heart, smarts, grit and ingenuity in every corner of our city, but not equal opportunities to prosper in a 21st century economy.  That truly inclusive economic growth and stability for Baltimore families will require significant investment in an innovation economy that welcomes all who choose it. That Baltimore is home to a dynamic and determined ecosystem of founders, investors, accelerators, corporations and organizations — like those who came together in UpSurge teams to craft Equitech 2030. That this is an ideal place to build a startup culture that grounds itself in a belief that diversity is a force-multiplier for company success.

What’s new? We are in the midst of an all-hands-on-deck moment to realize our potential – in a way that is uniquely Baltimore. The untethering of startups and the tech workforce from traditional brain hubs changes the game. Amidst our challenges and imperfections, we sometimes forget how spectacular our city is. But we’ve been seeing Baltimore anew, through the eyes of the Techstars Equitech founders and other partners we’ve welcomed recently. They’re shocked by the breadth of our entrepreneurial ecosystem. Surprised by how accessible and affordable Baltimore is. Impressed by how open Baltimoreans are to newcomers. And amazed at how connected we are to each other (“Wait, you know her, too?” Smalltimore, hon!). Most of all, they are in awe of what we’re trying to build, together.

This is lightning in a bottle. If we capture it, we can become a global model of a “tech-for-all” city, one that provides a launchpad for transformational companies and new pathways of opportunity for more Baltimoreans. We can do this.

Joe Mechlinski, CEO, SHIFT

Biggest learning to date: anything is possible. Before the pandemic, we may never have been able to imagine many things that are true today — working from home, virtual school, eliminating travel, not eating out — and yet, we did it. We found a way to persevere. And although it sometimes feels like we are taking steps backwards, I feel history will tell a different story. This pandemic is providing the perfect opportunity for us to use these conditions and constraints to re-think everything: how we work together, how we live together, and even how we love one another. Just as we have pivoted during the pandemic, we can now turn these learned skills into innovative ideas on how to continue to make our community good for us all.

Ed Mullin, CIO, Think Systems and executive director, Baltimore City Robotics Center

I think the biggest learning opportunity was how to work remotely. Many companies, like my employer Think, had been doing it for years, but for other companies it’s been a real transition. The difficult side of this is that talent is now free to roam the country for jobs.  This is going to make it even harder for places like Baltimore, Philly and Pittsburgh to retain talent. Tech folks are opting to move to cheaper, more climate freely or “cooler” geographies.

Eliot Pearson, chief strategy officer, partnerships, Catalyte

If you’re a remote worker, Baltimore is a great destination. The cost of living is low, it’s on the East Coast and is a quick drive to/from other metropolitan areas. It scores high on a flexibility scale for remote workers. I believe more people will realize this and take advantage of all the positives Baltimore has to offer.

Margaret Roth Falzon, director of portfolio operations, Squadra

“Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods,” a phrase I’ve heard from Baltimoreans and transplants alike ever since I moved here in 2007. Usually stated with pride or said as veiled acknowledgement to the unending impact of redlining, either way it is a reference to the diversity that divides us. I think that the last two years have taught us that this is the wrong thing about Baltimore to be proud of.

Baltimore is a city of teams. Baltimore Development Corporation worked with over 300 businesses, community members, and organizations on Baltimore Together: A Platform for Inclusive Prosperity. With the launch of UpSurge Baltimore, over 150 team members produced the Equitech 2030 report. B-360 united the State’s Attorney’s Office, T. Rowe Price, Brown Advisory and the Job Opportunities Task Force to launch the Dirt Bike Offenses Diversion Program.

This is a tiny, yet far-reaching set of examples of team efforts — teams that at times have played against each other, coming together to work for each other. If we could, in all aspects, take this mindset that we are a city of teams, working together in our efforts, we’d find out that there is a massive opportunity to change the way that the future of this city plays out.

Jane Shaab, executive director, UM BioPark and AVP for economic development, University of Maryland, Baltimore

The life science industry in Baltimore stepped firmly into the spotlight in 2021. Demand for specific, well-designed bench and lab space has increased, and we’re perfectly positioned to help fill that need. At the UM BioPark, we’ve seen a number of our tenant companies — large and small — expand to not only meet the demands of the pandemic, but to pursue key discoveries in areas such as gene sequencing and gene therapy. We’ve also welcomed several new, innovative device companies that are benefitting from our proximity and connection to the University of Maryland, Baltimore. We look to 2022 as a year for expansion and continuing growth.

Sean Sutherland, director of accounts, Kapowza

How important partnerships are in order to accomplish big goals. I’d love to see a place where true collaboration is valued, silos are dropped, and we come together, unselfishly.

LaToya Staten, strategic projects specialist, Fearless

Grace. Give yourself a little grace. We have all had to navigate challenges during this time. It is OK to “say no,” take your time, and pull back when necessary.

Sometimes you have to go alone. Working with others and group think is great until it comes time for execution — and then silence. No one wants to lead, but someone has to go first. Get comfortable with being the unintended leader, even if you have to go first and alone.

Jessica Watson, CEO, Points North Studio and cofounder, Baltimore Womxn in Tech

A big lesson is that community holds more weight than we’ve previously considered. Julianna Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, put it perfectly when she said, “What we’ve learned from COVID is that isolation is everyone’s problem. It doesn’t just happen to older adults; it happens to us all.” It took us being secluded to remember we’re all connected and that people matter. Over these last two years, everyone has fought some kind of battle and has had stark reminders about the fragility of life. I hope we remember how much we need each other. This is a cornerstone for how we move forward.

Christy Wyskiel, executive director, Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures

Baltimore’s economic future depends on inclusion: The more we can leverage the human assets we have and invest in a diverse workforce to fuel company growth, the more momentum we will build and the healthier our community will be.

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