Nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit in Baltimore

New York: Wall Street

Nashville: country singers

Pittsburgh: steel country

Silicon Valley: technology hub

Baltimore: ???

How can the Baltimore region be the East Coast version of Silicon Valley? Members of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Technology & Innovation Committee tackled the topic at their Dec. 14 meeting. It’s not a matter of attempting to reinvent the wheel, but simply recognizing strengths already in place and marketing them, suggested speakers at the meeting.

The committee heard from four panelists in the technology finance industry, all representing different stages of the entrepreneurial financing process, in order to get a feel for where the industry stands and how Baltimore can make itself a more well-known destination for tech-savvy innovators.

Greg Cangialosi, co-founder of Baltimore Angels investors group, which makes initial investments in companies, identified four layers in a tech company’s maturation: the nucleus or idea; innovation, where the idea becomes a reality and where his investment dollars come in; growth or middle-level investment stage; and sustainability. He said there is growth happening at every level, but in Baltimore there is no “threading together of the layers.”

Panelists and committee members suggested a sense of community is lacking. Ideas such as creating a Web portal for companies and start-ups to visit and get information on the industry as well as tech conferences and tech centers were suggested as possible ways to bring the technology community together.

What is Baltimore’s tech identity? Some committee members had recently taken a trip to Technology Nirvana and felt for themselves Silicon Valley’s laidback, “failure is encouraged” culture and competition. But Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley due to some lucky coincidences and Baltimore has its own strengths that make the city and region unique, panelists said.

Panelist Jason Tagler, a principal at Camden Partners which focuses on late-stage investing, actually worked in Silicon Valley and said Baltimore has some great benefits the west does not, namely the cost of living and the risk in starting a company are both lower here.

Another panelist, Kevin Robbins, co-founder of Blue Delta Management, LLC, which is a middle-stage investor in companies looking to make the transition from start-up to large-scale sustainability, noted the close-knit relationships that characterize Baltimore – or Smalltimore as some locals call it. Entrepreneurs here have very close, personal relationships and people trust each other. Robbins suggested Baltimore capitalize on these unique aspects instead of trying to replicate a pre-existing model. Be a culture of innovation, he suggested.

The final panelist and moderator, Chris Helmrath, managing director for SC&H, noted Baltimore needs to avoid simply “chasing the shiny red ball.” The news is currently flooded with stories about cyber security as the newest and hottest emerging technology industry, he observed. “Are we capitalizing on where we have strengths? Or are we chasing what we feel is the next big thing?” Helmrath asked.

He said by the time the city and the region have capitalized on the new industries — organizing infrastructure, developing educational programs in the universities, investing in tools — “the ship has sailed.”

Being ahead of the curve, capitalizing on strengths to create a unique identity and working on pulling industry participants together to interact and feed off each other will not make Baltimore the East Coast version of Silicon Valley; it will most likely make it better, industry advocates contend.

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