COLLEGE PARK — When entrepreneur support initiative Startup Maryland launches Friday, the organization will face some of the same challenges as the startups it is trying to help.
The organizers — all of whom are volunteers — have put in their time and even reached into their own pockets to get the group running.
“Just like with any startup, focus is really critical,” said Dean Chang, Startup Maryland board member and director of Mtech Ventures, the University of Maryland’s initiative for delivering technology entrepreneurship education and fostering successful technology-based ventures. “Because if you have a limited number of people and a limited budget, you can’t spread it among 10 different initiatives, taking on 10 different 800-pound gorillas. You have a tough enough battle cut out for you taking on one 800-pound gorilla.”
The group won’t be taking on 10 initiatives, but it will try to tackle four key things: Startup Maryland wants to serve as an umbrella organization for entrepreneurs and bring to light available resources, such as incubators or in-kind services, assist with access to capital, increase awareness and celebration of entrepreneurship, and establish corporate connections between startups and the large firms that may be able to use their technologies.
Startup Maryland is part of the Startup America Partnership, a private organization whose January 2011 creation was spurred by President Barack Obama’s initiative to create more jobs and stimulate the economy. Startup Virginia and Startup D.C. launched in January.
Though the group officially kicks off Friday with a celebration at the University of Maryland, College Park, the region has already had some presence in Startup activities: Working with Startup D.C. and Startup Virginia, the three regions organized a job fair for startups and students on March 5 at George Washington University.
“It would have been a good event anyways, and we would have done it anyways, but it was made even better,” Chang said. “When people saw [it was a Startup America Partnership event], you instantly know it’s not somebody trying to self promote and someone trying to get something out of it. You know it’s by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.”
That’s been the mentality of the organizers from the start. Many of them heard about and joined the effort through previous entrepreneurial connections and involvement. The group held two town hall meetings, both of which drew more than 100 people, to identify in which areas Marylanders wanted help.
From those meetings, the four-fold focus emerged.
“It really has been left up to the regions to determine what is best for your community. In our situation, we want the entrepreneurs to guide us,” said Startup Maryland board member Michael Binko, who is also the president and CEO of Annapolis-based cloud computing firm, kloudtrack.
Before joining kloudtrack in 2007, Binko in 2004 founded early-stage equity and venture capital firm Gemini Venture Partners LLP, in which he remains a managing partner. His startup experience goes back to 1998, when he co-founded Virginia-based venture accelerator, LaunchFuel Inc.
“I’m CEO of a startup company. We need support and assistance. We’ve gotten good value from the incubator community we’ve gotten involved with,” Binko said. “I was very aware of that community, but it’s clear that a lot of entrepreneurs don’t know where to start.”
Some Maryland companies, such as Columbia-based energy solutions firm, greeNEWit, have already felt the positive effects of the region’s Startup. The company, which was started in 2008, has three founders and 30 employees.
Jason Jannati, one of the speakers at the launch and a co-founder of greeNEWit, said his firm heard about the initiative through The Case Foundation, one of the founding sponsors of Startup America. When Maryland’s regional affiliate started to mobilize, board member Julie Lenzer Kirk approached Jannati’s company about getting involved.
“We have been given some tremendous introductions,” said Jannati, noting the opportunity to meet Startup America CEO and Priceline’s founding chief technology officer, Scott Case.
“The people involved are all people that have had experience doing startups. It’s not bureaucrats talking about ways to help companies,” Jannati said. “It’s hands-on people who are motivated because they have been in the shoes of the people they are trying to help.”
Though Startup regions — there are 18 — aim to support young, high-growth companies, the goal isn’t to replicate one state’s success in another place, and it’s possible that not every state will end up launching a regional effort, said Donna Harris, managing director of Startup regions and one of the speakers scheduled for the kick-off event.
Rather than trying to figure out “How do we take Maryland and turn it into Silicon Valley?” the focus of the organization is to figure out “How do we take Maryland, and take that ecosystem to an entirely new level so that there are amazing high growth companies coming out of Maryland at a pace that people never thought was possible?” Harris said.
Marylanders are coming out in droves to support the region’s Startup: 280 people registered for Friday’s event, and the waitlist exceeded 40. The launch will be shown online and more than 20 incubators, as well as universities and economic development office are hosting “viewing parties,” Binko said.
The outpouring of interest speaks to the need, said Kirk, the Startup Maryland board member and director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.
Kirk, who founded a software company in 1995, cashed out in 2005, and began mentoring and advising other entrepreneurs.
“I think there’s just been a lack of energy around entrepreneurship at the statewide level,” she said, adding that though there are “great pockets of energy” all over the state, the synergy hasn’t been there.
“University of Maryland has some incredible programs, they’ve got great energy here, but can you feel this energy in Garret County, in Baltimore? Baltimore has its own energy, Baltimore has incredible programs going on, but can you feel that in Howard County? Can you feel that in Cecil County? No, you can’t. You look at it and it’s like, ‘Wow, we’ve got these great pockets of brilliance. What are we going to do when we bring all of this together?’” Kirk said.
Though Startup America has a full-time staff and sponsors that include The Case Foundation and The Kauffman Foundation, Maryland’s group is powered by a volunteer-based board of individuals who have even picked up costs where necessary, Binko said.
The group has defrayed some of its costs through in-kind services, as well as through the support of its first paid sponsor, Chicago-based commercial real estate company, Jones Lang LaSalle, which is also a partner of the national organization.
Though it may be challenging to bring together resources that fit the needs of both biomedical and information technology startups, which dominate the state, startups share many of the same challenges, said Sheree Wysocki, director of business development for the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School and former director of business development for the MdBio division of the Tech Council of Maryland.
“It wouldn’t be productive to further divide the tech and biotech communities … they do have some different needs, but they also have some overlapping needs,” said Wysocki, who is hoping the initiative will connect students to external projects, allowing them to apply entrepreneurial skills they learn in the classroom.
Wysocki, who is planning to attend the launch, said the initiative needs to maintain a holistic approach to the state and be wary of economic development desires of individual parts.
“Every county wants [a company] to start up in their county,” she said. “That kind of sets up sort of a territorial approach to things.”
While the group does not make grants, it can be a springboard for entrepreneurs looking for guidance and resources, Binko said.
The first step is to register online with Startup America, and interested companies need to fit one of three frameworks: a for-profit startup company with a least two founders or employees, founded since 2006, a for-profit “rampup,” a company that has started to hire, expanded to office space and been selected to join an accelerator, or a for-profit “speedup,” a company that has seen a spike in revenue, increased hiring and received at least one round of venture capital funding. Both “rampups” and “speedups” need to have at least six founders or employees and be founded since 2001.
Though there’s no cost to be a member, companies are screened to make sure they fit the criteria and have the intention to grow their firms.
Once a company is vetted and approved, it will have access to resources behind the firewall, some of which —like how to prepare for an initial public offering — don’t fit the needs of small businesses that aren’t looking to grow, Harris said.
“The content they’re going to get, the resource that are available to them, they’re geared toward [growing] your company,” she said.
Just like Kevin Plank did.
Plank, founder and CEO of Maryland-based startup success Under Armor, has thrown his support behind the organization. A founding board member of Startup America, Plank will present to the Startup Maryland organizers a Maryland Pride helmet — the state flag-adorned helmet designed by his company and worn by the University of Maryland’s football team.
The helmet will serve as one of two talismans for Startup Maryland and will be present at the organization’s future events.
Wanting equal representation for the female entrepreneurs in the state, the organizers also reached out to the Charm City Roller Girls, who will “crash” the event, skating in to present their own flag-bearing helmet. In addition to serving as visible icons of the organization, the helmets play into one of the themes of the launch: “Entrepreneurship is a full-contact sport.”
Almost 900 people have expressed interest in Startup Maryland, said Binko, with the breakdown falling 55 percent to entrepreneurs and 45 percent to supporters.
Startup America has harnessed more than $1.2 billion in commitments from more than 70 partners, who are offering resources, including free or reduced cost services, to member businesses.