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Climbing on the bus to boost entrepreneurship

Three months after kicking off the Startup Maryland statewide initiative, organizers are making their next move to energize and celebrate the entrepreneurial community.

Through Pitch Across Maryland, a bus tour that will span the state from Sept. 11 to 28, organizers hope to connect entrepreneurs with resources, advisors, legal teams and angel and venture capital investors.

“Really what we’re looking to do is discover the undiscovered entrepreneurs out there. There’s a lot of great programs across the state but there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to those programs or entrepreneurs who aren’t tied in to that,” said Julie Lenzer Kirk, co-chair of Startup Maryland and director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.

Startup Maryland is part of the Startup America Partnership, a private organization whose January 2011 creation was spurred by President Barack Obama’s attempt to create more jobs and stimulate the economy. Twenty-five Startup regions have launched, with plans developing in almost every state, said Donna Harris, managing director of Startup regions.

Maryland is the first to launch a bus tour.

The idea was sparked earlier this year during a Startup America summit, where leaders from Startup Iowa shared an idea of doing a bus tour that would extend to Florida and circle back to the Midwest. But that idea never came to fruition, Harris said.

“Maryland is now the test bed for this type of initiative,” she said.

The bus tour will start in Ocean City, continuing along the Eastern Shore and hitting the central, southern and western parts of the state. On Sept. 28, the tour will conclude with a celebration in Howard County.

Harris praised the idea, saying that while the Baltimore-Washington area tends to get the most focus among Maryland’s entrepreneurial community, “there’s so much more to the state than that and this is a great way to produce some connective tissue.”

The organizers of the event are collaborating with incubators, economic development associations and universities to make the tour happen. The bus, provided at a discount by Howard County-based Eyre Bus, Tour & Travel, will be wrapped in Maryland-themed graphics.

While organizers originally planned for a 10-day event, community interest caused them to add stops and dates, stretching the event to more than two weeks.

A video contest, where entrepreneurs record their business pitches, will be part of the tour, with an area for filming available on the bus, said Mike Binko, co-chair of Startup Maryland and president and CEO of Annapolis-based cloud computing firm kloudtrack.

“We found that that was something everybody involved in the entrepreneurial system could get value from,” he said.

Organizers are still figuring out some of the details, such as if a production crew will travel on the bus for the entire tour or if videographers will meet the bus along its route, he said.

More seasoned entrepreneurs will likely pitch first, while less experienced ones will receive boot camp-like coaching and pitch tips from business professionals, Binko said. The public will be able to vote online for the best pitch, with the 16 highest scoring companies receiving coaching and moving on to a live pitch event and chance at prize money.

“If Pitch Across Maryland was like the NCAA basketball tournament, we want to find the at-large bids in the competition — the schools that no one knows … the schools that beat a No. 2 seed when they’re a No. 15,” Binko said.

Startup Maryland has a four-fold focus: serving as an umbrella organization for entrepreneurs and bringing to light available resources, such as incubators or in-kind services; assisting with access to capital; increasing awareness and celebration of entrepreneurship; and establishing corporate connections between startups and the large firms that may be able to use their technologies.

“This particular project that we’re doing hits every one of them. It was an easy choice when we brought the idea to the organizing board,” Kirk said.

Maryland’s bus tour is something Harris thinks other states will adapt and customize to meet their own goals. Startup America CEO Scott Case will be appearing at the Sept. 21 stop in Baltimore, she said.

“Entrepreneurs recognize a good idea when they see one,” Harris said.