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14 fledgling tech firms leave the nest

Deborah Tillett is packing boxes and troubleshooting last-minute snags at the Emerging Technology Centers location in Canton, where she’s executive director, as she prepares for Saturday’s move to new digs in Highlandtown.

ETC Executive Director Deborah Tillett outside the incubator’s new home at the former King Cork & Seal Building in Highlandtown.

But 14 of the 20-some companies that leased space in Canton won’t be making the move. Call it graduation day: They’re out on their own. And 10 of them are staying within city limits.

Tillett said there was no push to graduate companies before they were ready just because of the move. She said the 14 tenants simply decided they were ready for the next stage.

“That’s a good success story,” she said. “It’s the kind of economic development story we’re proud of and want to continue.”

Three of the companies are setting up shop elsewhere in Maryland – in Hunt Valley, Hanover and Columbia — and one is moving to Arlington, Va. For Vigilant Medical, a health care IT company that left the incubator three weeks ago, there was never a question about staying in Baltimore.

“We’ve always wanted to stay in the city,” said CEO Santosh Venkatesha. “Most of our staff is in the city, so it wouldn’t make sense to uproot everyone.”

Venkatesha said graduating was a natural progression for Vigilant Medical. Matt Koll, co-founder of web products firm 410 Labs, another graduate, said the decision came down to finding an office that suited him and his business partner, David Troy.

The pair moved into a “funky little space” in Mount Vernon about two months ago, he said, after about three years in the ETC.

“We like being in the city,” Koll said. “I’ve worked in the burbs; I’ve worked in downtown Bethesda, Dupont Circle. And I have to say, I just really like Baltimore.”

The other businesses graduating from the ETC are SmartLogic; Groove Commerce; Arcion Therapeutics; Cerecor; New Sapience; Certified CIO; Eastern HealthCare Partners; EntreQuest;; Right Source; Trusted Technologies; and Home Track.

In general, Highlandtown is more affordable than Canton, which Tillett said was “a huge driver” in the ETC’s decision to let their lease expire in the Can Company building. With a more affordable lease, the ETC can keep rent for the entrepreneurs as low as possible, she said.

Emerging Technology Centers is a venture of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasi-public economic development agency. BDC contributes about a third of the nonprofit’s $2 million annual budget. The rest is generated by charging the resident companies for a monthly bundle that includes rent and ETC programs and services such as access to technology and mentoring.

Tillett said the organization also wants to be mindful of its relationship with the communities where the two ETC incubators are located (the other is near the Johns Hopkins University’s Eastern Campus).

“We did our job to help revitalize Canton 15 years ago, now we’re helping to revitalize another area,” she said. “And the Highlandtown community is really up-and-coming, so we’re very excited.”

The ETC will occupy the entire third floor, about 20,000 square feet, of the former King Cork and Seal Co. building at 101 N. Haven St. The other two floors are available for other tenants. Tillett said she hopes to “be a good neighbor” to existing businesses and “a good partner” by doing what she can to bring in more.

In fact, she said, other tenants in the building told her they were on the fence about the location but signed their leases as soon as they heard the ETC was moving in.

“So I know we were influential in at least two people signing deals, one of whom was an ETC graduate: NV3 Technologies,” she said. “They went from about 1,000 square feet with us to about 6,000 square feet on Haven [Street].”

The new ETC location, which has an open floor plan and fewer private offices to encourage collaboration, will eventually house 31 startup companies.

ETC at a glance

ETC Executive Director Deborah Tillett said the decision by a majority of graduates to keep their companies local is “proof that incubators work.” Here are some numbers she uses to back her claim:

* Since it was founded in 1999, ETC has assisted 307 companies; 87 percent are still in business.

* About 60 percent of ETC graduates have stayed in Baltimore.

* This past quarter, the average salary for an employee at an ETC-based company was $96,000.

* Together, ETC companies have created more than 2,325 new jobs, generated more than $375.8 million in economic activity for Baltimore and raised more than $1.5 billion in outside investment.