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Open Works aims for an inclusive competition for small manufacturers

Open Works' Will Holman. (Submitted photo)

“Anybody with an idea and a little bit of technical expertise can take off like a rocket ship we hope,” says Open Works Executive Director Will Holman. (Submitted photo)

Not every new business in Baltimore has to be the next Uber. Instead, a small designer with a couple of part-time employees can work on a small scale to contribute to the city.

Open Works’s 2nd Annual EnterpRISE Venture Competition this year hopes to showcase some of those smaller and more inclusive businesses that can be just as important to the city’s economy as the startups with billion dollar ideas.

“The original competition was in response to a perceived gap in the business competition landscape in Baltimore,” said Will Holman, Open Works executive director. “We realized there was nobody out there offering early stage investment in product-based businesses or craft manufacturers, people making a handbag or fashion line. We wanted to figure out a mechanism to support folks like that.”

The EnterpRISE competition is taking applications for new applications, due Sept. 28, for a Nov. 17 pitch competition. Before that competition, eight finalists will be selected for four weeks of coaching from business professionals, funders, lawyers and other makers.

The winner will receive $10,000, second place earns $5,000 and the first three runners-up will get $1,000 each. All of the finalists will also get six months of Open Works membership.

Open Works is a city makerspace with facilities including wood shop, metal shop, laser cutting, 3D printing, sewing and graphic design facilities.

The cash prize can be significant, Holman said. In previous years, it would not have been enough for a business to take off, but now it can buy equipment and help pay some part-time employees.

“Anybody with an idea and a little bit of technical expertise can take off like a rocket ship we hope,” he said.

That helped last year’s runner-up, Marie Sellenrick, founder of Groundbird Gear, the maker of long-distance hiking backpacks for dogs. By taking the second-place prize she could buy equipment, automate her pattern cutting and hire two part-time employees.

After last year’s competition, where all but one of the winners was a woman or person of color, Open Works wanted to make some alterations to make sure it could be as inclusive as they intended. They cut an initial pitch stage they used to find their finalists, which Holman said tended to favor businesses that already had experience with these types of competitions.

Other steps to improve inclusivity include written applications, straightforward questions, improved coaching and less requirements on what a business needs to have to be able to participate.

“These are all ways to keep lowering the barriers to people entering,” Holman said. “This year we’re trying to make it even easier for people to participate.”

For a city that has had a strong manufacturing tradition, the Open Works competition could be a small-scale return to form for Baltimore.

Most of these companies will not be creating products go through assembly lines or require large factories and hundreds of employees to produce. But for the most part, that is not how the manufacturing industry works anymore.

“For really the first time in human history the ability to semi-mass-produce things is really in the hands of an individual or a small group of people rather than a factory,” Holman said.

But that does not mean there cannot be an economic impact.

It has been almost two years since Open Works was created. In that time, member businesses have supported nearly 63 jobs in addition to the 30 people Open Works employs, Holman said.

“The notion that a makerspace can be a real engine for economic development, that we’re supporting almost 100 jobs that weren’t here in Baltimore two years ago, we’re really proud of that,” he said. “The competition is a core part of continuing that streak of business development. Long-term sustainable economic development in Baltimore is going to come from the grassroots on down.”


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