Baltimore has a swish new tech campus that will serve as a coworking space, educational arena, and an incubator for early-stage startups. Called Betamore, it is modeled on New York’s General Assembly and housed in an upscale business block that is also part of a luxury apartments building.
In fact, the folks behind Betamore are betting that the city’s startup community is vibrant enough that the company can become profitable before its financial runway expires in 10 months. Betamore is funded by its three co-founders: Sean Lane, whose former company BTS provided a portable cellular system to the military; Greg Cangialosi, who founded and sold an email marketing company called Blue Sky Factory; and Mike Brenner, the CEO, a web developer who founded the now-defunct StartupBaltimore blog (which has since been acquired by Technically Media) and event series.
Like many other second-tier tech cities in the US, Baltimore has been on a mission to build its tech community as it watches its wider economic fortunes crumble. As far as tech goes, the region has traditionally been known more for cybersecurity than for entrepreneurship. It has, however, had a few Internet hits, including one-time ad giant Advertising.com, BillMeLater, which eBay acquired in 2008 for $945 million, and Millennial Media, a mobile ad company that went public on the New York Stock Exchange in March. By the middle of 2012, Baltimore ranked 28th in the country for venture capital investment activity, according to the National Venture Capital Association, with 45 deals totaling $185 million.
More than perhaps any city other than Detroit, Baltimore could use some good news from its startups. The city is suffering a prolonged bout of economic depression. Manufacturing left town in the 1960s and took many of the good jobs with it. Between 1950 and 1995, Baltimore lost 100,000 industrial jobs and a third of its population, which now sits at about 635,000. Then, in 1968, came race riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King. The city still hasn’t recovered. Now it has 30,000 vacant properties and 16,000 unoccupied buildings. A quarter of the population lives in poverty – 10 percent more than the national average – and the illegal drugs trade is one of the biggest employers in town.
I’m proud to call myself a Baltimore resident, but sometimes walking the streets of this city, looking at entire blocks that have boarded-up windows, it’s hard to see how it can possibly turn things around. To be sure, Baltimore has beautiful neighborhoods, historic architecture, and a hardy “We’re in this together” mindset that sets it apart from neighboring cities, but it also has serious problems. Last year, it had 196 homicides. But that was good news – it was the first time the number had fallen under 200 in three decades. So far this year, the number is at 204 (and you might want to check back tomorrow).
At the moment, it seems to barely get by on the steam of its service industries, its top-notch universities, and from the workforce associated with the large government contractors that hover on the periphery of nearby Washington DC. And while there is some hopeful startup activity, nobody here thinks that tech is going to save Baltimore.
In that context, Betamore seems ambitious, flying the flag for the city’s proud history of underdog spirit. The campus offers casual and full-time memberships, with enough room to house 48 people working in its dedicated startup space. It has a “community” area with one large working table built from salvaged wood, and a scattering of comfortable couches. For community members, it charges $200 a month; full-time members pay $300 a month for a dedicated desk space and 24-hour access to the facility. CEO Brenner says the company is determined to keep the co-working space focused on product-oriented startups, and not on service companies.
Perhaps most significantly to its bottom line, Betamore also has a 50-person classroom that will host daily classes and courses taught by its members, industry experts, and other people from the tech community. Brenner says classes will cost between $30 and $200 a pop, with longer-term courses running from $900 to $2,000.
In direct contrast to the many of the city’s gritty streets, Betamore’s premises look pristine: there’s fresh red paint on the exposed pipes; polished wooden furniture; an 80-inch flatscreen TV; and bright sunlight streaming in the large windows. Scattered around the 8,000 square-foot concrete-floored space are specially commissioned artworks: a wall-to-wall silhouette of the city skyline; small prints with inspirational messages; and native son Edgar Allan Poe, raven on his right shoulder, looming anachronistically over three Apple II computers.
At Betamore’s opening party on Friday night, you could taste nothing but optimism – well, apart from the free oysters and sushi. Something good was happening to Baltimore.
Brenner says Betamore is here to help build a community and that it will be a long-term effort (provided it can survive beyond that 10-month runway). He describes Betamore as one small plot of land in an evolving startup “garden.”
“Betamore is not the answer to Baltimore,” he says, “it’s an answer to Baltimore.”
With the emergence of a network of angel investors, called Baltimore Angels, the arrival on the scene of a city-focused tech blog (which is based out of Betamore and in which Brenner is a partner), and dramatically increased attendance at events such as the Baltimore Tech Breakfast, the city has the beginnings of a startup community.
That is a recent phenomenon. When Mike Subelsky, founder of OtherInbox and one of the most active organizers in Baltimore’s tech community, was starting his company here in 2006, he found it so tough to find a co-founder that he started a website called FounderFinder.
“When I first got going on OtherInbox,” he says of the company that was a TechCrunch 50 finalist and which he eventually sold to Return Path, “I worked on that for a year and didn’t know anyone else in Baltimore was interested in startups.”
Subelsky, who has moved into Betamore with his new ad-focused startup that is currently in stealth, strongly believes the “urban campus” has an important place in the city. “There is a substantial market and I think Betamore is an experiment,” he says. “Part of the point of Betamore is to grow its market. So hopefully it’ll be a self-catalyzing venture.”
Other coworking spaces such as The Beehive and Sizeable Spaces have struggled or shut down, but Subelsky has faith in Betamore’s survival because it combines the coworking element with an educational program.
The 10-month countdown means the pressure is on Betamore to buck the local trend. But then, as Baltimoreans well know, few things in this city are ever easy. Which is just as well, because neither is anything worth doing.