Science & Technology
Meeting of the Minds
Now in its sixth year, Baltimore Innovation Week continues to push the city’s tech scene forward.
Christopher Wink is uncomfortable. Shifting in his chair, the 31-year-old online media entrepreneur is fielding questions about Baltimore Innovation Week (BIW), but he keeps ducking and dodging, unwilling to take credit for the annual celebration of all things tech he cofounded in 2012. Partly, this is for practical reasons. As a cofounder of Technical.ly, a network of online news sites covering tech in the Mid-Atlantic, he says he is wary of blurring the lines between advocacy and journalism. In other words, he doesn’t want to appear too cozy with the community his organization covers. Furthermore, as a resident of Philadelphia, he recognizes that claiming a Baltimore event as his own opens him up to charges of carpetbagging.
But mostly, he’s reluctant to take credit because doing so would undermine what’s great about BIW—namely, its inclusivity. The point, he says, is that the event—running this year from September 29 through October 7—relies on participants from across the region to produce a week of lectures and roundtables, networking events, mentoring sessions, and demonstrations of the latest products. It includes game and app developers, educators, web designers, startup entrepreneurs, and academic, medical, and government organizations.
The approximately 50 events planned for this BIW (hashtag #BIW17, obviously) run the gamut from a session on securing startup financing to a lecture by a veteran game developer titled “Grumpy Cat’s Guide to Game Design: The Beauty of No.” Maybe best of all, the events are sprinkled throughout the city, taking place in neighborhoods as disparate as West Baltimore and Federal Hill, Fells Point and Hampden, and Mt. Vernon and Highlandtown. There’s even one presentation—about a cultural exchange program between the tech communities of Maryland and the Netherlands—that requires driving all the way out to (gasp!) University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in Catonsville.
“There are many parts of the puzzle,” Wink says, as he surveys the industrial- chic interior of Emerging Technologies Centers (ETC), a sleek coworking and tech incubation space in Highlandtown that has signed on to act as BIW’s home base this year. “[Then] if one group fades, it’s not crippling. I don’t want there to be the story that this person or organization goes away and the community goes away.”
That seems in no danger of happening. This year, more than 50 organizations are participating, up from 10 or so in 2012.
“I want us to be working toward Baltimore Innovation Week as the most accessible access point for people to get into this conversation, into the community,” Wink emphasizes.
So, okay, duly noted: Christopher Wink and the Technical.ly gang are not solely responsible for the creation or continuation of Baltimore Innovation Week. It is a big tent. The more the merrier. Et cetera. But every story needs a starting point, and, arbitrary though it may be, Wink’s is as good as any.
In 2012, three years after starting Technical.ly in Philadelphia, Wink was lured to Baltimore by a cadre of local tech figures who felt Baltimore’s scene warranted more consistent and deeper coverage than it was receiving from traditional media outlets. They were sure that Wink and the Technical.ly team could provide it, and that it would yield great results.
Wink soon agreed. “I got obsessed with why don’t Baltimore and Philly see each other as peer cities?” he recalls. “There are so many times when I’m in a conversation, and I’m like, ‘This is the exact same conversation as in Philly or Baltimore,’ depending on which one I’m in.”
He quickly realized that there was a case to be made for viewing the Mid-Atlantic as a contiguous tech region, much the same way Silicon Valley has become the catch-all term for the hive of activity in and around the San Francisco Bay area. To that end, Technical.ly gradually expanded and now has outposts in Brooklyn, NY; Wilmington, Delaware; and Washington, D.C.; as well as Philly and Baltimore. Viewing the markets as one giant cluster allows them to compete on a national—and even international—level in a way they couldn’t on their own. This is why you’ll sometimes see Baltimore and/or Maryland pop up on lists of “hot tech scenes” in publications such as Business Insider and Fast Company.
“We think that people understand the idea that New York, Philly, Baltimore, and D.C.—we are stronger together,” Wink states.
But even as he stumped for greater regional coordination, Wink realized greater local collaboration was necessary, too. In 2011, he’d helped launch a tech week in Philly, and he and his Maryland cohorts believed a similar event would work in Baltimore, as well. From defense and cyber security firms to 21st-century education technology startups, there were so many pockets of thriving tech in Baltimore—all that was necessary was the connective thread.
“Many of them knew each other but they hadn’t necessarily coordinated events on one calendar,” Wink recalls. “It was, ‘Can we do this together to convey that we are a single community and that we’re connected?’ That was, essentially, the idea.”
That first year, ETC signed on almost immediately, as did other tech stalwarts including TEDCO—which was created by the state legislature in 1998 to midwife academic and government innovations to the marketplace—and the University of Maryland BioPark.
There were so many pockets of thriving tech in Baltimore—all that was necessary was the connective thread.
Wink remembers surveying the crowd at a kickoff event for the first BIW and feeling reassured by the mix of people in attendance. Deb Tillett, the president and executive director of ETC, was there, as was Rob Rosenbaum, who was then CEO at TEDCO. Also in the room were several startup entrepreneurs, Jane Shaab, the executive director of the University of Maryland BioPark, and Keimmie Booth, then the captain of the RoboDoves, Western High School’s robotics team. “It was all these people that in our first year of reporting were trying to shape this community, and that was resonant,” Wink says. “We felt like, ‘Yep, these are the kinds of people we’re supposed to bring together.’”
Others noticed the difference straightaway.
“When I first started my career as a programmer in Baltimore, it was relatively difficult to find out what was happening around town,” recalls Mike Subelsky, a computer programmer and entrepreneur at the center of Baltimore’s tech scene who also attended that first BIW kickoff event.
“Innovation Week and Technical.ly have been instrumental in building community and identity; the main thing they bring is energy,” he adds.
Indeed, since that first year, BIW’s growth has mirrored the growth of Baltimore’s tech community. As the scene has expanded, so too has BIW’s calendar.
“If you look through the timeline, it is like a time capsule of what was active,” notes Wink. For instance, the first Innovation Week didn’t include tech/startup incubators and makerspaces such as City Garage, Impact Hub, Open Works, and Spark, simply because it couldn’t. They didn’t yet exist. Nor could that first BIW have included Innovation Village, the city’s first tech/innovation district, anchored in West Baltimore by Maryland Institute College of Art and Coppin State University. It, too, was years away.
Other now-major companies existed, but were in their infancies, and BIW—directly or indirectly—was able to help foster their growth. Todd Marks, the president and CEO of Mindgrub, a software development and digital marketing firm based in Locust Point, says the buzz Tecnhical.ly was creating in the city through Baltimore Innovation Week and other events influenced his decision to move his fledgling company from Catonsville to Locust Point in 2014. At the time of the relocation, Mindgrub had about 15 employees; it now has 96.
“The spotlight they gave on city tech made me want to be closer to the epicenter of where it was all happening,” he says.
Best of all, BIW participants seem willing to pay it forward and help the next generation of pioneers blaze their own trails.
“In 2015 they did a ‘Fail Fest.’ I got to be the moderator, which is really fun,” recalls Deb Tillet, a petite powder keg of a woman, who has been running ETC since 2012 and working in various sectors of the tech industry since the 1980s. “There were maybe six entrepreneurs who told their ‘how I crashed and burned’ stories about how important it was to fail but get back up on your feet. [It] was compelling to hear . . . some of these people who are very, very successful now.
“Mike Subelsky, he was talking about how he wanted nothing more in the whole entire world than to be a Navy Seal and the training that he had to go through. And he made it and made it and made it—and then he didn’t make it. It just was really interesting. You’re looking at these successful people now and they’re telling their stories and you’re like, ‘Oh wow!’ And everybody’s got one. And I’ve got one, too.”
Tillett’s anecdote highlights a central irony about BIW—and maybe the tech scene in general: For all the excitement about technological innovation and the latest gadget or “disruptive” idea, it is the human connection that underpins it all. Because despite the “solitary genius” myth, creativity and innovation are often born through collaborations and intellectual conflict, where disparate ideas are allowed to spark and spin off each other, eventually morphing into something novel.
“There’s a difference between what we make and how we make it,” says Wink. “Yes, so many people involved in things like Baltimore Innovation Week and the Baltimore tech community are out to create disruptive technologies that . . . reduce the need for human interaction. But to get that work done, you almost always need trust, be it through teammates, investors, teachers, or mentors. And we build trust the same way we always have, which is through time together.”