All photos provided by Michael Rosner

I spent this past weekend coaching at Education Startup Weekend Baltimore and was struck by how much this event said about what’s happening here in my hometown.  From the focus on developing a tech pipeline to the maker community to the generosity of the organizers, coaches and judges—it’s clear Baltimore is blowing up.

Bmore Heard

First, I was awed and inspired that two of the eight final teams were led by Baltimore City Public School (BCPSS) students.  Both teams were articulate, organized and created strong products by the end of the 54-hour weekend. Bmore Heard (3rd Prize), pitched and led by Keimmie Booth, created a platform for student voices to be heard more broadly. I particularly appreciated that they built into the system the need for students to support their arguments to avoid the site devolving into a place to complain. By Sunday night, the team already had 55 students signed up and creating video speeches.

Another student-run group, UnBlockEdTech, created a tool for unblocking websites caught in current school network systems. On Saturday this team spoke with Dr. Alsonso, Superintendent for Baltimore City Public Schools, to find out exactly what would make him buy their service—talk about customer validation! Another one of my favorite moments was when a judge asked UnblockEdTech a technical question about where their service would interact with the current infrastructure, and without missing a beat, BCPSS student Jean Carlos Cedre clearly articulated the answer.

unblock EdTech

Baltimore’s burgeoning maker community was well represented. Though SparkEngine didn’t place, the team leader was able to convince 11 people to join his team! Originally the team focused on creating a “” for makers and educators but as they continued to speak to folks in the community (customer validation!), they realized that the larger issue was a need to begin developing a pipeline for maker educators.

Dr. Octopus interviewed 22 educators over the weekend as they created a focused search for relevant content that can be shared with students (more customer validation!). Similarly BOLD spoke with a number of organizations and schools as they designed a streamlined process to support students through the college process, with a focus on students with learning differences. Nominote, which helps college instructors learn students’ names, has use cases beyond education.

The judges’ decisions and support also reflect the local commitment to EdTech in general and to nurturing young talent in particular.  It’s always wonderful to see judges give up their Sunday evenings to watch pitches, provide feedback and determine winners. What made this event different is how these judges went beyond expectations and offered their access, time and funds to help several teams move forward. Chris Tonjes, for example, the Chief Information Officer for Baltimore City, offered to build Bmore Heard, recognizing the potential power of their platform and demonstrating a commitment to Baltimore City’s young people.

Another judge offered to reach out to his colleagues to secure pilots for CourseFly (2nd Place), a product designed to simplify the registration process, in several universities.

The winning team, Challenge Box—which I love!—was also provided helpful feedback on their business model by the judges. Challenge Box provides a choose-your-own-adventure story with a hands-on component. Young people literally receive a box of materials that they use to create elements to move the story forward. I was also impressed with how the Challenge Box team went out into the community to gather feedback at different stages. They even had a local upscale toy company owner tell them she’d buy it and at what price she thought parents would pay. Sign up for their mailing list to find out when they launch.

Challenge Box winning team

One of the main sponsors and organizers, the Digital Harbor Foundation, also reflects a significant movement in Baltimore for developing the technology pipeline, creating an EdTech community and supporting Baltimore’s young people.  Students in DHF programs don’t simply learn about technology, they do technology, as clearly seen by the student presence at the event.

Perhaps Harold Eckmuller said it best when he tweeted, “So, after just one weekend, Baltimore already managed to be a more exciting city than NYC. Damn fine job.”