Baltimore view

I almost moved to Silicon Valley but decided to remain in Baltimore because I believe it has real potential to become an EdTech Hub. Why?

In addition to truly inexpensive housing, Baltimore has a quirky spirit that believes it can do anything. Baltimore is also home to strong community movements, as well as a whole range of meetups and events for the tech and even edtech community. The model for the Digital Harbor Foundation has real potential for replication in other regions.  Tom Vander Ark’s comments on his recent visit to Baltimore confirm Baltimore’s rising stardom.

But we could go further, become more.

Here are some beginning thoughts on steps we could take to put Baltimore on the edtech map. I’ve been circulating this the past few weeks, so many of these ideas are coming out of conversations with local edtech companies, local investors, and community organizations. This is an attempt to organize and open up the conversation. Looking for feedback!

1. Market Baltimore as an Edtech Hub

If we created one website that featured edtech companies, we might be able to attract investors wanting to focus on a region and edtech companies looking to relocate or open additional offices. The site should also clearly highlight what makes Baltimore attractive—inexpensive housing, lively downtown scene, and a supportive edtech community.  (Apparently Kiplinger recently voted Baltimore the #2 best city for singles for those who might be interested!)

Going beyond the startup scene and including local edtech successes, such

Sylvan, Laureate, Learn It, Calvert Education Services, Prometric, and MoodleRooms, creates a strong tradition of education technology in the region.

How might the edtech community grow if some of these stalwart companies reached out to provide mentoring? What might more established companies learn from startups?

2. Create an Annual Edtech Collaborative Event

Organizing an annual event that brings together edtech startups with educators could strengthen the connections between edtech and the education community, as well as bring attention to Baltimore.  Chicago recently hosted an event, for example, that drew over 600 people, including around 450 educators, and provided opportunities for young edtech companies to showcase their tools and to interact directly with teachers and administrators.

3. Provide Access to Market Research and Related Reports

Most of Baltimore’s edtech companies cannot afford to pay the high fees associated with market research reports to provide them the data they need to make better decisions. Edtech companies coming out of places like Imagine K12, for example, frequently have access to these kinds of reports. It would be helpful if a local entity, a government organization is a logical choice, provided access to education reports, similar to the way the local biomedical community has access.

4. Create a School District Broker

A matchmaking broker could facilitate connections between schools and edtech startups.  This role could help streamline the process for helping startups find the right school partners.

Working with Baltimore City and Baltimore County Public Schools, we could identify a dozen or so schools that are willing to partner with edtech companies. Those schools would understand what is expected from them and what they will receive in return.  Startups would understand the process for engaging and partnering with schools.

Schools are wary of startups for a range of completely legitimate reasons:

  • They are afraid that a startup could disappear or pivot after the school has invested time in the product.
  • Principals are cautious of the perception that their students might be part of “experiments.”
  • Losing instruction time has significant consequences, so educators are protective. Stakes are high for students and educators.
  • If something does not work, principals have to explain why they chose an untested product or service. If a district understands that a set of schools has  been identified to try edtech innovations, less risk exists for those schools.
  • Schools need to trust that the adults who enter their buildings have the best interests of their students in mind.

Ideally, this school district broker should not be limited only to startups coming out of particular accelerators or other programs.  Any legitimate edtech startup should be considered. There is also no reason why the Baltimore Edtech scene cannot partner with other school districts beyond the city and county.

5. Develop University Partnerships

Stanford feeds the Palo Alto tech community in similar ways that Boston universities feed its tech community. The Baltimore region has many high-caliber schools that would make excellent partners in developing an edtech pipeline of talent as well as providing research partners. Public education stresses the importance of only using research-based programs, and we have a number of universities known for research. We just need to make the connections.

MICA offers intriguing possibilities, especially with its recent branching out into new design and business programs. Talented user experience (UX) folks are difficult to find and yet the user experience is crucial to developing a successful edtech product. Partnering with MICA could lead to a significant design talent pipeline. If Baltimore were to establish itself as an edtech hub that truly understands UX, talent and money could flow to Baltimore. University of Maryland at Baltimore County also has several established digital design programs.

With Presidential Scholar Dr. Nancy Grasmick making Towson University (TU) a leader in teacher education, Vince Talbert on the TU Board of Visitors, and Frank Bonsal, Jr., of New Markets Venture Partners and Bonsal Capital, serving as interim director of the TowsonGlobal Business Incubator, Towson has real potential for supporting the edtech ecosystem.

Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University are other obvious potential partners, as well as many other strong institutions in the region.

6. Broaden the Baltimore Edtech Community

Expanding the region beyond Baltimore City opens up possibilities. The San Francisco scene really extends through Palo Alto, Mountain View, and even down to San Jose.  By narrowing our vision of Baltimore edtech simply to the city, we are potentially limiting our potential base, making it harder to compete with established and burgeoning communities.

Even if we simply developed more relationships between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, we could position ourselves more strongly. Expanding beyond Baltimore is also definitely worth a conversation about the advantages we could gain from a broader base.

7. Create Paid Internships for Developers

Creating a paid internship program could bring much-needed talent to Baltimore. Baltimore’s inexpensive housing and downtown scene, as well as supportive edtech community, will help keep them.

8. Consolidate Community Efforts

Many individuals and organizations appear to be invested in moving Baltimore’s edtech community forward.  For example, while the Emerging Technologies Center  (ETC) is not strictly focused on edtech, the ETC is nurturing an edtech cluster whose CEO’s meet regularly to learn from one another and to strategize how to foster Baltimore’s edtech ecosystem.

The Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore recently released a market research report on the potential for Baltimore to become an edtech hub, as well as hosted an initial discussion about how to move Baltimore forward.

The Maryland Incubator Company of the Year Awards recently added edtech as its own category. Clearly there is a growing awareness of the potential for our community.

How might we consolidate community efforts to be more effective? To truly put Baltimore on the map, we all need to work collaboratively.

9. Attract Seed Money

Simply put, more seed money investing in Baltimore edtech is necessary for the region to grow.

In addition, while there is a small group of local investors who have an appreciation of the complexities of edtech, helping a larger pool of investors understand the industry could expand investments.

10. Innovate the Foundation Model

Are there ways to be more innovative with foundation funding models? For example, the Abell Foundation has funded betas within the Baltimore City schools, providing nondilutive capital to help edtech startups.

11. Tap into the Gaming and Maker Communities

Hunt Valley is one of the four big hubs (San Francisco, Boston, Austin) for the gaming industry, and gamification continues to be a trend in education.  Can we tap into the local gaming community before they all exit the region?  The maker community also has a strong presence here that could partner with edtech development.

12. Gain Access to Influencing Policy

Many established education companies have resources to influence policy decisions; small edtech companies do not have these kinds of resources or access. Is there a way to pull resources or create a forum that could influence policy to be more beneficial to edtech companies?