A few months ago, EcoMap launched our Gaps Series, where we examine different areas of Baltimore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to see if they are meeting the needs of our city. In our first post, we focused on Baltimore’s Pre-Seed Funding Gap and how we can create more equitable and accessible pre-seed funding sources. Now, we’re turning our attention to local accelerator programs to see how we can better serve entrepreneurs in Charm City.
Read the summary Gaps post here: The Gaps in Baltimore’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. Read the first analysis: Understanding Baltimore’s Pre-Seed Funding Gap.
First, we’ll talk briefly about the importance of Accelerator programs for both helping entrepreneurs launch their ventures, and for fostering dynamic (and well-funded) entrepreneurial communities. Then, we’ll look at Baltimore’s existing accelerator programs in order to identify where the acceleration ecosystem as a whole is falling short.
Finally, we’ll examine where there are opportunities to create new, impactful accelerator programs in Charm City, and discuss exciting news about four local organizations getting $200k in funding from the SBA to implement and supplement their accelerator programs.
The Importance of Strong Accelerator Programs
In order to understand the importance of accelerator programs, it helps to have a clear definition of what constitutes an accelerator in the first place. While definitions vary, the literature typically agrees on four defining characteristics of Accelerators:
- Fixed-term, cohort-based programs
- Include seed investment
- Provides intense, immersive education and mentorship aimed at helping companies make rapid progress over a short period of time
- Culminate in a graduation, or Demo Day
The first means that only a certain number of companies are selected for participation in the program, defined by clear start and end dates. The second point, seed investment, is the biggest differentiator between accelerator programs and much more common incubators. The third touches on the purpose of accelerators — to accelerate the startup life cycle by forcing companies to make rapid progress over a short period of time. In order to do this, intensive mentorship, education, and connections are provided. Finally, accelerators typically culminate in a Demo Day, which is focused on helping cohort companies raise additional capital and awareness.
Susan Cohen and Ian Hathaway, on behalf of the Harvard Business Review, made a great graphic underscoring the differences between incubators, angel investors, accelerators and hybrid programs, shown below:
Now that we understand what accelerators are, we can talk about what they are meant to do. Again leaning on Susan Cohen’s work, which is a comprehensive meta-analysis of studies about accelerator programs, there are a few discrete benefits of bona-fide accelerator programs:
- Learning by Doing → entrepreneurship is trial and error; in accelerators, founders have the opportunity to learn — and make mistakes — at a rapid clip
- Reaching Key Milestones → companies that participate in accelerators reach key milestones quicker, like time to raising venture capital, exit via acquisition, or gaining customer traction
- Exposure and Connections → accelerators provide both connections to key mentors, experts, and customers as well as media exposure, both of which are vital for early-stage companies
- Second-Order Benefits on Ecosystem → the presence of accelerators positively benefit their local ecosystems, mostly by attracting more early stage financing, which can be tapped by non-accelerator companies
Why Accelerators Matter in Baltimore
As discussed in the first Gaps analysis, Baltimore has a dearth of pre-seed and seed funding for startups. Early funding is critical in helping companies get off the ground, and without it, many local companies will fail to reach product-market fit, tap into a sustainable market, or beat out competitors.
In many ways, this problem is chicken-and-egg — there are relatively fewer high-growth startups in Baltimore than other ecosystems, so there are less investors to provide early financing; but because there is less early capital, fewer people decide to start or keep their companies here. (Despite this, there has been a ton of great funding news coming out of Baltimore recently).
Likewise, accelerators are a good way to break this cycle. By supporting young companies and attracting additional investors, strong accelerators and the companies coming out of them could very well be the thing that breaks Baltimore’s early-stage-capital paradox. Investors might initially be attracted to the post-accelerator companies, but non-accelerator companies get to tap into the second-order benefits of having more investors around in general.
A Look at Baltimore’s Accelerator Programs
If you go to the EcoMap Accelerator Navigator, you’ll see there are many different resources listed under Accelerators. However, if we remove accelerators that don’t match the criteria above, we are left with far fewer.
Why? EcoMap’s process of adding resources is half-automated, half-human. If we scrape information about a program that calls itself an accelerator, it’ll be bucketed as an Accelerator. When our team reviews it, we make the call whether or not the program meets enough criteria to be considered an Accelerator. We try to walk the fine line between respecting what programs call themselves, and presenting accurate information to entrepreneurs.
In order to account for this, we have filters that help entrepreneurs find what they’re looking for. If we click Only show Accelerators providing capital, we’re left with 10 programs. However, we have another important filter: Remove student-only programs. When it comes to Accelerators, Maryland students are in luck: almost half of all criteria-meeting Accelerators in Baltimore are for students only, with UMD and Johns Hopkins leading the pack.
But what are we left with after applying these filters? Take a look:
In Baltimore, there are only 6 Accelerator programs that provide capital to entrepreneurs and are open to non-student founders.
For a city of only 600,000, 6 isn’t egregiously small, but it is at the lower end. However, when it comes to accelerator programs, details matter — what the programs offer, how many teams they accept, and the type and size of funding they provide are all important criteria for understanding where the gaps may be. In that vein, here’s a look at Baltimores 6 current accelerator programs:
- Accepts 10 ventures per cohort
- Provides $1,000 in grant funding upfront, with a chance for $25,000 for one venture
- Focused on social-impact ventures, accepts all venture types (startup, small business, nonprofit)
- Impact + Innovation Forum serves as “Demo Day” at end of 6 month program
- Accepts 6–9 ventures per cohort
- Provides up to $100,000 in funding in exchange for 8% equity
- Focused on socially-conscious ventures, for-profit startups only
- Demo Day at end of 4 month program
F3 Tech *
- Accepts 5 ventures per cohort
- Provides $5,000-$10,000 in grants with a chance for one venture to win $25,000
- Focused on ventures in Agriculture, Aqua-tech, and Enviro-tech
- Demo Day at end of 4 month program
- * F3 Tech is an Eastern-Shore, not Baltimore-based program
- Accepts 5 ventures per cohort
- Provides $5,000 in dilutive funding
- Focused on creative ventures, can be any type of venture
- Possible Demo Day (2019 is first cohort) at end of 12-week program
- Accepts 5–6 companies per cohort (yearly)
- Provides $25,000 in capital, with chance for one venture to win $100,000
- Focused on technology-based, for-profit startup companies
- Demo Day at end of 13 week program
- Accepts up to 10 companies per cohort (yearly)
- Provides $5,000-$250,000 in loans to eligible participants
- Focused on businesses operating within eligible West Baltimore neighborhoods, includes small businesses
- Possible Demo Day,
Here are some positive takeaways from the information above:
- Baltimore has strong support for socially-conscious ventures
- Most programs are ~4 months long, and almost all end with a Demo Day
- Three of them accept any venture type (not just for-profit startups)
But here’s a closer look at the numbers:
- A maximum of ~40 companies in Baltimore can participate in any of these accelerator programs in a given year, assuming 1 cohort/year
- Of these, only ~1/3 will walk away with more than $25,000 (excluding debt-based financing)
- Only ~5 companies will leave with more than $100,000 for their venture (excluding debt-based financing)
It’s clear that there are relatively few accelerator spots for all of the different entrepreneurs in Baltimore, but for those who do get in, how are the programs? While our team loves a good look at the data, for something as important as an accelerator, it’s vital that we include information that can’t be found online. For the purpose of this article, we contacted a few cohort members from these programs to gather anonymous feedback on their experience.
We heard a lot of great things about Baltimore’s accelerators, mostly related to the quality of the mentors, education, and connections between cohort ventures. However, the less-positive feedback is enlightening:
Summary of Anonymous Feedback:
- The accelerators in Baltimore do not have a strong sales-focus, as compared to other accelerator programs. For ventures operating in a capital-sparse ecosystem, getting early customers can often be the only way to grow
- At least one of the accelerators does not provide funding upfront to all cohort members, which can be hard for the entrepreneur, who has to take time away from focusing on sales to participate in the accelerator
- The connections and networks provided by some of these accelerators are very Baltimore-centric, while cohort companies might be more be helped by connecting with people in other ecosystems
- The Demo Days for some of the accelerators can feel more like an idealized graduation, and less like a targeted chance to raise additional capital for their companies
If we are looking to accelerators to help Baltimore address its early-stage capital-gap, current offerings alone are insufficient to fill this hole. While each of Baltimore’s accelerator programs is fantastic on its own, it’s unrealistic to expect them to expand to support Baltimore’s burgeoning entrepreneurial community alone.
Rather, Baltimore needs more accelerator programs.
An Accelerator Opportunity For Baltimore
In smaller entrepreneurial ecosystems, there can be push back about creating more programs instead of expanding the capacity of current ones. This is extremely true when it comes to things like nonprofits, where doubleness in the ecosystem leads to resource strain and reduced efficiency.
However, the best accelerators thrive off their specificity, either for an industry (like healthcare or social impact), or the type of venture they serve (products vs services, hardware vs software, etc). Three of Baltimore’s accelerators focus on social impact, one focuses on agri/aquaculture, and one focuses on technology-enabled products.
What about Baltimore’s other burgeoning industries, like cybersecurity or the life sciences? Baltimore already has a host of incubators that serve these industries, like the CyberHive at bwTech out of UMBC or the LifeBridge Health Bioincubator at Sinai Hospital. It isn’t unrealistic to think that these programs could pivot towards offering bona-fide accelerators as well.
Indeed, that just might be the case…
Thankfully, there’s some big Accelerator news in Baltimore:
Earlier this month, the SBA announced that $3 million was being provided to 60 different organizations via the Growth Accelerator Fund Competition. Four of these organizations are based in and around Baltimore:
- MTech Ventures, an incubator at University of Maryland, College Park
- F3Tech, the “farm, food, and fish” accelerator mentioned above
- LifeBridge Health Accelerator Program, coming from the healthcare provider’s new Innovation Team
- FastForward, the startup division of Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures.
Via Technical.ly Baltimore, the awards are meant for operating capital for the organizations. However, accelerators that received funding are all required to focus at least 60% of their SBA-funded work on supporting entrepreneurs who are socially or economically disadvantaged. That’s big news -we’ll tell you why at the end.
Between these four organizations and exiting Baltimore accelerators, life sciences, technology, and agri/aquaculture are all covered, leaving one big question — Who will take on cyber?
We already have a strong cyber incubator via the bwTech@UMBC Cync Program, which is sponsored by Northrup Grumman. They provide the mentorship, connections, and incubation services common of accelerator programs, but the program doesn't come with an initial investment at this point. However, the program has graduated 10 companies over its 9 year existence, and has strong industry ties that can make a world of difference for startups. Word is that Cync is planning some big moves over the next few months, so it's definitely an organization to watch.
There is also CyberTown, USA (Port Covington), which is focused on becoming the “world’s premier technology hub for cybersecurity and data science” — and its being led by DataTribe, a Fulton, MD company coined the Cyber Startup Foundry. Applications for its Second Annual DataTribe challenge closed on October 1st — with $20,000-$2 million in funding on the line, it’s not hard to see this competition becoming a more formalized program in the coming years.
Besides launching new accelerators that focus on sales and provide targeted assistance with post-Demo Day fundraising, what else might be done to supplement Baltimore’s acceleration ecosystem?
Thoughts on a Small Business Accelerator
Accelerators are traditionally meant to serve startups, meaning companies that have a for-profit, high-growth-model and that are targeting a large, national or global market. What you don’t tend to see are accelerators that focus on traditional small businesses, even though small business drives more economic growth in cities than unicorns do.
Why is this? A core reason is that many accelerators make their money by taking equity in their cohort companies. If they do their job well and a cohort company makes it to exit, the accelerator gets money flowing back to them to continue their operations. Other accelerators are extensions of a venture fund meant to both incubate and invest in companies, and have a doubly vested interest in these companies returning capital.
Small Businesses are typically place-based (with exceptions like Sweet Green or Chipotle, both traditional restaurant models that found global growth) and do not target markets large enough to make equity investing make sense. For this reason, and a few others, you don’t see many Accelerators for Small Businesses, if you can find them at all.
However, there is no reason that the four characteristics of Accelerators can’t be applied to small businesses. Unlike startups — who typically fail because they built a product that no sizable market wants, their timing was bad, or hyper-growth burns through their capital — small businesses tend to fail because of lack of working capital or mismanagement. This is exactly the failure type that is easily remedied by intense education, mentorship, and operational capital. Having fixed-term, cohort based programs only increases the exposure that founders get to other founders, whom they can learn from and leverage as connections.
It’s easy to speculate that a small business accelerator program would be beneficial for Baltimore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, but we’re still left with the question of how does an accelerator pay for itself if it can’t take equity in it’s cohort companies?
Thankfully, Baltimore already has some answers for that. AccelerateBaltimore is run by ETC, which is actually a division of the Baltimore Development Corporation, and is further supported by the Abell Foundation. The existence of AccelerateBaltimore is therefore not contingent on the financial success of its cohort companies per-say.
So there’s one model — create accelerators that are divisions of large and stable organizations and corporations, like foundations, universities, hospitals, or financial giants. Baltimore has strong organizations in every single one of those categories. There are other models that might work as well, like purely non-profit accelerators who fund themselves mostly on grants, or accelerators that participate in profit-sharing with their cohort companies after they turn green.
All of these models opens up the possibility for a small business accelerator that creates a steady flow of successful, profitable small businesses that provide jobs and strengthen local communities. While relatively few ecosystems have embraced the Small Business-Accelerator model, there is nothing stoping Baltimore from leading the way — perhaps new is what we need.
Final Notes On the State of Acceleration in Baltimore
Here’s the lay of the land: Baltimore has many accelerator programs, but only a few that meet the full criteria of actually being an accelerator. The five criteria-meeting, non-student accelerators all receive strong feedback and have high community support, but they do not have enough capacity to serve all entrepreneurs in the city. Entrepreneurs wish to see accelerators with a stronger sales-focus, and ones that provide more support with raising follow-on capital.
In terms of moving forward, we can look to existing organizations to launch accelerators that focus on specific business types or industry areas. Additionally, Baltimore could take a leap and pioneer a model for Small-Business Accelerators that can help support ground-up economic growth in our city.
There are the potential for big moves to be made by the four organizations that received $50k from the SBA to supplement their accelerator programs. But the best part about this news isn’t the funding per-say, it’s the strings that come with it: These programs must now place a majority of their focus on socially and economically disadvantaged founders.
Why is this such important news? Because the third Gap in Baltimore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is Resources For Underestimated Founders. Read it here.
We hope you enjoyed Gaps Part 2: The State of Acceleration in Baltimore. If you have any questions about our data or methodology, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are happy to discuss our sources, but will not reveal the identities of the entrepreneurs and organizations that provided candid feedback on their experiences with Baltimore’s accelerator programs. If you have any other questions, comments, concerns, or life grievances, drop us a note here.