In August 2006, Millennial Media -- a digital advertising company founded in Baltimore just two months prior -- made a move that shaped its future.
The company's three co-founders took up office space inside the Emerging Technology Center (ETC), an incubator of startup technology companies that opened its doors in the Signature Building of the Can Company complex in Canton in 1999. Two years later, when Millennial Media moved out of the ETC and into the complex's adjacent Factory Building in October 2008, it was a company of 85 full-time employees. Today, the company that specializes largely in placing display ads inside the apps people tap open on their smartphones still calls Baltimore, and the Can Company, home.
"It was powerful," says 43-year-old co-founder Paul Palmieri of Millennial Media's time at the ETC (Palmieri stepped down as CEO this year). "When you're starting a company and you're in growth mode, the key is to minimize distractions and to allow focus. It was a helping hand to small companies."
Fifteen years after its founding, the ETC's helping hand is still around. Last fall, after 14 years at the Can Company, the ETC moved its Canton operation into a new space in Highlandtown. In the middle of the last decade, in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University, the ETC opened a second facility on East 33rd Street inside the old Eastern High School. By the ETC's own estimates, more than 350 companies responsible for creating 2,300 jobs have passed through its doors since the late 1990s.
Formed in a partnership between the Baltimore Development Corp. and the Maryland Economic Development Corp., the ETC — which receives one-third of its annual $2 million operating budget from the city — says that 86 percent of those companies, all of which are technology-based or technology-enabled, are still in existence. As of this month, 59 companies occupy a total of 65,000 square feet of real estate inside the two offices of the ETC.
Its ultimate goal can be distilled into a sentence: Provide a place for very young technology companies to grow until they're ready to leave and, the thinking goes, set up their own offices inside Baltimore.
But what the ETC does — or why emerging technology companies, which are so often well fortified financially thanks to deep-pocketed venture capitalists, would need such a space — can be something of a puzzle. Deb Tillett, the third in a line of ETC presidents, who assumed her post in July 2012, uses the dictionary definition of incubator as a starting point.
"A safe, controlled environment in which to grow," says Tillett, 61, during an interview at the ETC's Highlandtown facility, a sprawling, L-shaped office space that takes up 20,000 square feet on the third floor of the renovated King Cork and Seal Building on North Haven Street. "It means there's an environment where all the entrepreneur or business owner has to do is concentrate on their business because the lights are always on, the door is open, there are multiple shared services, someone gets your mail for you, the coffee's made. You walk in the door. You put your head down. You go to work."
The ETC's Haven Street space, however, looks nothing like the typical cubicle-filled workplace. Much of the old brick is still exposed on the inside. The vertical wood support beams, relics of the King Cork and Seal Building, weren't covered up during the renovation. And the ceiling ducts are visible, a design aesthetic that gives the Highlandtown office an industrial vibe. The floor plan is completely open — tables surrounded with black, ergonomic desk chairs on wheels are strewn about — although there are several, dedicated office spaces for specific startups lining the walls and separated from center area by sliding pane doors. People, mostly in their 20s and 30s, some in T-shirts and shorts, can be found working on most weekdays, but there are older entrepreneurs in shirts, slacks and blazers as well.
Tillett says that any startup can apply for space in the ETC if it meets three conditions. First, the startup must be technology-enabled, a definitive sticking point. A startup retail company selling cosmetics, to use Tillett's example, wouldn't qualify. Second, the startup should have an innovative business model or idea. Finally, there should be a case to make that what the ETC can offer will help the fledgling company.
Not having to worry about empty toner cartridges in the copy machine or the quality of one's cup of French roast are certainly some reasons why entrepreneurs apply for space at ETC. (Tillett says seven startups are on her waiting list at Highlandtown; at 33rd Street, three companies recently moved out.) More important is what the ETC provides under the catch-all term resources: weekly clinics where local accountants, lawyers and marketing professionals offer advice and direction to unsure startup founders; access to local investors, people Tillett knows by virtue of her position as ETC president and as a veteran of Baltimore's gaming industry through her employment at studios including MicroProse and BreakAway Games; camaraderie with fellow entrepreneurs who know what it's like to be sitting on no revenue with payroll coming up.
Another benefit for startups are the lease terms, which are generally two years with an optional third year, plus the ability to terminate a lease at any time, for any reason, with 60 days' notice. Rental rates go by square footage: At Haven Street, it's $15 per square foot for offices between 300 and 700 square feet; at 33rd St, it's $19.85 per square foot for offices between 450 and 1,850 square feet. Monthly rent also includes utilities, a 100-megabyte Internet connection, and access to the ETC resources. And it's all backed by Tillett's promise that she won't "shut your business down because you can't pay your rent."
In some cases, one of the benefits to joining the ETC is cash investment, which was what lured Jess Gartner.
"We exist largely in part because of the ETC," says Gartner, the 27-year-old founder of Allovue, a Web tool that visualizes and tracks budget spending and allocation for school administrators at the elementary, junior and high school levels.
Her startup recently raised $800,000 and plans to go for a similar amount this year. But a year and a half ago, the Hollins Market resident was one person with a business concept picked to spend three months at the ETC as part of Accelerate Baltimore, a program the incubator has run since 2012, whereby four to six startups receive all the ETC's resources, as well as free rent and $25,000 in funding provided by the Abell Foundation. After her three months at the accelerator, Gartner took up office space at the ETC in Highlandtown.
"The office space we have today is about a third of what we'd find anywhere else in terms of cost," she says. "So only having peripheral costs means I can spend more money to hire people."
Allovue has done just that. In 18 months, Gartner's company has gone from just an idea to having a full-time staff of seven now getting ready to assist three school districts and one state in the U.S. with pilot versions of the Allovue software this fall.
Andrew Schuster, the 27-year-old founder of NewsUp, also attributes his startup's success to the ETC. His company had been at the ETC's 33rd Street location for about a year before being accepted into the inaugural group of Accelerate Baltimore startups. It was the $25,000 — and the office space NewsUp, an online trivia game culled from the news, subsequently took at the ETC in Highlandtown — that allowed his company to expand to four full-time employees. It has plans to double in size by the end of 2014.
"Right now, for us it's providing a really critical early-stage office space. The Internet's here, the parking's all established — they take care of all the stuff so we can focus on growing our company," says Schuster, who recently moved from Pikesville to Baltimore, where the rest of NewsUp's employees live. (Schuster was once a digital sales specialist for The Baltimore Sun, the parent of b.)