Posted July 2, 2021
Viewpoint: Md. startups are poised for takeoff, but the entrepreneurial ecosystem is still in its infancy
After leading the University System of Maryland Maryland Momentum Fund for nearly two years — performing due diligence on over 250 companies and making 22 investments and counting — I’m able to offer a full picture on Maryland’s strengths and challenges for entrepreneurs.
Maryland is a hidden gem for entrepreneurs and investors, with numerous startup companies developing revolutionary technologies. Some are ushering in life science discoveries (KaloCyte, miRecule, Veralox, ARMR Systems), others are developing breakthrough food safety technologies (Pathotrak) or game-changing advances in 3D acoustics (VisiSonics), and others are providing education technologies (VoxyEngen, Intercabulary). And there are many more.
Why should the broader business community care? Because excellent startups and thriving startup ecosystems are key to growing a vibrant regional economy. Startups improve our tax base, bring more jobs to Maryland and attract investment capital. If Maryland does not grow its investor base, our best and brightest will continue to leave the state and go where there is more investment funding.
Local startups benefit from Maryland’s proximity to the federal government, key federal facilities, the state’s highly educated populace and anchor institutions like the University System of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, which are nationally recognized leaders in education and research. There are also numerous entities supporting startups, and Baltimore’s startup community has a model of aiding and providing wraparound services to those companies (i.e. helping with business plans, finding co-investors, developing pitches).
Now it just needs to scale. Scaling means finding more investors, setting the stage to enable and support growth and nurturing companies that can have large exits — that stage when a company is sold to another company or goes public, returning money to its investors.
Large exits create wealthy founders and early employees who then start new companies and invest in others. While there are many initial-stage seed capital sources, as well as significant later-stage investors, the sources of capital in between are scarce. That is where programs like ours come in. The Maryland Momentum Fund (MMF) works to provide Maryland entrepreneurs with investment capital and business development assistance to help catalyze growth.
As a career entrepreneur who has spent much of the last 20 years building companies in Boston and Silicon Valley, I saw the untapped potential here in Maryland — my home — and in 2019 decided to refocus my efforts on strengthening the state’s entrepreneurial community as managing director of the MMF.
The $10 million MMF has two main goals: to generate financial returns so that we can invest in more startups, and to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem by catalyzing investment in early-stage startups affiliated with one of the 12 USM institutions.
MMF typically invests $250,000 to $500,000 in high-growth companies across all industries that are valued at less than $10 million. And it catalyzes investment, with a nearly seven-to-one match on MMF funds to date. We devote significant effort to helping founders find co-investors in Maryland and beyond. We also provide expert advice and mentorship, access to C-level executives and business development guidance.
Especially important is that MMF helps startups from underrepresented backgrounds. Why? Diverse startup founder teams make more money and create higher returns than non-diverse teams. As a female entrepreneur in the clean energy industry, I’ve seen firsthand the untapped potential of people who are considered "others." Diversity improves returns at all companies.
At the MMF, we are actively reaching out to founders hindered by traditional barriers, have grown and diversified our advisory board and are partnering with entities that stress equitable, inclusive investment like Conscious Venture Lab, UpSurge Baltimore and HBCU.vc. Six of our 28 investments today are in women-founded startups. But we need to do more — and we are committed to doing more.
The state’s startup community is small, but growing, supportive and collaborative. Maryland has a high number of first-time founders who are phenomenal in their fields. I and so many other funders are happy to have a coffee with founders; this doesn’t happen in other communities. With the right mix of business development and operations support, these ventures have tremendous potential. But we must simply do a better job coordinating and making assistance accessible to all.
As a business leader, how can you get involved? Tap into this community to support entrepreneurs. Recruit entrepreneurs to get help, with particular attention toward underrepresented founders. Bring investors in who are interested in learning more about the rich opportunity Maryland companies and our community present. Provide any and all connections that can help reach and support a diverse group of entrepreneurs. And share this with someone you know.
Claire Broido Johnson is the managing director of the University System of Maryland's Maryland Momentum Fund. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.