Devin Partlow had a comfortable defense contractor job, earning six figures as a computer programmer.
But the 27-year-old Severn resident also had a side project that he grew to love more: a mobile app that helps connect people and plan activities and events.
What came next for Partlow is similar to what's happening across the country, as a fresh generation of entrepreneurs embark on Internet ventures, increasingly with the assistance of new programs geared toward helping startups. He quit his job, joined a Baltimore-based boot camp that supports startups for the first three months, and launched his business, known as Kithly.
"I was thinking, 'Why am I at work? Why am I not just working for myself?' " Partlow said. "I'm a developer. I have all these crazy ideas. I can do it. I can make my own money."
Partlow's company was one of four startups in the inaugural class of Accelerate Baltimore, which was funded with $100,000 investment from the philanthropic Abell Foundation in the city. The program, which started in April and ended last week, was run at the Emerging Technology Center, a tech incubator in Canton. There, the young companies met with mentors who helped guide them in the critical early phases of their business plans.
Business accelerators have grown in popularity in recent years; they operate under a philosophy that company founders need only a small amount of money to build a minimally viable product, test user adoption and find a market niche. Some of the most popular accelerators with the best records of helping small companies attract additional venture capital can be found in California, Colorado and Boston.
Young companies often flock to accelerators in search of quality mentoring.
"They were so excited about the opportunity that they wanted to go in a million different directions," said Chris Brandenburg, co-founder of Baltimore-based Millennial Media, who mentored one of the accelerator companies, NewsUp. "We tried to guide them in a more focused direction, to help them figure out what was the problem they were trying to solve."
Accelerators have cropped up in other cities as well, such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Typically, accelerator programs are funded by groups of small investors or foundations, who invest money in startups in exchange for small stakes in the companies.
"What we're finding is that investors are very intrigued with what is taking place in accelerators," said Jim Jaffee, president of the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds. "Your task [as an investor] is to find interesting investment opportunities. The challenge always is, where are the good deals?"
During several months of working in an accelerator, startups typically build early versions of their products, which they then show off during a "demo day." Many accelerators hold such events for their entrepreneurs to unveil their products to potential investors and other entrepreneurs.
That's what happened Wednesday night at the ETC in Canton. Partlow and the three other companies gave slide presentations on their products, networked with bankers and investors, and laid out what they would do with hundreds of thousands of dollars if they raised the money from investors.
The Abell Foundation will fund Accelerate Baltimore again next year, said its president, Robert C. Embry. The foundation gave $25,000 to each of the four companies in exchange for small stakes and a requirement that the businesses stay in Baltimore for five years.
The four companies that graduated from the program last week were Kithly, NoBadGift, NewsUp and Unbound Concepts. Here are overviews of each company:
Partlow's idea for an app came in December 2010. He built it in four days of his spare time and launched it on Google's Android platform. At the time, it was called Hooopla. The app helped connect like-minded people who might be looking to fill their spare time by doing things together, he said.
He connected with Stacey Weng, a tech executive in Northern Virginia, and she became the company's co-founder. Together, they went through the Accelerate Baltimore program, getting feedback and instruction from mentors every week and working on the next phase of Kithly. The pair are looking to raise $350,000 by December to support a full-scale launch and the addition of artificial intelligence to the app to make it smarter.
"It's making the plans, it's suggesting things to you," Partlow said of the device. "You don't have to do anything except open the app, and it starts suggesting activities to do with your friends."
McKeever Conwell II and his co-founders, Sam Henry and Michael Washington, are software developers who've been working on NoBadGift for more than a year. The trio were about to give up on the project when, late last fall, they started becoming more involved with the local tech scene. They said they received feedback from a number of experienced entrepreneurs who encouraged them to stick with the idea.
They developed a website, a Facebook app and a marketing strategy for their company that's centered on group gift-giving. They received guidance almost every day from their mentors at Accelerate Baltimore.
Their website and app enables people to use their social networks for group gift-giving.
"It was enough funding to get us kick-started," Conwell said. "It was enough to get us thinking as a company."
Soon, Conwell and his partners will travel to San Francisco, where they will participate in the NewMe accelerator program. They hope to bring their new connections to West Coast investors back to Baltimore, where they plan to stay and grow.
Conwell said the company is in talks with a "few people" as they try to raise $350,000 by the end of the year.
Andrew Schuster, 25, and his three partners had a digital publishing startup — an online magazine geared toward budget-conscious millennials — that had an audience of 400,000 people. But the company made some early mistakes, moving too aggressively and hiring too quickly, and they decided to pivot on their idea, he said.
The result is NewsUp, a game for reading the news on the Web and on mobile devices. Users get points and rewards, including mobile coupons and offers, for each news article they read and news quiz they answer, said Schuster. He and his partners have developed the product while working at their full-time jobs (Schuster is a Web sales specialist at The Baltimore Sun) and spending their evenings brainstorming at the ETC.
"This program saved our company in a lot of ways," Schuster said of Accelerate Baltimore. "We were at a point where we need some financing to build the technology. Now that we have a product, we're in a much different position."
Schuster said the company is aiming to raise $750,000 from investors by the end of the year.
Katie Palencsar, 29, is a former teacher turned education curriculum consultant. The Ednor Gardens resident joined the Activate program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which helps women launch technology ventures, to better develop her ideas.
Along the way, she was connected to several technologists who would become her business partners. And they started development of a technology platform that teachers, school systems and textbook publishers can use.
Their first iPhone app — BookLeveler — enables teachers to scan books by their ISBN numbers in their classrooms and instantly determine their reading level. They're building another tool that can do the same thing by scanning the texts.
Palenscar said she plans to raise $400,000 from investors to continue to build the technology, and has received commitments for around $300,000. She said being at Accelerate Baltimore helped her make the connections to begin receiving investment commitments and to move Unbound Concepts products further into development.
"I love that one minute I'm in a room with investors, and an hour later, I'm working with students and teachers," said Palencsar.