Baltimore's startup revolution

Steve Case stops in Baltimore Monday to give away $100,000 to one start up.

It's officially election season, which is why I'll be firing up a big, campaign bus and traveling through Charm City on Monday, stopping for crab cakes, talking to business leaders and meeting with politicians and students. Only our campaign is not about asking for votes in Baltimore; instead, it's about encouraging the people of Baltimore to continue rallying around startups and entrepreneurs.

For all the tragic news in recent months — and there is real heartbreak along with festering issues that have to be addressed — there's another chapter being written in the city's dynamic history. It centers around founders who are starting companies, creating jobs and bringing economic opportunity and growth to Baltimore.

In the middle of the 20th century Baltimore was the country's sixth-largest city with 950,000 residents and a booming economy based primarily around manufacturing and shipping. By 1959 Bethlehem Steel at Sparrow's point employed 35,000 people. Just as many other cities lost their manufacturing base in the decades to follow, so too did Baltimore, which saw poverty climb as jobs, residents and innovation moved elsewhere.

But things look to be changing again thanks, in large part, to a diverse group of entrepreneurs.

Baltimore is becoming more than just a port-city but an emerging, Mid-Atlantic startup hub with innovative minds especially in health, defense, research, education and technology. The city's tech talent grew by 42 percent between 2010 and 2013, making it one of the fastest growing markets nationally. Roughly 90 percent of the region's entrepreneurs are in jobs when they start new businesses, which shows that founders have the confidence and resources to take the plunge.

After covering 3,000 miles and investing $1.5 million in startups along the way, we're excited for our Rise of the Rest tour to visit Baltimore on Monday to meet with entrepreneurs and local leaders. We look forward to hosting a pitch competition for eight startups at the Baltimore Museum of Industry at 4 p.m. One entrepreneur will walk away with a $100,000 check. (The event is free and open to the public; RSVP at www.riseofrest.com.)

In Baltimore — and across the country — a critical shift is beginning to take hold. Technological advances in mobile, cloud computing, big data and advanced manufacturing have lowered barriers to entry for new businesses. Public policy reforms are beginning to make it easier for startups and small businesses to raise capital online. Technology has moved from a vertical sector to a horizontal one: Commerce, food, transportation, retail, marketing and just about all other industries can tap the power of technology to scale their business. And there's an increased public awareness around the importance of entrepreneurship.

This is the start of a structural change for the U.S. economy; startups account for roughly all net new job creation and add a disproportionately high share of innovation. More geographic diversity of startup activity has the potential to unleash economic growth in previously overlooked cities.

In Baltimore there is real potential. With great universities like Johns Hopkins, among others, there's no shortage of talent. With large corporations like McCormick and Under Armour there's no shortage of access to established firms. With angel investors willing to deploy capital, and foundations like Abell that support city-based startups, there's a growing base of funding for entrepreneurs. And with the cost of renting an apartment roughly half that of San Francisco, plus easy access to New York and Washington, D.C., there's a quality of life advantage.

To be sure, the city is still in the process of rebuilding, reuniting and ensuring that all residents — in all neighborhoods — have opportunities to find work and opportunity. That process will take time.

But as more successful companies start and scale — like R2Integrated and OrderUp (my firm Revolution invested in OrderUp last year, and the company was recently acquired by Groupon) — the city will move forward. Accelerators and incubators like Impact Hub, Betamore and Fast Forward at Johns Hopkins will continue playing a pivotal role providing support for talented innovators. Organizations like Startup Maryland and public officials like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and Sen. Ben Cardin, who tout the importance of fostering new business creation, will make a meaningful difference for startups.

During the War of 1812 the British famously called Baltimore a "nest of pirates." Charm City can, and will, rise again by rallying around its newest generation of pirates: the men and women taking a risk to start a company.

Steve Case is a co-founder of AOL and chief executive of Revolution. His email is scase@revolution.com; Twitter: @SteveCase.

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