Although Kenneth Blaisdell's transition from high-level academic administrator to entrepreneur was a gradual process, he does recall a pivotal event that propelled the former assistant provost at the Johns Hopkins University toward a new career as president and chief executive of a Baltimore-based start-up called Cartermill Inc.
Cartermill has developed a database of extensive information about faculty members and research interests at major U.S. research universities. In less than three years, Mr. Blaisdell has helped convince more than 90 schools to submit records and become part of the database, which is an on-line service that can be reached via telephone.
Having recently reached sufficient size, Cartermill is now marketing its service to corporations and has attracted about 20 buyers so far. The company has 22 employees, and Mr. Blaisdell, in the best entrepreneur-speak, talks of reaching "positive cash flow sometime in 1992."
Cartermill also illustrates many of the things that must happen for Baltimore to more fully participate in a fast-paced, knowledge-based economy. If the Greater Baltimore Committee wanted to select prototype companies to illustrate its recently announced economic vision to develop Baltimore into the life sciences capital of the country, it wouldn't be far off the mark in highlighting Cartermill.
Four years ago, Mr. Blaisdell was working to help put together an inventory of Hopkins' far-flung research activities. Like most basic research institutions, Hopkins had developed in a very decentralized way, Mr. Blaisdell said. Researchers developed their own, somewhat proprietary ties to funding sources.
But funding patterns for university research were changing, he said, rewarding institutions that could put together multidisciplinary teams able to bid on larger projects. Creating a database of faculty members that included their backgrounds and research interests would help Hopkins put together such bids. It also would provide centralized information essential to administrators such as Mr. Blaisdell, who was charged with academic oversight of research development.
The process of setting up an informative and usable database proved deceptively hard. What information should it contain? How should the information be gathered? What type of computer hardware and software should be used to house and distribute the information?
At this stage, Mr. Blaisdell found himself at a meeting in the summer of 1987 of the Technology Transfer Society in Washington. "You want to know how businesses start?" he recalled. "This was pure serendipity."
Mr. Blaisdell walked out of a presentation that he found boring and sat down next to someone who, it turned out, had walked out of the seminar for the same reason. That person was Mike Tobert, who introduced himself to Mr. Blaisdell.
During the ensuing conversation, Mr. Tobert disclosed that his occupation was putting together a master research database of all of Britain's roughly 100 universities, a government-aided process that had begun in 1985.
Before the two men parted, they had roughed out a possible collaboration that would use the British database standards (fortuitously based on a U.S. computer and software) to create the Hopkins database and provide access to that information to customers of the British company. In return, Mr. Blaisdell offered to be a cheerleader for Mr. Tobert's concept in the United States.
Mr. Blaisdell, 46, has become far more.
After visiting Mr. Tobert in England, Mr. Blaisdell recommended that Hopkins put its information in the standardized form used by BEST*Great Britain, Mr. Tobert's company, which is part of Longman Cartermill, in turn an affiliate of a giant British publishing conglomerate, the Longman Group. (BEST once stood for British Expertise in Science and Technology, an acronym that Mr. Blaisdell has "tried mightily to undo.")
Mulling over the process, Mr. Blaisdell became convinced that ,, the British product could be replicated in the United States. And with corporations looking for ways to leverage their research dollars, he reasoned that they would be interested in gaining quick access to information about various university activities and, of equal importance, information that permitted companies to compare and contrast fairly what various schools were doing.
"I let Hopkins know I was going to take this idea and build a company around it," Mr. Blaisdell recalled. He also bought books on how to do a business plan, attended business-formation meetings here and "did the whole entrepreneur thing."
When the dust had cleared some 32 months ago, he had start-up funding as a joint venture, equally owned by Longman Cartermill and Dome Corp., Hopkins' for-profit development arm. was myself and a cubby and a phone," he said, "and that's how it started."
The key to gaining university participation, Mr. Blaisdell said, was his familiarity with the world of research at a major university such as Hopkins. "The schools trusted what we were going to do because we knew the issues."
The idea of a research database had already occurred to many uni
versities; some had partial systems in place, while others had tried and given up. "A lot of the schools' own efforts failed because the results of their hard work never went beyond the walls of their campus," he said.
The BEST*North America system (which includes access to BEST*Great Britain and a fledgling system on the continent called BEST*Europe) provides interaction with the outside corporate and academic worlds. But it also provides each participant with a computer tape of its own database, with regular updates, courtesy of Cartermill.
On-line access to the system is restricted to members. You can't get into this database through Dialog, Prodigy or the like (although a hard-text version of the service is being developed for small businesses).
Besides faculty information, there is also a profile of each institution, records of affiliated research parks and information on discoveries and inventions that a particular university wishes to share, presumably in search of development funding. A new set of listings, containing information about graduate students ready enter the job market, is being compiled from participating schools.
Not every school has jumped so far at Cartermill's pitch, and the omissions include Harvard, Minnesota, Stanford, Wisconsin and Yale. But the database includes schools with nearly 60 percent of all research dollars awarded to top universities. And it contains 30,000 "records," with about 90 percent of them being thumbnail profiles of faculty members. Mr. Blaisdell said the target is to reach about 125 North American schools involving some 70,000 records.
Last December, Cartermill began actively marketing the U.S. database to large companies. He has 20 clients to date and active discussions with 80 others.
"We've been delighted with that response, given the economic climate," Mr. Blaisdell said. Corporate customers include Amoco Corp., Eastman Chemicals, Martin Marietta, Northern Telecom, PPG Industries, Procter & Gamble and United Technologies.
Housed in rehabilitated office space on Thames Street in Fells Point, Cartermill could literally have placed its offices anywhere -- one of the sobering characteristics of most knowledge-based companies. "My family is crazy about Baltimore," said Mr. Blaisdell, who joined Hopkins in 1982 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Although people at Cartermill do not rattle test tubes or unlock genetic secrets, their work remains a central element of knowledge-based scientific enterprises. And with roughly 40 percent of university research dollars in the life sciences, even the BEST*North American database is "true" to the GBC economic vision.
Mr. Blaisdell's own transition from Hopkins administrator into entrepreneur is a form of technology transfer in itself. And while a successful Cartermill would stimulate the interaction between corporations and universities on a national and even global basis, it could have somewhat greater impact on that process locally by virtue of its location and ties to Hopkins and the university's Dome Corp.
For his part, Mr. Blaisdell maintains frequent contacts with Hopkins but also seems to enjoy the clarity of the private sector and its financial imperatives. "In the for-profit world, the rules are very simple," he said.
"It keeps you up at night and it occasionally stops your heart, but it's exhilarating."