Sylvan gives Baltimore a giant jobs incubator


BALTIMORE'S Digital Harbor may turn into a booming success, thanks in part to a $500 million gamble by Sylvan Learning Systems on Internet start-up companies that devise new education technologies.

Old industrial buildings near Inner Harbor East are being turned into space for these budding firms. One tenant: Mindsurf, a joint undertaking of Sylvan and Aether Systems, the Owings Mills wireless-services company. Mindsurf's goal is to put education services in students' hands, literally, by way of palm-sized computing devices.

That's just one of many start-up companies to be backed by Sylvan Ventures, created five months ago as the investment arm of Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems. It has $500 million to put into these incubator projects.

Combined with C. William Struever's conversion of the Procter & Gamble complex in Locust Point to a high-tech office center and plans for similar technology sites in Fells Point and the Inner Harbor, Sylvan's announcement gives Baltimore a solid start in stamping itself as a great place for a technology business.

Under terms of $6.5 million in loans and grants from the state and city, Sylvan must create 5,000 jobs within five years. These could be well-paying posts -- $50,000 or more in many cases-- filled by highly educated workers.

Sylvan plans to invest in 20 startup companies. If some of them evolve into growing education-technology firms, it would make Baltimore a national center.

All this gives the city a dynamic tool for selling itself as a technology haven. But to succeed, Mayor Martin O'Malley must invest in fiber-optic cabling and solve other basic shortcomings, such as lack of parking and traffic problems.

He's committed to doing those things for Sylvan Ventures. That sends the right signal to high-tech companies considering Baltimore.

Sylvan also looked at Northern Virginia, San Francisco and New York before picking Baltimore. Other companies will take note of CEO Douglas L. Becker's choice. It's up to city and state leaders to provide firms with the kind of surroundings -- and infrastructure -- conducive to bringing more such ventures to our Digital Harbor.

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