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Startup Weekend Leaves Wake of Entrepreneurship in Baltimore

Mike Brenner, Paul Capestany, Fulya Gursel, an Monica Beeman
Mike Brenner, Paul Capestany, Fulya Gursel, an Monica Beeman
"This is wild! This is awesome! I'm going to cry!"

Nicole Formoso, a landscape architect from Rodgers Forge, has just officially become an entrepreneur. Her team placed second in Baltimore's first Startup Weekend, winning $1,000 and the option to take six months of free workspace in Canton's Emerging Technology Center (ETC). They'd only met fifty-four hours ago.

Such was the story for most of the teams. Beginning Friday, April 15th with dinner and idea proposals and ending at about 9 p.m. Sunday, April 17th with real business pitches, the event was held for two days in the ETC and one at the University of Maryland Baltimore Biopark.

The attendees, who began from scratch and spent the weekend developing a viable business, came from as far north as New York and as far south as Charlotte, NC. Though some only planned to network and not participate, almost everyone ended up getting involved.

"I didn't plan on pitching this," says Chris Mechanic, of Baltimore, about his mobile app idea,"But it was so alive and magnetic in the room when I got here so I thought, all right." Another local, Arsham Mirshah, only planned on recruiting at the event but found a team doing something he thought was cool that needed a developer, so he joined them.

On Friday, most of the roughly 120 attendees pitched ideas to the crowd in sixty seconds. Many wanted to make mobile apps for purposes from sending automatic texts to finding which bars are full of singles before leaving home. They wanted to set up social websites to engage young professionals in nearby non-profits, or ones that would allow a person to request and pay for items an international traveler could pick up for them, like a hard-to-find spice. Some had these ideas rattling around for months or years; others came up with them that night.

While they spoke, co-organizer Monica Beeman wrote the gist of their ideas on large sheets of paper that were then posted around the ETC. Later, people voted for the best ones by distributing three sticky notes on the papers as they pleased. Ideas with seven or more sticky notes survived, and twenty-two teams formed ad hoc around them.

Though every plan called for some programming skills, most people were not of that bent so developers were in high demand. With tickets about $200 apiece (students got discounts), these entrepreneurs were serious about finding help. A few floating mentors and representatives from sponsors assisted with advice and coding.

Startup Weekend Baltimore was one of many such events held globally, year round. The non-profit, Startup Weekend, headquartered in Seattle, sets up local entrepreneurs who want to organize a weekend by providing guidelines, managerial support, and a mentor at the event. Here in Baltimore, that mentor was Kav Latiolais, a Microsoft manager by day, and an avid Startup Weekend mentor by weekend -- he typically does one or two events a month, all over the world.

With years and miles of observations -- Latiolais recently returned from a Startup Weekend in Palestine -- his take on Baltimore is encouraging. "The dedication I've seen from the Baltimore community in building up the startup scene is absolutely amazing," he says, "We will absolutely see some serious companies coming out of here."

After the final rush of work on Sunday, everyone gathered in an auditorium at the UMB Biopark. As seats were found, people exchanged hellos via a projected Skype call with the concurrent Startup Weekend in New York City. A handful of other cities around the world were having Startup Weekends at the same time, but Baltimore and New York had chosen each other for a virtual "hashtag" battle on Twitter.

Then, for the first time all weekend, the prizes were announced. First, second, and third place would receive $2,500, $1,000, and $500 respectively, with one catch: winning teams would need to incorporate within thirty days -- the check would be made out to their company. Additionally, all winners would be given the option for six months of free workspace in the ETC.

Parking Panda, a mobile app business designed to connect people who have available parking spaces and those looking for a cheap spot near a busy event, took first. The team plans to debut their company at Preakness. Second place went to Localize, a business that plans to put banners in vacant storefronts, providing a phone number and text system in which passers-by can call and vote for what business they'd like to see move in.

Third place tied and both teams won the prizes. Dapprly is a Twitter application that allows a person to model outfit options and let the masses tweet-vote for which is best. Talk Chalk is a Facebook app for students, teachers, and parents, allowing for virtual homework assignments and game-style award incentives (think Farmville) for doing them.

The hardest part in choosing winners, says Sharon Webb, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council and one of the judges, was knowing how much effort every team put in over the weekend and then having to split hairs over the viability of their plan. Most of those who didn't win top prizes, the five judges agreed, had still already come so far that their businesses would likely take off anyway. Some already had ideas they planned to take to another Startup Weekend.

"I know that most of the people here today will be back for the next one," Latiolais says.

Because he's talked to them?

"No, because that's how this works."

Amy Dusto is a freelance writer in Baltimore, writing for Bmore Media since November.

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- Baltimore Startup Weekend organizers Mike Brenner, left, Fulya Gursel, top, Paul Capestany, bottom, and Monica Beeman, right. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Baltimore Startup Weekend co-organizer Fulya Gursel. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Baltimore Startup Weekend co-organizer Mike Brenner. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Baltimore Startup Weekend co-organizer Paul Capestany. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Baltimore Startup Weekend co-organizer Monica Beeman. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Baltimore Startup Weekend. Photo by Mike Brenner
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