On September 21, a new gym is opening in Federal Hill. A gym for nerds.
The space, known as Betamore, is an incubator for technology startups, an “urban campus for entrepreneurship and technology,” according to its co-founder Mike Brenner.
“I’ve already gotten some backlash,” Brenner said Wednesday about the ‘nerd gym’ moniker. “‘We’re not nerds, we’re geeks!'” But the ‘nerds,’ or ‘geeks,’ or, more accurately, the ‘entrepreneurial torch bearers of Baltimore’s future’ have a point: this project shouldn’t be undersold.
September 21 also happens to be the kickoff of Baltimore Innovation Week, a weeklong drive of technology initiatives, and Betamore may be among the most innovative things Baltimore’s got coming. An 8,000 square-foot space, Betamore will serve two main functions for Baltimore’s tech community: it will offer a collaborative workspace for some of the area’s best and brightest tech startups, while at the same time offering complementary public education on tech developments and issues.
Betamore is not the first incubator space in Baltimore. That distinction falls to the Emerging Technology Centers, the city’s main hub for tech firms. Betamore is different, in that the space will be dedicated to small, product-based startups, collaborative work, and an agile, low-barrier educational model.
Membership in the space will be broken up two ways. “Dedicated memberships,” which will cost about $400 a month, are for teams who want to dig into the space, gaining 24/7 access to the facilities to develop their products. Betamore can serve 50 dedicated members, broken up into groups of any size, and has already received 20 applications. Brenner said he envisions the space being used for no more than 14 to 18 months by members before they move out of the incubator.
“We’re trying to bring people in and help them either fail faster or succeed faster,” said Brenner. “That time limit… will hopefully set a fire under some people’s feet.”
For those less concentrated on a single project, Betamore offers “community memberships” for $175 a month. These memberships are designed for designers and tinkerers who only need the space for one or two days a week. Betamore will offer happy hours, hackathons, and other meetings, to which both community and dedicated members will have access.
The whole idea, said Brenner, is to encourage the exchange of ideas. “Co-working accelerates serendipity,” he said. “By being in an environment where you put a lot of like minds together, you’re not walled off in your little office of, ‘This is us, and our team, and our mission. You’re engaged in other people and what their problems are.'”
Education at Betamore is also arranged in a two-tier fashion. Brenner said he plans to offer in-depth technology education courses that cover topics in programming and development. He has a long-term goal of offering certification to teams that come through the building.
On the other hand, Brenner said he plans to offer shorter, more accessible classes, taught by anybody with something worth teaching. “The idea is to take designers and developers and business developers who are working in the space during the day and have them teach classes at night,” he said. “We may find a 27 year-old rock star programmer who wouldn’t normally be able to get [his ideas] out to 30 other people, because in the college environment it’s all about professorship and accreditation and that stuff…”
The traditional educational model, said Brenner a George Washington University alumnus, is often too sluggish to keep up with technology. As a result, we have an underprepared workforce. “By the time I go through a four-year university, what I learn is already outdated before I come out. So we have to move much quicker than that.”
Currently, Brenner, along with co-founder Greg Cangialosi, is working on constructing the physical space. Before Betamore, Brenner started the web studio Sunrise Design and founded Startup Baltimore, a publication which recently morphed into Technically Baltimore. Cangialosi is a founding member of the Baltimore Angels, an Angel investing group. Their third partner, Sean Lane, is a founder of the BTS software company in Locust Point. Together, the three know Baltimore tech, and Brenner said he hopes to tap into an underutilized talent pool.
Baltimore has a large IT workforce, he said, but the majority of that workforce is concentrated in government information, not in startups. “What we are trying to do is create opportunities for these women and men to come engage our community, kind of bite the bug a little bit,” he said. “That’s why we do events like startup weekend, hackathons that say, ‘Come on a Friday night, pitch out an idea, work with a team, and by Sunday you can get your idea validated with funding, office space, et cetera.’ By allowing them to cheat on their job for a weekend, we can see if this person who’s got a job with the government, given the opportunity to explore their own ideas, will they take that risk?”
Brenner would not reveal any applicants’ proposals, as nobody has been officially accepted yet. However, he gave an example of the type of company that might come out of Betamore.
“Last April, we put together an event called Startup Weekend, like build a company in a weekend. The winning team that came out of that, Parking Panda, was a two-man team. They’re now at four full-time, they have six interns… A year later they’ve received over $650,000 in funding. They’re a type of company that we could see working out of this space.”
“Likewise,” Brenner said, “we want to keep some of the facility available at all times so that people outside the city have a reason they want to consider Baltimore as a place they’d like to move to. There is a desk waiting for them.”
Applicants looking to fill that desk can apply through Betamore’s website.