(This article originally appeared in the February-March 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)
What do you see at the end of S. Charles Street when you look up at the soaring tower of the century-old Pabst Brewing Company building? A relic of South Baltimore’s industrial past imitating an even older era of castles and kings?
Take a look inside and you see something very different: a fast-growing SoBo-born global technology firm on the verge of becoming a billion-plus dollar publicly traded company.
In a part of Baltimore that has many remnants of its industrial past still standing, the peninsula has become home to many industries of the future – tech companies creating everything from cybersecurity systems to industrial automation software to augmented-reality experiences. You may not notice these new businesses as you walk down the street – no new smokestacks or factories rising – but over the last decade, SoBo has solidly established itself as a tech hotspot.
“We’re like the Brooklyn of Baltimore,” says Todd Marks, president and CEO of Mindgrub, a digital agency that moved to Locust Point in 2012. “Back in the early 2000s, companies started to set up shop in Brooklyn in old industrial space, and it’s just blown up and is now the place to be for tech. We’re seeing the same trend here.”
Marks moved Mindgrub to the peninsula in part to take advantage of its central location along the I-95 corridor. The company now sprawls across nearly an entire floor of the former Phillips Seafood headquarters building (1215 E. Fort Avenue).
That former Pabst Brewing building (1834 S. Charles Street) is where cybersecurity expert and tech startup veteran James Foster moved his company ZeroFox in 2015. ZeroFox got its start two years earlier as Riskive in the Betamore coworking space at 1111 Light Street, within easy walking distance of his home in Federal Hill.
Also in 2015, a “decrepit former city garage” (Baltimore Sun), just south of I-95 at Hanover Street, was renovated by Sagamore Development as a 130,000-square-foot hub of tech activity. Ready Robotics, a tech-transfer company that makes it easier to automate industrial robots, and Balti Virtual, a studio that designs immersive experiences with augmented and virtual reality technology, were among the first companies to get their start in City Garage (101 W. Dickman Street).
What has helped SoBo evolve into such fertile ground for tech companies? Among other things: a rich pool of nearby talent, a supportive network of tech professionals, and twenty-somethings.
ZeroFox CEO Foster points to the technical talent coming from Baltimore’s universities and the area’s defense-industrial base. “Baltimore and Maryland have some of the best cybersecurity talent in the world,” he says.
Mindgrub’s Marks also points to the local talent. “The ecosystem that has developed here over the last 10 or 15 years through a couple of generations of startups has really started cooking with gas,” he says. “We have a lot of universities, a lot of talent, and a lot of incubators now.”
“When I wanted to take Mindgrub to the next level, I knew I needed to attract the twenty-somethings to work here,” recalls Marks about his move from Catonsville. “And they were all basically living in the city, in places like Federal Hill.”
For Balti Virtual CEO Will Gee, a big draw to the area was the nucleus of like-minded tech companies at City Garage, where they moved in 2016. “On a tour of the space, one of the tech firms was partnering with Volo City to play cornhole using drones to drop the bags. ‘Okay,’ we thought, ‘this is the place for us.’”
“Being at City Garage in the middle of all of that activity at that time in our company’s growth was really transformational for us,” Gee explains. “It opened up a lot of avenues.”
SoBo tech firms provide a dizzying array of products and services and have followed dramatically different trajectories in building their businesses.
From its start in the Betamore coworking space in 2013, ZeroFox has grown into a global cybersecurity company with nearly 550 employees worldwide. It announced plans in December to acquire an Oregon-based digital security firm and go public as a combined company valued at over $1 billion. Foster expects that deal to be finalized by summer.
Originally focused on cyber threats via social media, the scope of the company’s cloud-based “software as a service” is much bigger now, says Foster. “Our focus is external cybersecurity: anything beyond your traditional firewall. Since the pandemic changed how everyone works, with people no longer inside an office building and inside a closed network, no one is behind their firewalls now. As a result, our security solutions are needed by a lot more customers than they were a few years ago.”
SoBo-born Ready Robotics has attracted more than $40 million in venture capital to date by developing systems based on university research that make it easier to deploy industrial robots and automation on the manufacturing floor. Launched in 2016 by Kelleher Guerin and Benjamin Gibbs from Johns Hopkins University, the six-person startup was hot. After releasing its first product in 2017, the company received a big infusion of investor capital and within a year moved its headquarters to Ohio. A small technical team continues to work out of City Garage, testing new iterations of the underlying software and improving the user interface.
At first, Ready Robotics sold a ready-to-use hardware/software platform that included a robot with an intuitive, flowchart-style interface (no coding required). The company has now moved away from selling robots to focus on its core automation software.
“We make software that makes robots vastly easier to use and empowers anybody to control the entire work cell from a single interface,” says Erik Bjornard, Ready Robotics vice president of marketing. “We support about 70% of robots that were sold last year. Our goal is to be the universal operating system for automation.”
But not all SoBo tech firms focus their energies on building the next must-have software system or digital essential. Some are adept at creatively wielding tech tools like augmented reality and smartphone apps to meet the needs of a wide range of clients.
Balti Virtual has worked with such companies as HBO, Under Armour, Hallmark, and the Baltimore Ravens to create “immersive experiences” with virtual and augmented reality technology. Started in 2015 by veteran video game makers David Thompson and Will Gee, the company has created over 100 projects with a wide group of brands and agencies. The staff has grown from four to about a dozen today.
Mixed in with Balti Virtual’s client work are some projects of their own, including HoloTats, a temporary tattoo that when scanned with a smartphone app displays an animated 3D creature, like a shark, swimming around. Squad Snaps is a project launched last year with the Ravens that lets fans take virtual selfies with their favorite player from a touch-screen kiosk in the stadium.
“It’s been great to have a fun mix of products, but it can be very demanding to constantly be building completely different things week after week,” says Gee. “What we’re trying to do now is find a couple of areas of focus, to build a sustainable company focused on a vertical or two.”
Mindgrub’s Todd Marks has taken a very different approach, steadily expanding the scope of his enterprises year after year. Starting with mobile phone apps and then adding web development services, Mindgrub has morphed from a technical group to a “digital agency” providing clients like Exelon, NASA, and Royal Farms with end-to-end creative and support services. With annual sales now at about $30 million, the company has 200 employees, most working in the Baltimore area.
In 2018, Marks opened Mindhub, a startup incubator and coworking space next to the Mindgrub offices. In 2021, Mindgrub added a venture capital group to work with startups. The company recently purchased space in Pigtown for possible expansion. And a robotics startup is in the works to commercialize a robot called SNAX (originally created to deliver snacks around their offices) to help visitors and staff in hospitals.
The solid foothold that tech firms have made in South Baltimore over the last decade may be just the beginning for this part of the city.
Marks, for one, is bullish on the area’s potential. “This whole area is now solidly catering to the 20-year-old professional knowledge workers,” he observes. “The area west of Federal Hill is getting developed, and that’s going to have a lot of knowledge-working businesses. And the whole I-95 corridor from Port Covington to Montgomery [Park] is growing fast.” – Steve Cole