Making a Dent in a Startup Ecosystem from a Large Public University
Avail Place, Purpose, and Process with differentiated startup support
For a century and a half, Towson University (TU) has been authentically serving all manner of students for careers in education, healthcare, business, communications, and a plethora of other industries. Add entrepreneurship and startups to this mix and the affect is no less sincere but whose continuum is considerably shorter, somewhere between ten and fifteen years. This post is a reflection on my five-and-a-half years serving startups from TU as I reach another professional inflection point in a mission-driven career, where I have the opportunity to aid the Capital Region in new and differentiated ways.
Be sincere about support, customer development, and cash needs
Without question the best place to begin to grow and connect dots in a startup ecosystem, moreover a university community, is from a place of support, with a dedicated team that helps founders focus, points to data-driven facts and data trendlines, and imbues and lauds strengths. This is where belief systems, people, and culture align to form the genesis of prospective scale. As Maryland’s second largest university, and the largest producer of talent for education and health professions, Towson University is a logical platform from which to advise and cajole founders and companies serving these industries. Quality that scales is something TU stands for, each and every day, in and out of the formal academic calendar.
Now, it’s time to impart the necessary shift back to the investing platform in partnership with support and customer development emphases. But before I launch into the grey, the entrepreneurship abyss, allow me to summarize some of the milestones from the last several years of my time at TU.
Differentiate, hope you are right, and don’t look back
As someone who has spent his entire career in and around education and the knowledge economy, I was thrilled when TU Incubator was positioned to make the industry focus on education technology and innovation in 2014. This industry tilt to edtech, by the then TowsonGlobal incubator advisory board and the incubator program newly led by yours truly, was thoughtful but not a slam dunk. When I entered the incubator in 2H-2013, there were eight member companies, one of which was an edtech virtual member. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to business incubation and ecosystem evolution, so we set off on our journey one company, one mentor, one milestone at a time.
Five years later, the incubator has grown 3X to 30X depending on which metric you choose with over 40 current member companies, 75% serving education, in early childhood, K-12, postsecondary, workforce, or lifelong learning. Many of them are tackling intractable problems with scale potential but not necessarily with the speed of growth that matches well with ‘internal rate of return’, still the favored return metric of capital sources. Per the summary header image, since 2007 founding, TU Incubator has supported over 100 companies, utilized hundreds of student interns, created over 1000 jobs, attracted over $40 million in outside capital, and induced over $150 million in economic impact. And the place-based impact is just getting started as the world now can envision Towson University’s impact in the Towson core. Read this story on the place-based front, as there are, indeed, great things ahead.
Surround yourself with other supportive [wo]men that encourage you, share ideas, and get you motivated.” — Jessica Alba, Founder of The Honest Company
Success is counted sweetest by those who (ne’er) succeed
Please forgive my propensity to lean back to my English literature roots per the above Emily Dickinson line. Startups, rhetorically, are measured in success and in failure and the many learnings in between. In the time since I joined the incubator program, I am proud to have witnessed founder and company milestone success through grants, outside equity and debt capital raised, acquisition, job creation, and end user impact in the millions and growing. In no particular order, a few of the more memorable wins along the way are:
- Growth of Motifworks and 2018 incubator exit (story here)
- Growth of CampusESP, TU impact, and 2019 incubator exit (story here)
- Workbench acquired by Google in November 2018 (story here)
- Equiday acquired by Baltimore-based Allovue in March 2019 (story here)
- Customer, team, and capital growth of CourseArc, InferCabulary, Lessoncast, Redstart Creative and numerous other current members.
And, finally, a few THANKS — and a nod to the future
Current and past team members are the reason TU Incubator and TU entrepreneurship have had success and induced tangible economic impact. There are full-time team members who live, build, and grow the startup dream daily and those part-timers across the Division of Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research who avail the behind-the-curtain magic for enhanced professionalism. I am forever appreciative of the opportunity founded in team ethos and partnership across the Division and the University over the last five-and-a-half years. Together, we grew an incubator threefold, built and refined a 25+ person mentor network, attracted team talent, mapped the Capital Region’s edtech assets, built and grew the region’s largest edtech event, created, piloted, and handed off a student-facing program called Student Launch Pad, now part of TU’s College of Business and Economics, and seemingly earned and owned a reputation for adding value and otherwise getting out of the way. None of this startup stuff happens without institutional and community skin in the game (aka financial support) and strong leadership; I am grateful to have worked for and alongside former Vice-President Dyan Brasington (who hired me) and current Vice President Daraius Irani, who has taken the Division to another level, inside and outside ‘the tent’. There are also the Priorities of President Kim Schatzel that include partnership, entrepreneurship and respective strategic importance to the university, the metro, and the region. There are steadfast partners who have availed capital, door openings, and support from Baltimore County, M&T Bank, TEDCO, SC&H, McCormick, Whiteford Taylor, Cushman Wakefield, Chessiecap, Sylvan Learning, Calvert Education, and Maryland Commerce.
When in doubt, bootstrap. Using your own personal resources is the easiest way to start a business. You don’t have to convince investors about the merits of your idea. You just have to convince yourself. — Ryan Holmes, Co-founder of Hootsuite
So, what’s next, Frank? Why on earth would you leave a good gig at a university with such positive momentum? The answer is pegged to capital networks and the freedom to be entrepreneurial, to coming at the problem from a similar but different angle. A near-term answer to the recalibrated investment role question is that I am newly taking on the Managing Partner role in Bonsal Capital, where there are nine unrealized holdings and some dry powder for new investments. This near-term focus takes me back headlong to the partnership where I started the edtech investment journey in 2001 (story here). Most importantly, I am in the design phase of a new investment platform to fulfill the capital need in-region, and beyond. Stay tuned, as I plan to hang a shingle at a new, shiny spot in the Towson core (story here, video summary here), consistently engaged as TU Incubator mentor and prospective investor with as many companies as will have me.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please hit the 👏🏼 button below so other prospective readers can see it, too.
I am a contrarian educator working at the nexus of equitable impact, efficacy, and economic upside. From the Baltimore metro, I help support and catalyze the Capital Region’s largest cluster of edtech companies as investor and mentor via TU Incubator and associated capital networks and supports.