Although Kenneth Blaisdell's transition from high-level academic administrator to entrepreneur was a gradual process, he does recall a pivotal event that propelled the former assistant provost at the Johns Hopkins University toward a new career as president and chief executive of a Baltimore-based start-up called Cartermill Inc.
Cartermill has developed a database of extensive information about faculty members and research interests at major U.S. research universities. In less than three years, Mr. Blaisdell has helped convince more than 90 schools to submit records and become part of the database, which is an on-line service that can be reached via telephone.
Having recently reached sufficient size, Cartermill is now marketing its service to corporations and has attracted about 20 buyers so far. The company has 22 employees, and Mr. Blaisdell, in the best entrepreneur-speak, talks of reaching "positive cash flow sometime in 1992."
Cartermill also illustrates many of the things that must happen for Baltimore to more fully participate in a fast-paced, knowledge-based economy. If the Greater Baltimore Committee wanted to select prototype companies to illustrate its recently announced economic vision to develop Baltimore into the life sciences capital of the country, it wouldn't be far off the mark in highlighting Cartermill.
Four years ago, Mr. Blaisdell was working to help put together an inventory of Hopkins' far-flung research activities. Like most basic research institutions, Hopkins had developed in a very decentralized way, Mr. Blaisdell said. Researchers developed their own, somewhat proprietary ties to funding sources.
But funding patterns for university research were changing, he said, rewarding institutions that could put together multidisciplinary teams able to bid on larger projects. Creating a database of faculty members that included their backgrounds and research interests would help Hopkins put together such bids. It also would provide centralized information essential to administrators such as Mr. Blaisdell, who was charged with academic oversight of research development.
The process of setting up an informative and usable database proved deceptively hard. What information should it contain? How should the information be gathered? What type of computer hardware and software should be used to house and distribute the information?
At this stage, Mr. Blaisdell found himself at a meeting in the summer of 1987 of the Technology Transfer Society in Washington. "You want to know how businesses start?" he recalled. "This was pure serendipity."
Mr. Blaisdell walked out of a presentation that he found boring and sat down next to someone who, it turned out, had walked out of the seminar for the same reason. That person was Mike Tobert, who introduced himself to Mr. Blaisdell.
During the ensuing conversation, Mr. Tobert disclosed that his occupation was putting together a master research database of all of Britain's roughly 100 universities, a government-aided process that had begun in 1985.
Before the two men parted, they had roughed out a possible collaboration that would use the British database standards (fortuitously based on a U.S. computer and software) to create the Hopkins database and provide access to that information to customers of the British company. In return, Mr. Blaisdell offered to be a cheerleader for Mr. Tobert's concept in the United States.
Mr. Blaisdell, 46, has become far more.
After visiting Mr. Tobert in England, Mr. Blaisdell recommended that Hopkins put its information in the standardized form used by BEST*Great Britain, Mr. Tobert's company, which is part of Longman Cartermill, in turn an affiliate of a giant British publishing conglomerate, the Longman Group. (BEST once stood for British Expertise in Science and Technology, an acronym that Mr. Blaisdell has "tried mightily to undo.")
Mulling over the process, Mr. Blaisdell became convinced that ,, the British product could be replicated in the United States. And with corporations looking for ways to leverage their research dollars, he reasoned that they would be interested in gaining quick access to information about various university activities and, of equal importance, information that permitted companies to compare and contrast fairly what various schools were doing.
"I let Hopkins know I was going to take this idea and build a company around it," Mr. Blaisdell recalled. He also bought books on how to do a business plan, attended business-formation meetings here and "did the whole entrepreneur thing."
When the dust had cleared some 32 months ago, he had start-up funding as a joint venture, equally owned by Longman Cartermill and Dome Corp., Hopkins' for-profit development arm. was myself and a cubby and a phone," he said, "and that's how it started."