Tech entrepreneurs bring ideas to life in Startup Weekend

People with business ideas, technical acumen work 54 hours straight to develop new sites, apps

  • Jesse Baptiste and Gareth Williams, both of New York City, attended the Startup Weekend. They created, an online social reservation site.
Jesse Baptiste and Gareth Williams, both of New York City, attended… (Gus Sentementes, Baltimore…)
April 17, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

One mobile application lets people know the ratio of single people to married people at a bar or restaurant. One website lets owners of vacant buildings poll the crowd to see what kind of business should move into the neighborhood. Another app lets teachers use Facebook as a tool.

These are a handful of apps that came to life in Baltimore during the city's first Startup Weekend. More than 125 people descended on Baltimore from as far away as New York City for the chance to rapidly develop their ideas into prototypes, in hopes of becoming the next Facebook or Google.

This crowd — filled with entrepreneurs and technical experts — worked for 54 straight hours in large conference rooms, forming groups from among strangers and building websites and applications for mobile phones. The event was part of simultaneous Startup Weekends in six U.S. cities.

It's the latest gathering organized by leaders in Baltimore's growing technology startup scene, who for the past two years have used social media and events to promote the region's digital entrepreneurs.

"You have to prevent the leaky sieve, where people come here, start companies and then they leave," said Ron Schmelzer, a judge at Startup Weekend and an entrepreneur. "Weekends like these are sort of proving that there may be enough critical mass" in Baltimore to build a sustainable startup culture the way Boston and Silicon Valley have, he said.

"It's not about having a few large companies. It's about having tons and tons of small companies," Schmelzer said.

The participants began Friday night by pitching their ideas for businesses to the crowd. Each participant had three votes, and the crowd voted on the best ideas, which were winnowed down to about 20. Individuals gravitated toward the ideas they preferred and formed teams, with some made up of one or two people and others as large as 10.

The groups quickly found that there were more than enough people with ideas and business savvy, but those with expertise in computer and Web programming were in short supply.

"There was definitely a need for teams to find technical" experts, said Mike Brenner, an entrepreneur and one of the weekend's organizers.

The groups worked at the Emerging Technology Center in Canton on Friday and Saturday, and then at the BioPark at the University of Maryland Baltimore on Sunday. They worked at tables in conference rooms, hallways and an auditorium, with disposable plates and cups scattered about. The participants received free food, such as sandwiches, bagels and pasta, and were encouraged to share ideas, talents and skills.

On Sunday, each of the 20 teams had to give a four-minute pitch to an audience and several judges.

One group built Greenlyyt, an iPhone application that lets users find nightspots frequented by single people in Baltimore. Users can "check in" to a location and gauge their chances of meeting other singles. But the users remain anonymous.

"We did that to take the creep factor out of it, so people feel comfortable with broadcasting their locations," said Josh Hubner, 29, of Washington, who worked on Greenlyyt.

The idea for the website was developed by Alexa Baggio, 23, of New York City, whose brother lives in Baltimore. She came to Baltimore for Startup Weekend and found several people interested in creating a tool for commercial real estate owners to poll their neighborhoods on new businesses to inhabit vacant spaces.

"This community was more set for my idea than New York," Baggio said. "I came here to find the people to help me do it."

TalkChalk is a Facebook application that combines learning and game play, and gives students and teachers a way to get their work done through the popular online social network. The idea was initially developed by David Simnick, a social studies teacher in Philadelphia, and refined with the input of nine others over the weekend.

"This is just a new way to make [learning] interesting," Simnick said.

The event, funded through several sponsors, awarded $6,000 in cash and services to winners.

Mike Brenner's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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