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The Wired

Baltimore's technology workforce tries to energize the region's entrepreneurial spirit

Photographs By Christopher Myers
Patti Chan, co-founder of Ignite Baltimore.
Mike Subelsky, co-founder of Ignite Baltimore.
Dave Troy, founder of Social Devcamp East.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/21/2009

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On a hot summer night on the last Thursday in June, a crowd assembled outside the Windup Space, the performance venue/bar that always feels completely empty or absolutely full. News of Michael Jackson's death wafted through the air, and bits of "Billie Jean" could be heard from each passing car.

The roughly 250 people who filled the space that night looked like a typical Windup crowd. They were well-dressed but, with rare exception, not fashion-mag stylish. There was a palpable uncertainty among those outside, as people waited to see if they would be able to gain entry on the waitlist, but once it became apparent that everyone would be admitted, things became less tense. If you didn't know what was about to take place, you might assume that it was a secret performance by a moderately well-known comedian or an indie-rock singer.

Soon after 7 p.m., Mike Subelsky took the stage. The bearded, ex-Navy officer and programmer who lives in Charles Village, explained the rules for the night: 16 artists, programmers, curators, and writers would give 5-minute PowerPoint presentations on a subject he or she cared about, from tree canopies to 13th-century manuscripts. The 20 slides in their presentation would automatically advance every 15 seconds, and there would be no break between presentations, turning the already difficult prospect of public speaking into a reality show-style contest for the handful of speakers who faced technical difficulties and hecklers.

While some presentations were one-offs, conceived for that night only, others put a public face to a web site, an initiative, or a company that many attendees otherwise would not have heard about. In other words, not only did individuals get exposure for their ideas, the crowd gathered got to sample the variety of things happening in Baltimore.

Ignite Baltimore, the name for this event that's one part community social and another part pep talk, was started in Baltimore just over a year ago by Subelsky and Patti Chan, best-known for her review guide start-up blog 600 Block (600block.com). When the fourth Ignite takes place Oct. 22 at the Walters Art Museum, about 400 people are expected.

"Baltimore is a very do-it-yourself town," Subelsky says in an interview at a coffeeshop in Charles Village. "No one is going to tell you that you can't do something. It's really easy to use technology to organize people."

Even though Subelsky helped start Ignite in Baltimore, the event is not his idea. In fact, the first Ignite was held in Seattle in 2006, and since then the event has spread to dozens of cities worldwide, from New York and Paris to Missoula, Mont., and Columbus, Ohio.

The same is true for a dozen other tech-themed and organized events that have been held in Baltimore in the past year. Refresh Baltimore (refreshbmore.org), where web developers gather monthly, is modeled on Refresh Dallas (refreshdallas.org), which started in 2005. On Nov. 5, the first TEDx MidAtlantic (tedxmidatlantic.com), an offshoot of the well-known invitation-only TED (ted.com, an acronym for technology, entertainment, and design) talks on ideas, will be held in Baltimore.

In fact, since 2008, programmers, gamers, and entrepreneurs have met at loosely organized "unconferences" and social events, many of them only promoted on Facebook, Twitter, and assorted web sites, all with the intent of building an entrepreneurial tech community in Baltimore. At many of these events, which run from gamer-friendly socials to meet-ups on web-programming languages, attendees share their interest in producing applications that do more than meet the narrow requirements of a government request for proposals. And at these events, you hear, again and again, the hope that Baltimore, with its low cost of living, surplus of artists, and easy access to tech workers currently employed by government agencies, universities, and their contractors, will develop a creative entrepreneurial culture, making the Chesapeake an East Coast equivalent to the Bay Area. And by importing Silicon Valley-like events, with flashy PowerPoint slides, business sponsorship for advertising and event costs, and free pizza and ice cream, organizers like Subelsky create the illusion that there is already a vibrant entrepreneurial community here just waiting to be discovered.

But organizing a successful event, or even a dozen of them, is not the same thing as starting the next Twitter or Hulu. The people behind these events are not just interested in meeting people with similar interests. They want to make Baltimore a place where people start technology companies.

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