Deb Tillett is the president of Emerging Technology Centers (ETC), the city of Baltimore’s hub for technology innovation and entrepreneurship. A nonprofit 501(c)(3) venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, ETC is split across two campuses and offers three major programs: the ETC Incubation program; Beehive Baltimore, a coworking space; and AccelerateBaltimore, a 13-week intensive providing up to six local startups with mentorship and seed funding. Since 1999, ETC has helped over 350 companies grow and achieve success. Today, about 85% of those companies are still in business, and 75% have remained in Baltimore.
EDWIN WARFIELD: What brought you to the ETC? What was your experience as an entrepreneur prior to that point?
DEB TILLETT: I probably started my first business when I was in my early 30s, back in the 80s. Because I have been an entrepreneur—because I have had multiple startups, exits, part of an IPO—I got to a point in my career where I didn’t think I had another startup in me. I was too young to retire and too old to be hired. I was familiar with the ETC and I thought, “why not?” Why not work with passionate, engaged, really smart people all day everyday, and get my health care covered? That’s where I am and I love it. Every day is different. Every day is watching people go from idea to implementation, and the execution part is what is exciting, and being able to help them there. So, it’s really a way for me to remain involved and get that startup feeling and I don’t have all the risk that I used to have.
Q. You joined the ETC as executive director a few years ago, and moved its quarters shortly thereafter. What was the motivation behind that decision?
A. When I took over the ETC in early 2012, ETC was at the height of its game. [It was] the only technology business incubator in town. I was faced with a very, very difficult decision: here was an organization at the top of its game, here was a place that was absolutely the center of technology—with the ETC spin-off companies and the companies still at ETC—and I had to make that very difficult decision, and I won’t drop the F-bomb on you, but I said to my predecessor, “Man, all I can do is mess this up.” But we looked all over the city, and at the end of the day, this location—in terms of access, the cost for us to move in here and then that we were able to pass those savings on to our companies—it was the right thing to do, and two years later, it’s really great.
Q. For those who may not be familiar, could you briefly describe the history and impact of the ETC?
A. ETC’s been around since 1999 in its present form. There was an iteration of it a little bit before that, but went to Boston Street in 1999. And over the course of—I guess it’s been about 15, going on 16 years—ETC has incubated over 350 companies and about 84 or 85% of those companies are still in business, which is terrific, and 75% of those companies still in business are located in the city of Baltimore. So, we’ve really done our job, right? Our job is to create jobs, and those people stay in the city and grow.
Q. How does the ETC environment benefit the companies it incubates? How would you describe its impact on the overall tech industry in Baltimore?
A. Some of the companies that have come through ETC are as expansive and big as Millennial Media. They were, I think, four people in 2006. By 2008, there were 48 people. They graduated and moved into the Can Company next door, and by 2012 they were an IPO. And so, you want to talk about sort of growing this collaborative and wonderful kind of ecosystem, it generally happens in that way. You engineer a success, that success spawns others, and before you know it… I would submit that you could probably go one degree of separation from anybody in the tech community currently in Baltimore having come through ETC.
Q. What do you think differentiates the ETC from other business incubators?
A. I think what we offer is years of experience at helping businesses start, think, grow, and graduate. It’s a process, and we’re very good at that process, and I believe that we have a management philosophy and workbook that we could take to other places. You know, don’t reinvent the wheel—we’ve been doing this for a while. I can tell you that our companies collectively, over 15 years, have brought $1.9 billion in outside capital to this region. We’ve helped create over 2,500 jobs. We know that because we have a process in place.
Q. How would you say the ETC has evolved under your leadership?
A. ETC in the old days, pre-me, used to let the companies define them. I took over, and I’m a shallow marketing person and I said, “No, ETC needs to tell her own story. We need to define who we are and what we do.” We’ve done our share of promoting startup and the startup landscape and the resources available, really getting the word out to people that you don’t have to do this alone, that—they may be hard to find—but there are money and resources now available. There are places like ETC where if you’re not ready yet for the full-on incubator and business support, you can get your toe wet in the Beehive area, just coworking, so a lot of that speaks to the resources that are available.
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