How An App Born Of Baltimore's Housing Crisis Could Save You Money

NestPix, one of the latest startups to emerge from Baltimore's vibrant tech scene, helps homeowners track renovations--and protect the value of their homes.

Although The Wire painted a rather gritty portrait of Baltimore, the HBO show captured at least one bright spot: This is a city of vibrant, tight-knit neighborhoods, with historic townhouses that give residents a fierce sense of pride for where they live. Yet Baltimore was hit hard by the housing bubble. Even people who invested heavily in renovations have watched their property values drop. "Like so many homeowners, I have a home that's worth a lot less than what I bought it for," says Baltimore Sun tech journalist Gus Sentementes (who, in fact, took over The Wire creator David Simon's crime beat before switching to tech). "I started thinking of an app that could help homeowners track their projects, but also generate proof of all the work they put into their homes."

Earlier this year, Sentementes, 37, launched NestPix, a home renovation app that not only connects like-minded homeowners and their projects to share tips and ideas, but also functions as a way to track the money people put into their homes through photographing and record-keeping. "People are looking for ways to protect the value of their home," Sentementes says. "This can give them some kind of comfort."

With the launch of NestPix, Sentementes joins the ranks of other startups in Baltimore that benefit from its fertile breeding ground for business. Part of it is institutional: Baltimore is home to education powerhouses like Johns Hopkins University, Maryland Institute College of Art, and the University of Maryland, which pump the market full of youthful energy. And part of it is logistical: Baltimore benefits from its proximity to D.C., which allows entrepreneurs to service the government and military from outside the Beltway.

But what Sentementes is drawn to is the quality of life. Compared to similarly sized East Coast cities, Baltimore is relatively affordable and offers a wealth of culture and entertainment, making it a great place to raise a family.

The current tech renaissance began a few years ago, according to Plato Hieronimus of Strategy Constellation, which offers business-model consulting for both entrepreneurs and investors. "The advent of social media really woke a bunch of people throughout the Baltimore scene up to the notion that there were other people out there doing equally fascinating things and that there were great opportunities for collaboration," he says. Another shift occured as more of the conversation moved from online to real life, like the Baltimore TechBreakfast, a popular monthly gathering where entrepreneurs pitch their startups and get feedback from the crowd. Indeed, it's this spirit of sharing that pervades Baltimore's tech industry, says Hieronimus, who offers his consulting services for free to some local startups to help get them off the ground. "Really, it's an embrace of the idea of community and the notion that a high tide raises all ships. We encourage entrepreneurs to come plug into this vibe in Baltimore."

A longtime anchor of Baltimore's tech scene is the Emerging Technology Center (ETC), the city's tech incubator for 10 years. ETC is home to one of the city's two accelerators, Accelerate Baltimore, which is currently helping four local companies come to market. One of their success stories is Millennial Media, a mobile advertising service, which went public in March, claiming one of the most successful IPOs in Baltimore history. While the unique combination of "meds, feds, and eds" definitely fuels a competitive market, ETC executive director Deb Tillett says the city of Baltimore has also been extremely helpful, lending a hand with tax credits and other development-spurring activity. "They're understanding how to take down all the barriers for companies to locate here and do business in the city," Tillett says. 

Another important effort was just passed at the state level: Innovate Maryland will forge partnerships between schools and tech companies, Tillett says. "Here the idea is to take technology developed in the universities and get it into the hands of the entrepreneurs who can bring it to market."

Sentementes thinks his experience as a journalist has given him unique insight into the changes and the challenges the city is seeing. "I've seen the best and the worst of Baltimore, and oftentimes the best and the worst are a block away from one another," he says. "It's that kind of city." But there's also a lot of hope, and right now, he says, the city is riding a swell of urban pride: "There's some good healthy optimism right now in Baltimore." As if to reaffirm Sentementes' sentiments, a new movement is afoot to brand local tech efforts with a kind of digital produce sticker affixed to websites and startups launched in Baltimore to declare their provenance. The logo reads: Made With Love in Baltimore.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Image: Monica Lopossay]

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