It can be tempting to think of Baltimore’s burgeoning tech ecosystem as a kind of Jenga tower, fearing that the whole thing will crumble when you pull out one block.
Those worries surfaced last week when Wisconsin-based Exact Sciences announced it was closing its Baltimore office, laying off 58 employees. The cancer-diagnostics giant, which employs 6,400 people, bought Thrive Earlier Detection, a Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures spin-out, in a 2020 deal worth a whopping $2.15 billion.
We mourn any loss of local jobs. But this isn’t Jenga, and the closure of Thrive’s former office does not portend imminent collapse for Baltimore tech.
Vigorous innovation economies build companies that scale to the point where they go public, become acquirers or get acquired, as Thrive did. Established innovation ecosystems (think: San Francisco, Boston or New York) support environments of dense activity, big wins, disappointing failures, new investments and, yes, office closures, particularly following acquisitions.
Baltimore doesn’t have that density yet, so it’s easier to worry that Exact Sciences’ consolidation is the start of a trend, when instead it should be viewed as a natural progression for a growing tech economy that now hosts more than 400 startups at every stage, across a range of industry sectors.
Thrive’s founding, growth and sale were emblematic of the breadth and increasing strength of our tech ecosystem. Thrive was co-founded by Isaac Kinde, a Black entrepreneur who came from California to attend the University of Maryland Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff Scholar. He earned medical and doctorate degrees from Johns Hopkins, where his work in a renowned lab helped produce the innovation that made Thrive a $2 billion target. He has remained active in Baltimore tech through his service on the boards of UpSurge and Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures and his mentorship of other founders. Thrive and Kinde offer stories to be heralded about what’s possible in Baltimore tech.
And while layoffs grab headlines, from the same lab where Thrive was launched, Haystack Oncology was also founded and was acquired by Quest Diagnostics in 2023. But it has long-term plans to grow in Baltimore.
At a human level, the loss of jobs for 58 people hurts. Rather than lamenting the circumstances of the Exact Sciences employees let go in Baltimore, we should scramble to connect them with other local innovators to find their next role — or to start their next company — right here. The knowledge gleaned from being part of a startup is transferrable and highly sought-after, and the local demand for talent is fierce and growing.
Baltimore’s tech assets are not only strengthening, they’re also coalescing. In October, the Economic Development Administration announced Baltimore’s selection as one of 31 federal tech hubs, a designation that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the area. The coalition that pursued the designation was shepherded by the Greater Baltimore Committee, with leadership support from UpSurge, Fearless, local governments and advocacy by a broad consortium of tech support organizations.
Our universities were pivotal in this high-profile award, and are one of Baltimore’s greatest strengths. Consider the impact of our two largest universities. During the past decade, companies affiliated with Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures have raised an average of $400 million annually, with 42% of that coming to Baltimore. University of Maryland, Baltimore recently announced a groundbreaking four-year Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hubs (REACH) grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant, shared with UMBC, will support both institutions’ work advancing the biomedical entrepreneurship and innovation economy in West Baltimore and across our region.
And, in recent years, Coppin State, Loyola, Morgan State and Towson universities have grown only more committed to supporting entrepreneurship and to launching the innovators and innovations driving our ecosystem.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore — a former entrepreneur who founded, built and exited a startup — understands tech. To make Maryland more competitive, the governor’s most recent budget includes $6.4 million in funding to support tech growth in the Baltimore area, strengthening Maryland’s chances of being awarded up to $70 million as a federal tech hub, including The Pava LaPere Legacy of Innovation Act and programs supporting internships, tech transfer and startup advancement through organizations such as TEDCO and UpSurge.
With continued work, by the end of this decade, our city will be home to the kind of high-velocity tech ecosystem that more easily absorbs the announcement Exact Sciences made last week. We’ll understand that celebrations and recalibrations are part of any thriving innovation economy.
Most Jenga players hold their breath when pulling out that tricky center block, hoping to avoid toppling the tower. But Baltimore Tech can breathe out, knowing that’s not our game. The building blocks we’ve put in place — and that we continue to add — are not about to fall.
Jamie McDonald is the former CEO and Kory Bailey is the current CEO of UpSurge Baltimore. UpSurge is a nonprofit mobilizing Baltimore’s tech ecosystem around startups by strengthening culture and connectivity, with a vision for Baltimore to be recognized as the first Equitech city in the world.