Creative & Cool: Startups find small — but hip — spaces fit the bill
A student at a university has an idea for an app that he thinks he could help solve a problem facing modern society. He’s taken entrepreneurship courses and wants to form his own company, with a goal of making something of the idea. He’ll need partners to take the risk with him, probably a lot of guidance from someone with more business experience and, of course, a place to work.
It’s a fairly typical story, fueling a big trend in business today.
As more and more entrepreneurs try to make their business ideas into reality, there’s a growing demand for more non-traditional workspaces. Young companies with limited manpower have no need — or extra cash — to lease a downtown office running about $25 per square foot on average. In fact, some only need a desk, which can be rented in a coworking space for a few hundred dollars a month.
Plus, they are pretty cool places to work. Some of Baltimore’s innovation spaces feature large kitchens, break rooms with pool tables or cornhole, comfy leather furniture, elaborate or rustic-looking light fixtures, bright colored accents, phone booths, and glass walls for entrepreneurs to write on.
Nearly 1.2 million people worldwide have worked in a “coworking” environment, according to Global Coworking Survey. The trend is growing in cities across the country, and more than a dozen concepts have opened across the Baltimore area over the past year. And there are more to come.
Elaine Asal, who helped design the Impact Hub coworking space in Station North, said as launching a startup business has become a more viable 21st-century career option, the demand for more flexible, communal workspaces has increased.
“There’s been a kind of change in work, to becoming more of a communal activity,” said Asal, a designer in Gensler’s Baltimore office. “People, especially entrepreneurs with growing businesses, want a lot more flexibility in how they work nowadays.”
Some startups still start their journey in a garage, but many choose an incubator, receiving workspace, mentorship and business development as they build their first products, raise capital and while staff sizes are still small enough to only require enough space for a desk or two.
As companies outgrow an incubator, they may move into a larger office in a coworking space, which house ventures that are still not quite ready to take on a large, multi-year lease in a traditional office. Or perhaps they’ll choose to work out of an accelerator, which help companies rapidly expand or move toward commercialization on a more compressed timescale.
The spaces that house these different organizations need to be designed to meet the unknown and ever-changing needs of the tenants who may work there.
“It’s a unique challenge to design for a user that you don’t know,” said Lou Ghitman, a principal at Design Collective Inc. “Lots of people could come through the same space, with different needs — maybe they’re an IT company or life science — so it has to be very adaptable.”
I recently took a deeper look at some of Baltimore’s newest innovation spaces and how they were designed to serve the different kinds of young companies working in the city.
Betamore @City Garage
Designed by: Verve Partnership
Size: 8,000 total square feet
Seven offices, multiple coworking/event spaces, meeting/conference room
Occupancy: 19 companies
Membership rates: Starting at $225 per month for coworking, to $2,970 per month for a four-person office
Five-year-old incubator Betamore recently outgrew its original space at 1111 Light St. in Federal Hill. To meet growing demand from young companies in need of space and support, Betamore expanded into a new 8,000-square-foot space in the center of the City Garage startup hub in Port Covington.
The space features seven individual offices, coworking offices with rentable desks, conference rooms and one particularly unique feature: an indoor second floor.
Verve Partnership, the same firm that designed the first Betamore space, worked on the second iteration. Kelly Ennis, founding principal at Verve, said the concept for a space like Betamore is driven by how it is intended to serve the people working there every day.
“Betamore really focuses on intentional community building,” Ennis said. “They want these companies to be able to cross-pollinate and work together and learn from each other.”
Betamore CEO Jen Meyer wanted the space to foster relationships among people working in Betamore, Ennis said, so they could help each other grow. That’s partly why Betamore’s offices have walls made of all glass. Ennis said the idea is that people working can always look out and see what’s going on around them, or someone who could help them out.
“Maybe you have a problem that someone else working nearby might be able to help with,” Ennis said. “If you can see them, if there’s that transparency and socialization aspect, you might be more comfortable reaching out.”
The glass walls are also removable, to accommodate larger classes or so that companies can grow beyond a single office. The space is meant to be as flexible and transient as the startups working there, Ennis said.
Ennis said her favorite part of the space, though, is the second floor. City Garage’s high ceilings allowed Verve to deliver almost twice the available workspace, as well as a fun, “almost treehouse-like” element to the space.
“Starting a company is hard work, but everyone needs to be able to have a little fun at work too,” she said.
Designed by: Verve Partnership
Size: 72,000 total square feet
51 offices and 13 custom suites occupied, coworking desks, six meeting rooms, break rooms
Occupancy: 110 companies, over 300 employees
Rental rates: Starting at $375 per month to about $2,950 for suites
Ennis said Verve had to approach the design of Cordish Cos.’ Spark coworking space from a different perspective than it did with Betamore.
Though both spaces are meant to support growing young companies, those working in Spark are a little more mature and independent, no longer in need of as much hands-on support as an incubator provides. With that in mind, Ennis said Spark was designed to be more closed — with more private offices that can support larger teams, and less communal and training space.
“The companies there aren’t as reliant on that cross-pollination,” Ennis said. “They’ve already got their foundation, and it’s really just about delivering the space they need to grow.”
Spark has 72,000-square-feet of space inside the Offices at Power Plant Live, after an expansion this year. The space includes private offices, rentabledesks, a game room and social space, conference rooms and shared kitchens.
Spark served as a good indicator of the increasing demand for nontraditional office options in the city, Ennis said. The space was nearly fully leased before it even opened in 2016, Ennis said. And it doubled in size this year.
Ennis said she doesn’t expect the trend will go away anytime soon. She thinks as these spaces, and the ecosystems they support, continue to grow, they can help drive economic growth for cities.
Designed by: Design Collective
Size: 23,000 total square feet
8,000 square feet of office space with 10 private offices, and 15,000 square feet of wet lab space with 17 private labs
Occupancy: 20 companies, about 50 employees
Rental rates: Starting at $900 per month for a lab bench, to $6,000 per month for a large private lab; $275 per month for a workdesk, to $2,025 for a six-person office
Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures oversees the intellectual property — dealing with licenses, patents and commercialization of technologies — coming out Johns Hopkins University and the medical campus. It supports startup companies through funding, resources and mentorship, and manages several FastForward incubator spaces.
A 23,000-square-foot space, housed in the new 1812 Ashland Ave. building in East Baltimore, features design elements meant to create a comfortable, attractive vibe with nods to Baltimore’s industrial history, said Lou Ghitman of Design Collective. There are “homey” leather couches, bright colors and plenty of light, and lots of glass and whiteboard surfaces to write ideas on.
Ghitman said Design Collective tried to make the space conducive to the kinds of brainstorming and fast-paced, collaborative work that goes on in incubators. The evolution of technology has freed companies and employees from traditional desk and office models, he said, so design firms have to kind of “write new rules” for spaces like this.
“We are rethinking workstyles and the environments that people want to work in,” Ghitman said. “With FastForward, we wanted people to be curious, to walk by and look in and think ‘How can I work there?’”
But beyond being cool-looking, FastForward 1812 was designed to be practical, Ghitman said, and to help fill a need among the companies Tech Ventures serves. It includes typical incubator offices and coworking spaces, as well as an entire second floor dedicated to serving companies with a life sciences or biotechnology focus.
Rentable wet lab spaces can cost well over $4,000 per month to start, and companies typically have to pay for all their own supplies and equipment. Recognizing the need for more affordable options for these companies, two-thirds of the FastForward 1812 floor plan was designated for lab space. There are rentable individual workbenches, at a starting rate of about $900 per month, and 17 different sized labs.
The Tech Ventures team operates several other FastForward spaces as well, serving student entrepreneurs near the Homewood campus and hosting accelerator programs to help startups in a specific industry build up their businesses more quickly.
Social entrepreneurship coworking space
Designed by: Gensler
Size: 8,600 total square feet made up of 14 offices, a conference room, three meeting rooms, two coworking/event spaces
Occupancy: 22 companies, 164 members
Membership rates: Starting at $30 per month for coworking, to $700 per month for offices
Impact Hub, a coworking operation based at 10 E. North Ave., is geared toward nonprofit tenants and social entrepreneurs. Dana Verbosh, a designer at Gensler, said the purpose of the space differs from other coworking environments in that it is not just meant to facilitate people working together or among each other in different disciplines.
Impact Hub’s mission is to create an environment that supports entrepreneurs who are working to have some kind of positive impact on the community. The team there spends a lot of time on events and programming based around that mission.
With that in mind, Gensler designed workspaces and event space meant to encourage integration and collaboration — as opposed to Spark’s more individualized layout.
“We wanted to create a space that forces people out of their shell and encourage and idea sharing and community building,” Verbosh said. “I think budding social organizations really thrive in that environment. They can support each other’s missions.”
The 8,600-square-foot space includes 14 offices, convertible coworking or event space, and fairly minimal decorating beyond modern furniture and a birght color scheme.
Verbosh and Elaine Asal agreed the growth of coworking is indicative of the growing role of entrepreneurship and nontraditional work. And Asal said they’ve even seen the effects of the coworking trend funneling back into traditional office environments.
“People are wanting their offices to look more like these spaces,” she said. “It’s a broader shift we’re seeing in the way people work.