Tech Entrepreneur Mike Binko Seeks Out Emerging Ventures
By his own admission, Michael Binko prefers to keep multiple irons in the fire at any given time. As an angel investor and president of the cybersecurity company Kloudtrack, simultaneously he serves as founder and CEO of Startup Maryland.
Like Binko, Startup Maryland keeps multiple irons in the fire. It’s hard to describe just one thing it does. Its programs range from operating a bus tour to new business video pitches, to training investors to hosting entrepreneur boot camps to filming a documentary. Yet it all speaks to common needs of entrepreneurs.
Hit the Road
Each of the below will be STRT1UP Roadshow Tour Stops where entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to pitch on the bus and participate in the Pitch Across Maryland Competition.
To register: www.startupmd.typeform.com/to/cMTP0f
Sept. 29-Oct. 6
Binko understands those needs. He’s an entrepreneur himself. Although he considered law school or pursuing his affinity for coding, he found his niche in the deal flow side of technology. Today, Binko uses Startup Maryland to offer what he deems “an ecosystem of support” for early stage businesses across all walks of life – not only in technology.
Binko has a flair for getting his message out. While not part of the diamond industry, he calls Startup Maryland’s line of programs the “4 Cs: celebration, coaching, curation and capital.”
To begin, Startup Maryland seeks out and spotlights emerging entrepreneurs across the state. Ultimately, for some, it may lead to a match of business and investors. Sometimes Binko himself invests; other times he helps launch emerging businesses toward other investors and resources.
In doing so, the TV show “Shark Tank” comes to mind.
“Yes, we look for deal flow, and if it’s right for us we invest in it,” says Binko. For both, a pitch process is involved. For both, young companies hope to get some funding. However, Binko does not relish being associated with that TV show model.
“Those [Shark Tank] deals are typically investor tilted,” he says. “Startup Maryland takes an entrepreneur-friendly stance. We are not looking to gouge entrepreneurs out of equity in their companies. We believe that we can bring better terms to the entrepreneurs as we help refine their ventures. We’re entrepreneurs ourselves. We focus more on celebration and coaching and curation [acceleration] than capital,” says Binko, who brings know-how to do all of it. As an early employee, he helped grow internet company PSINet, taking it public on NASDAQ before directing Corporate Ventures. After exiting PSINet, he founded Launchfuel Inc., a Virginia business accelerator that “exited 13 out of 16 companies with which we engaged over four years,” says Binko.
Building an Ecosystem Model
Binko describes Startup Maryland as “a community of support for entrepreneur innovators.” Originally started as a regional initiative of Startup America, spearheaded by AOL/Revolution Ventures founder Steve Case and the Kauffman Foundation, Startup Maryland has been championing entrepreneurs since 2012. In just five years, Startup Maryland rocketed to a Top 3 spot among 44 regional peers under Startup America. “The goal metric was number of startups per capita involved in the ecosystem. With over 1,000 ventures by the end of 2015, we had blown the doors off our expectations,” admits Binko. Yet when the national umbrella organization concluded its planned three-year charter, Startup Maryland opted to continue in operation independently along with other regions. In 2016, Binko joined a national leadership team in rebranding the group as the Startup Champions Network – with a goal of forging over 500 ecosystems in the US in five years.
Binko admits it’s become sort of a “hobby” and “a way of giving back.” Still, he’s upfront that also it “adds to my personal and professional growth. As an angel investor, I am not completely altruistic. But I can’t invest in every company that we find.”
So many offerings from Startup Maryland spring from philanthropy, community engagement and advocacy efforts. For that, Binko speaks regularly of “celebrating” and “coaching” entrepreneurs.
Yet its other efforts remain in a for-profit realm, including acceleration and funding. While some services are available to the broad community of entrepreneurs, others go to only a selected few.
Across the board “our No. 1 mission is retention of great entrepreneurs,” says Binko. “We want them feeling that there is a peer community embracing them, nurturing them and giving them help, but also sending them in the direction of resources that can take their business forward.”
Startup Maryland continues to evolve. Last year, it made a documentary, entitled “STRT1UP: Venturing through the Land of Pleasant Living,” about building the entrepreneurship ecosystem model in Maryland. “The film is an important depiction of innovation and entrepreneurship going on in the state,” says Frank Bonsal III, director of Towson University Venture Creation and the Towson University Incubator. Bonsal appears in the film.
Binko highlights another novel effort. “One of our newest programs is called Angel Academy, where we are training the next generation of angel investors to look at Maryland startup companies as investable.”
Every program helps support the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“Startup Maryland is an organization that acts as a catalyst for ecosystem building,” says Bonsal. “It is an enlivener and an awakener in the economy and culture of Maryland. It induces and awakens and nurtures what’s happening in the very early stages of economic development and entrepreneurship.”
Bonsal remains “a fan” of Startup Maryland. “It’s very good at picking out the real bright spots around the state – not just in central Maryland, but in all of Maryland. It looks for innovation in all the nooks and crannies of the state.”
Not Only for Tech
“Even though I come from a tech-centered background, Startup Maryland is open to any type of innovation entrepreneur,” says Binko. “It can be manufacturing, software, social breakthroughs, cloud computing, internet, medical/bio/health/wellness, lifestyle, entertainment, sustainability, a methodology … all forms.”
Gluten-free baked goods, nanotech, snowballs, LED lights, coffee, cybersecurity and oyster entrepreneurs count among more than 1,000 people who have crossed paths with Startup Maryland during its five years in existence.
They all embraced the opportunity to pitch their business idea during a video pitch contest know as “Pitch Across Maryland,” an event that unfolds annually on a bus retrofitted to be a video studio. “It’s an RV, actually, but everyone calls it the STRT1UP BUS,” says Binko of the road show vehicle that transverses the state.
“Our numbers tell us that 18-28 percent of the companies that come through our bus are candidates for equity funding; approximately 175-200 companies,” says Binko. “We realized, too, that another 20-30 percent are bank fundable. While there’s no guarantee that you are fundable just because you pitch on the bus, we do promise that you will be lit on the radar screen for folks who might be interested in learning more.”
Carrying a box of oysters, Johnny Shockley, founder and president of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture, climbed aboard the bus in 2013. Binko recalls, at first, he thought someone catered oysters for all to enjoy at the Cambridge, Md., tour stop. Then, he realized an oyster company had come to do its own business pitch.
That pitch made a difference. That nascent oyster company went on to find a strategic investor as well as earn recognition at a White House event. “Re-engineering a sustainable oyster fishery in the Chesapeake Bay after 50 years of dormancy … what’s more Maryland than that!” quipped Binko.
Says Shockley, “Startup Maryland got me focused on entrepreneurship early on. It gave me confidence and momentum. Mike had the foresight and understanding to see possible opportunities in my business idea. He’s a real advocate and true champion for the entrepreneur spirit. He does work that’s truly needed.”
Adds Shockley, “I’m just a waterman. It opened my eyes. It got me up to speed. It helped me help myself do what I needed to do.”
For Binko, it’s all in a day’s work.
“Being an entrepreneur is difficult and challenging. It’s worth celebrating it if we find people doing it well,” he says. “We are delighted Startup Maryland has had success, but we are not finished yet. The community of potential early-stage investors has to get more active. We need to get better at encouraging this community to be angels and show them viable high-growth ventures. Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin and other regions have that. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have it here.”
Binko offers a final thought for the business community. “If you have a measure of success in your own business, we want to help you think about how you can give back to help the next generation. If you are still struggling to get that success for you, your business and your family, we want to help you focus and get better at that,” he says. “Most entrepreneurs are subject matter experts, not finance, legal, HR or marketing experts.” I95