Story by Amanda Loudin  |  lllustration by Gwen Keraval
Photographs by  Stephanie CordleMaximilian Franz, Barry Halkin, Lisa Helfert, Hong H. Huynh,  Charlie McClanahan, and Page Architects

Many—Squarespace, OpenGov, and Grip Boost among them—are now household names. Others—like the Food Recovery Network (which boasts General Mills and Whole Foods Market among their funders) and WISE Cities (the emerging woman-run company won DC Startup Week’s 2023 student pitch competition)—are well on their way.

The companies’ common pedigree? Each was hatched by students and alums of the University of Maryland (UMD).

And it’s no wonder: on Maryland’s College Park campus, Terps have unparalleled resources for creativity, collaboration, and innovation at their fingertips. Consider, for instance, the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) within the university’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. A national leader in entrepreneurship and innovation education that was home to the first tech company incubator within the state of Maryland, Mtech claims an economic impact of over $77 billion to date.

two students observe a metallic colored 3-D printer at the TerrapinWorks labOr Startup Shell, a student-run incubator and coworking space that sits on the first floor of the E.A. Fernandez IDEA Factory; its student-spun businesses, which include Imperfect Foods and Solr Tech, have secured over $2 billion in startup venture value and contributed $1.3 billion to the economy since Startup Shell took flight in 2012.

Or the new xFoundry@UMD, an exciting XPRIZE-inspired initiative announced last fall to incentivize students’ technology innovations (the winning team will receive a venture backed by $250,000 to $2 million in investors’ funds to launch the company).

Money talks—but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Before companies like Squarespace and OpenGov had customers and stock, their future founders and CEOs were UMD students taking classes with world-class faculty, networking with leadership mentors from industry, and pushing the limits of innovation in interdisciplinary cross-campus competitions.

The resources add up to an ecosystem that’s ripe for turning UMD students’ fearless ideas into entrepreneurial realities.

Seeding Great Ideas

Sonal Deshpande ’86 and her husband Ashish met at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before Sonal transferred to UMD’s College Park campus to study electrical engineering. Degree in-hand, Sonal went on to enjoy a decades-long career with Northrop Grumman—she recently retired from her position as vice president of the company’s mission sector. Together, the couple have funded multiple scholarships for UMD and Clark School students, as well as the Deshpande Shell Innovative Rising Entrepreneurs (DESIRE) Endowed Student Award for student entrepreneurs at the Startup Shell.

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students sit a table in the Startup Shell testing a virtual reality device

From Campus to Company

When John Fitzell ’20 first set foot on UMD’s campus, entrepreneurship wasn’t on his radar; the bioengineering major was focused on applying his degree to the design of prosthetics and medical devices. Yet today, Fitzell is co-owner of design firm JMakes3D—along with fellow Terp Jess Garnett ’21, a materials science and engineering alum and current Ph.D. student who in December 2022 was hailed by The Washington Business Journal as one of DC’s top innovators under the age of 25.
In contrast, Tyler Denk ’16 entered his Maryland experience with an already developed entrepreneurial eye. Freshman year, in fact, the mechanical engineering major launched his first solo venture: a laundry service for fellow students. Today he co-owns successful newsletter platform beehiiv, which as of last summer had a revenue run rate of $4 million—and is barking at the heels of its longer established competitor, Substack. The company is catching attention not just in Maryland but nationally, with Denk landing on Forbes’ 40 Under 40 lists for 2023.
Two different introductions to entrepreneurship; two thriving outcomes. The threads that tie them together: one of the nation’s best engineering schools, located on the fifth-ranked university campus for cultivating student entrepreneurialism.
Fitzell is among the engineering entrepreneurs who account for UMD in his company’s success story: “Jess and I had been chatting with all these people in Startup Shell who wanted to help us get the business off the ground,” he says. “The events they offer, and seeing how accessible it could be to start a business, opened our eyes.”
The support network gave Fitzell and Garnett the confidence and safety net they needed to move forward with JMakes3D, which provides 3D design, rendering, animation, drafting, and print-on-demand manufacturing services to inventors and entrepreneurs. “We learned that entrepreneurship isn’t an all or nothing situation, like it’s often portrayed,” says Fitzell. “By having the university helping us from the start, we weren’t all alone in our efforts.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the university sprouts so many student startups—and from more than just business majors. Dean Chang, UMD’s chief innovation officer, explains that engineers like Fitzell, Garnett, and Denk are inherent problem solvers and tinkerers with an entrepreneurially inclined mindset: “When it comes to engineering students, every one of them has a latent innovator inside.”

xFoundry Marks the Spot

Terps could soon graduate with not just a degree, but also a startup company backed by up to $2 million in investments.

One of Maryland’s newest initiatives, xFoundry@UMD (which launched out of the E.A. Fernandez IDEA Factory this spring) will recruit students committed to doing good on a large scale, then train them over 15 months to found businesses, build teams, and solve tough problems.

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four onlookers observe a white robotic device at the 2024 Xplore Summit

Mtech Makes the Most of Ideas

If you’re a Maryland Engineering student with a product or business idea, you don’t have to look hard or far for support—it’s everywhere. “Here at the Clark School of Engineering, we’ve created a culture of engagement backed by resources and an administration that embraces it,” says Professor William “Bill” Bentley, who directs Mtech and the Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices. “Any good idea can get support here.”
Since its launch 40 years ago, Mtech has developed a steady stream of programming that’s geared to deliver education, help innovators successfully build technology-based ventures, and support companies throughout Maryland. The university-industry relationships fostered by Mtech are a win-win: Companies gain the research, creativity, and technical assistance needed to develop products and bring them to market; students and faculty earn rich, challenging experiences that allow them to apply their expertise and see their ideas come to life.
three visitors look at materials at an information table at an Mtech event
For students, Mtech offers a broad variety of in-person and online courses including the university’s first minor in technology entrepreneurship and corporate innovation; ASPIRE, a grant program for undergraduate researchers working with faculty on projects with commercial potential; and Hinman CEOs, the nation’s first living-learning entrepreneurship program.
James Green, Mtech’s managing director of learning and development, says that Mtech’s sweet spot is in the tech space, something it leads the country in adopting. Mtech was among the first to share a free entrepreneurship program on Coursera, for instance, adding EdX in 2019 for a total reach of over 1 million students globally.
“We embraced online learning back in 2009 to allow students to catch up or get ahead—it gave them flexibility they can’t get in person,” he explains. “Today’s learner can have a more customized experience, and we enroll over 5,000 students a year in our undergraduate and graduate programs.”
Mtech serves the entire UMD campus but is anchored in engineering, enabling it to capitalize on the problem-solving ingenuity of the Clark School’s community members, says Dan Kunitz, who directs Mtech’s venture strategy and development, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Hub of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps. “Engineering students can turn innovative research and technology into tangible, functional ventures that have never been tried before.
“Engineering is critical to any process.”
Companies Leveraged By Maryland Industrial Partnership (MIPS)
MIPS-funded startups still in business five years later
In State Tax Revenue Generated Annually By MIPS Companies

Bolstering the State

Are you a Maryland-based entrepreneur or looking to become one? Through the Maryland Innovation Extension, the University of Maryland and its partner institutions (Bowie State University, Morgan State University, Coppin State University, and the University of Baltimore) collaborate to bring entrepreneurial training and other resources to the state of Maryland, with a focus on groups underrepresented in entrepreneurship.

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a student in a gray sweatshirt uses a robotic arm to finalize her 3D design with a computer on the table in the background

Lessons from an Entrepreneur

Denk is one of the Maryland Engineering students who took full advantage of all Mtech has to offer when standing up his multiple businesses. “I had a tech entrepreneurship minor, which helped me with my business plans and marketing,” he explains. “I was also in the Hinman CEOs Program and took an extracurricular course through the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship,” which is housed on campus in the university’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

At the end of his sophomore year, Denk co-founded a business to help people with ideas launch their own venture, which he continued to run until about six months after graduation. “We scaled to about 10,000 users and made some money, but ultimately shut that company down in 2017,” he says.

Experience can sometimes be the best teacher; Denk applied the lessons learned to his next business effort. “I can now recognize the value of a large professional network in launching a business, which I didn’t have starting as a student,” he says. “Launching in college is pretty low-risk, but once you graduate, you’re often on a clock to generate revenue and succeed.”

In Denk’s case, he says, that clock was the six months before he needed to start paying down student loan debt. “Ultimately we failed because we had the wrong business model,” he reflects. “But I was able to think through that model and improve on it for beehiiv.”

After a stint with media company Morning Brew (where he helped grow subscribers from 100,000 to 3.5 million), Denk co-founded beehiiv, a platform designed to help businesses create and grow email newsletters. Today the company has more than 50 employees across eight countries and received a $65 million valuation in 2023.

“My time at Maryland was a playground of trial and error, allowing me to test different ideas,” he says. “It gave me a chance to be scrappy and build a company with very little money, and learn from others about what works and what doesn’t.”

Denk’s experience checks: Mtech enables budding entrepreneurs to “plug and play” its myriad offerings as students want or need, says Green. “We view this as an organic ecosystem and students can sample as they wish,” he says. “Our students have the blessing of options.”

And leave it to Terps to rise and deliver: Successful Mtech student launches have included Squarespace, FiscalNote, and OpenGov. Combined, Hinman CEO companies alone have raised more than $1 billion, with company valuations exceeding $5 billion.

Phil Weilerstein is founder and CEO of VentureWell, an organization that encourages curricular innovation and student venture creation and provides resources for faculty and student entrepreneurs. A longtime partner to UMD, Weilerstein’s stamp can be found on many entrepreneurial initiatives such as the Mtech’s Hinman CEOs Program.

“There’s a pattern here at Maryland of pioneering and substantiating entrepreneurship programs that become national leaders and models,” Weilerstein says. He cites UMD’s culture as a major key to its success as an innovation incubator: “There’s a lot of focus on how to do entrepreneurship in an equitable way. UMD is owning that opportunity, and stepping up to it.”

Positioned for Success

Carole Teolis ’86, M.S. ’89, Ph.D. ’94 is chief technology officer and co-founder of Maryland-based TRX Systems. Developed to safeguard public safety and first responders, TRX delivers precise, infrastructure-free tracking systems for GPS-denied environments. The startup flourished at UMD, nurtured in the Mtech Ventures incubator, supported by five Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) grants, and assisted by the university’s Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, a partnership Teolis called “vital in the development of the TRX system.”

TRX ranks in the 100 top U.S. companies and startups for 2024, according to F6S, a global platform that connects startups with resources to grow.

a headshot of Carole Teolis in a black shirt

Where Good Ideas Take Flight

Aerospace engineering alumnus Camilo Melnyk ’21 entered UMD with an entrepreneurial curiosity, but he didn’t always have a business idea in mind-and didn’t begin building one until his junior year. 

“My first class on entrepreneurship was through the Dingman Center in the business school,” Melnyk explains. “I liked it, so I continued with the Terp Startup Accelerator, got involved in Startup Shell, and eventually entered the pitch competition.”

Melnyk’s business idea—which he co-founded with mechanical engineering student Stacey Yaculak—won the grand prize in the 2021 Pitch Dingman Competition, netting the budding entrepreneurs $30,000 for their new business, Blimp Logistics. Later that year, the pair was named to The Washington Business Journal’s list of “25 Under 25” innovators.

The company hopes to lower the entry barrier for industries who could use drones to improve their missions: “One market we’re interested in is precision agriculture,” says Melnyk. As he envisions it, Blimp Logistics drones would provide farmers a detailed, birds-eye view of their crops by flying camera-equipped drones over fields. They’d be able to check plant health, then feed the results data into irrigation, fertilization, and pesticide systems.

“The barrier to entry with drones is often out of reach to farmers,” explains Melnyk. “It’s not as simple as buying a drone off the shelf and then launching it. We provide the software licenses to process the data, and the FAA licenses to operate.”

a group of students work in the Startup Shell surrounding a tableToday’s Clark School students are hot on the heels of their entrepreneurial predecessors. Senior Ijeoma Asonye (already a published author, her debut novel “The Beautiful Math of Coral” has a five-star rating on Amazon three years after its publication) says that “before I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to invent something. I had no idea how to go about that, however, so I chose mechanical engineering to help me achieve that goal.”

At Maryland, she’s taken part in Mtech programs, Startup Shell, Terp Startup Accelerator, and the QUEST Honors Program for business, engineering, and science majors. Asonye says she’s enjoyed the hands-on learning in program and technology development, how to bring products to market, and how to make ideas digestible and presentable to potential clients. “I didn’t realize I’d have so many entrepreneurship development opportunities,” she says. “My experience has exceeded my expectations, and I’ve met so many great people.”

Veteran entrepreneur Weilerstein has advice for UMD students just starting out: “Persist. You’re in an environment where everything you need is within walking distance. Make use of your resources, keep asking what comes next, and understand how what you’re doing is creating value.”

And for alum entrepreneurs, Weilerstein stresses the importance of participation and giving back. “There is nothing more satisfying to an accomplished entrepreneur,” he says, “than to be able to help another entrepreneur accomplish something great.”