Organizers active in Portland’s entrepreneurial community are betting that Maine’s startup scene is ready for the national limelight, and they are planning a weeklong event to promote the state as a vibrant place to start a business.
The inaugural event – dubbed Maine Startup and Create Week – will take place in June and consist of panel discussions on building startup communities and encouraging women entrepreneurs, as well as promoting industries in Maine that are already strong, such as biotech, clean energy, specialty foods and payment technologies.
“I think a lot of people visit Maine from time to time, but they don’t know about some of the amazing companies here,” said Jess Knox, lead organizer of Maine Startup and Create Week and statewide innovation hub coordinator for the Blackstone Accelerates Growth program. “They don’t know we have world-class companies here like Kepware or iVantage or Cerahelix. So for me, creating an opportunity to showcase that density we have through this type of event will help put Maine’s startup and innovation community on the map.”
The event also will feature keynote addresses by local and national entrepreneurial celebrities, such as Steven Koltai, an entrepreneur with 30 years’ experience who has a home in Lincolnville and created and ran the U.S. Department of State’s Global Entrepreneurship Program; and Shauna Causey, who is in charge of marketing for the organization, which holds Startup Weekend events around the world.
Other organizations are getting involved and planning their own events for that week, including Portland’s third Startup Weekend, Propel’s Entreverge awards event and a “Think Big” gala.
BURNISHING OUR IMAGE
Knox said the event will provide an opportunity for Maine’s entrepreneurs and startup evangelists to tout their successes in the face of pervasive pessimism about Maine’s business landscape fueled by the state’s perennial last-place finish on Forbes’ list of the best states for business. It also will foster relationships between creative and innovative people in the region. A third goal is to bring Maine’s startup scene some national exposure.
Knox and the other organizers are planning a fly-in program to bring out-of-state entrepreneurs and innovators to the event. Southwest Airlines has donated 10 airline tickets, Knox said.
An event that celebrates Maine’s startup scene is long overdue, according to Kerem Durdag, CEO of a high-tech startup in Boothbay called Biovation, which designs and manufactures products using organic materials.
“I think it’s good to have a leverage point for younger generations to see how cool it is to have your own company or be an entrepreneur. That doesn’t mean it has to be the next Facebook or Twitter. It can be a machine shop,” Durdag said. “I think the days of trying to get a job are equivalent to the ability of us to create our own jobs. … It’s incumbent on us to show people there are possibilities and to empower them to do what they want to do and still earn a good living at it.”
Durdag hopes that exposure to ideas and strategies from outside Maine will help shake things up here.
“We can be part of the national conversation,” Durdag said. “We need to be. I think we tend to be isolated by choice.”
Knox and the other organizers are hoping to capitalize on a surge of interest across the country in fostering startup environments and promoting entrepreneurs. Denver, Seattle, Kansas City, Austin, New Orleans all have startup weeks. It’s a bottoms-up approach to economic development, Knox said.
HELP FROM THE HIGHER-UPS
And leaders are catching on. President Barack Obama hosted two civic “hackathons” last year that welcomed software developers and other innovators into the White House to help improve how it responds to constituents.
In 2012, Congress passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, known as the JOBS Act, which among other things makes it easier for entrepreneurs to raise startup capital.
Maine ranked 17th of the 50 states for entrepreneurial activity in a 2012 report from the Kauffman Foundation, which tracks new business starts.
Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations supporting the Maine startup event, said it is an opportunity for the region and state to leverage the energy that’s been building around entrepreneurship.
“Portland is having a very entrepreneurial season now and I think it’s the obligation of the chamber to help it grow however we can,” Hall said.
The event is not designed just for entrepreneurs and software developers.
“It’s a big mash-up of creative people and innovators,” Knox said, which includes new companies as well as old ones adopting new approaches to traditional business models. “The focus is on the folks who build those companies and the folks who work in those companies and the folks who support that approach.”
Hall sees the chamber’s role as bringing the established business community to the table.
“The unique thing we can bring is to create the space for creative collision,” he said. “When you can bring startups together with existing businesses all sorts of exciting things happen. Creative synergies just jump out. … It’s not the type of thing where you know what’s going to happen.”
Besides the chamber, other local organizations joining the effort include the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, Creative Portland, Peloton Labs and SCORE. MaineToday Media, the owner of the Portland Press Herald, is a media sponsor.
TIPS FROM BOULDER
Entrepreneurial organizers around the country are offering advice and sharing tips for creating a successful Startup Week, Knox said.
Last November, Knox attended the Startup Phenomenon conference in Boulder, Colo. There he met Tim O’Shea, one of the organizers of Boulder Startup Week, which at five years old is the country’s longest-running Startup Week. O’Shea is also a former Maine resident. As a child, O’Shea used to summer with his family in the Blue Hill area and later worked in Maine’s midcoast.
O’Shea has been connecting Knox with national speakers and national sponsors. He said it’s also an opportunity to exchange ideas between the two cities.
“It’s not about building the Boulder model in Portland,” he said. “It’s about sharing positive things that are taking place in both communities and recognizing the responsibility we have to foster that growth and development that is inclusive and supportive, so that a foundation is built from within and the benefit shared broadly. The dialogue is certainly two-way and I think we learn as we teach.”
MassChallenge, a highly popular business accelerator program in Boston, has also joined the effort to promote Maine Startup and Create Week. John Harthorne, MassChallenge’s founder and CEO, as well as a Bowdoin graduate, will speak at the event, according to Knox.
Having groups like MassChallenge attend validates the Maine event, Knox said.
“If one of the best accelerator programs in the country didn’t think (Maine Startup and Create Week) was a way to grow their startup community and an opportunity for their brand, they wouldn’t be doing it,” Knox said.
Maine Startup and Create Week will run from June 12 to June 20. The website went live last week and is currently accepting registrations.
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or: