CAMDEN — For three days last week, Camden became a hive of activity as more than 600 entrepreneurs, designers and technology innovators descended on the midcoast town for an annual conference at which discussions revolve around technology and how it can be leveraged to change the world.
PopTech, as it’s called, has been held annually at the Camden Opera House for the past 18 years. It began last Thursday and wrapped up on Saturday.
PopTech has generally catered to an audience from outside the state and from organizations like Google, Facebook, the World Bank, Toyota, Nike and other Fortune 500 companies.
This year, however, the conference for the first time worked to turn some of its attention toward Maine. Among the attendees were 12 Maine entrepreneurs and community organizers who had been invited to attend in an effort to incorporate Maine and its innovation community into the larger PopTech family. The idea is that the conversations and connections made at the conference will help the Mainers as they set out to tackle some of the state’s most pressing social and economic challenges, such as expanding rural broadband access, strengthening STEM education, and improving Maine’s innovation and entrepreneurship community.
Rebellion was the theme for this year’s PopTech. While the Maine members may not have hatched a revolution quite yet, they report leaving inspired by conversations that touched on topics as diverse as sex, meditation, social media, industrial design, the soul and, of course, technology. Members of the Maine contingent said the conference also gave them a sense of validation.
“There’s a lot of innovation going on in Maine and PopTech validated all that we’re doing in Maine and shows that we’re on the right path,” said Harold Clossey, CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, who attended PopTech for the first time as part of the Maine working group.
For Tammy Ackerman, executive director of Engine, an arts-driven nonprofit in Bidde- ford, the conference confirmed her belief that the support of local universities is essential to fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
INGREDIENTS FOR INNOVATION
Ackerman is currently in talks with the University of New England about setting up a university-led incubator at Engine’s space in downtown Biddeford. While she knows it’s a viable plan and it’s been successful elsewhere, the ability to attend PopTech and be surrounded by attendees from university-led incubators like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and the Harvard Innovation Lab, was an important reminder of the impact she could have if she succeeds in Biddeford.
The other big validation for Ackerman came from PopTech’s heavy focus on creativity and design as essential ingredients for innovation. John Maeda, the conference’s emcee, was until last year the president of the Rhode Island School of Design and is known for his advocacy of arts education. While there exists an intense buzz around STEM education – that’s science, technology, engineering and math education – Maeda has coined the term “STEAM” to re-introduce art into the picture, and acronym.
“Innovation is born when art meets science,” Maeda has said.
Ackerman couldn’t agree more, and has been working to introduce arts education, and a focus on STEAM, into Biddeford.
“There’s a lot of focus on STEM,” Ackerman said, “but without the ‘A’ the process is incomplete. You need the creative people in the process if innovation is really going to happen.”
Besides Clossey and Ackerman, the Maine working group includes Jess Knox, statewide innovation hub coordinator for Blackstone Accelerates Growth; Adam Burk, CEO of the Treehouse Institute and director of TEDxDirigo; Rita Heimes, counsel at Verrill Dana and former director of the Maine Patent Program; Sarah Hines, co-founder of Shines & Jecker Labs and one of the main organizers behind Maine Startup & Create Week; Heather Deese, vice president of strategic development at the Island Institute; Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development; and Kerem Durdag, CEO of Biovation.
The group was selected by Blackstone Accelerates Growth and its partners, MTI, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and the University of Maine.
Steven Koltai, a part-time Maine resident who developed the Global Entrepreneurship Program for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and currently leads a consultancy that helps develop entrepreneurship ecosystems in countries around the world, was pleased to see the conference turn some of its attention to Maine.
RECONNECTING WITH HOME STATE
Koltai, who’s also currently a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., until recently sat on PopTech’s board. He felt the organization had over the years lost its connection to its home state, which was worrisome because it was the midcoast area’s sense of place that first attracted the conference to Camden.
“As I got more involved I found myself as the only person in Maine on the board and realized that something had been lost as it got more and more divorced from Maine,” Koltai said Saturday. “I wanted to recenter and go back to our roots.”
While this is just the beginning, Koltai said that folding more Maine folks into PopTech could have a big impact on the state’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“I’m a big believer in critical mass,” he said. “I think this will be a shot of adrenaline (for the state).”
The other big advantage to attending the three-day conference is the bonds it created among the Maine members, according to Hines. The members of the working group plan to meet four times over the course of the next year to maintain the momentum from the conference.