An initiative that brought $3 million to support entrepreneurship in Maine is nearing its end, prompting a search to find other ways to continue the momentum.
The future of Blackstone Accelerates Growth, the initiative born in 2011 amid fanfare when the New York City-based Blackstone Charitable Foundation committed $3 million to help grow the entrepreneurial community in the state, is uncertain.
The money that flowed into the state was used to expand the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s Top Gun program, which trains entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into business opportunities; develop the Accelerated Ventures program, which has helped connect innovative Maine companies with resources and expertise to help them grow; create the Innovate for Maine Fellows program, which has paired college students with internships at companies around the state; and to establish Maine Startup and Create Week, which consisted of 44 events spread over eight days last June that attracted more than 3,000 people.
Beyond 2015, Maine’s relationship with the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, the philanthropic arm of New York-based global investment firm Blackstone, is unknown.
“We’re still in conversation with Blackstone about what the relationship will look like going forward,” said Martha Bentley, operations manager for the program.
Blackstone Accelerates Growth, which is commonly referred to as BxG, was originally launched as a three-year effort, though the money will last nearly four years before it’s exhausted this year. For its first year, it operated as an independent organization, but in 2013 was brought under the Maine Technology Institute umbrella.
At the October 2011 announcement in a hangar at Brunswick Landing, Stephen Schwarzmann, founder of Blackstone investment firm, said he hoped the investment would – over the course of 10 years – create 10,000 jobs and spur $664 million in new revenue into Maine’s economy. The event was attended by all of Maine’s congressional delegates and Karen Mills, the former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and hundreds of business people and educators.
While the loss of BxG funding would be significant, members of Maine’s entrepreneurial community aren’t looking around for a white knight. But they are exploring other funding sources to build upon the foundation BxG created.
“I’m not quite ready to announce what that looks like yet, but we have seen the value of collaboration and the value of sharing resources and everyone who has been involved sees what that has meant for the state and will continue to collaborate together,” Bentley said.
Among those working to carry the ball forward is Jess Knox, who was named BxG’s statewide hub coordinator in late 2013.
“People believe in what we’re doing and are supportive of what we’re doing,” Knox said. “What we continue to look for and explore is a model for sustainability going forward, a model that brings in all stakeholders in the future. That’s what we’re looking to build.”
Knox wouldn’t offer specifics on what such a model might look like, but said the conversations so far have been productive. He expects there will be something to announce in a few weeks.
“We’ve had a great partnership with Blackstone and we will continue to have conversations with them about being a part of whatever the next step is,” Knox said.
Among the crop of programs created with the support of BxG is the Innovate for Maine Fellows program. Since it was founded in 2012, it has placed roughly 100 college students – both Maine residents who attend college out of state and any student attending a Maine college or university – at innovative Maine companies. The goal is to introduce students to companies and potential employment opportunities that exist around the state.
“We saw a real need because we interact with students every day,” said Renee Kelly, director of economic development initiatives at the University of Maine. “They feel like they don’t know about opportunities and have to leave the state to find good opportunities, and at the same time we work with companies that are desperate for talent. We felt there must be a better way, and this program is a way to build those connections. And the Blackstone funding was critical to help get that off ground.”
Arguably the organization that has benefited the most from BxG is the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development in Portland. Don Gooding, an entrepreneur, angel investor and director of the center, estimates that BxG provided roughly $450,000 to the organization over the past three years.
That money has helped expand the center’s five-month entrepreneurial training program called Top Gun. Gooding launched Top Gun in 2009, teaching roughly 12 entrepreneurs that first year in Portland.
The BxG money has allowed Gooding to expand the program to the Bangor and midcoast regions.
The most current Top Gun class began in January and includes 35 entrepreneurs, spanning the manufacturing, aquaculture, food production and IT industries. It’s the largest class to date, Gooding said. Those entrepreneurs will pitch their business plans in a final event in May where the winner will walk away with $10,000, courtesy of BxG, to help get their business off the ground.
To date, 115 entrepreneurs have gone through the Top Gun class, plus another 200 who have taken an online version of the class that Gooding created with funding from BxG.
“The impact on the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development has been enormous,” Gooding said. “We’ve dramatically increased our footprint and size of the community that we have helped to bring together.”
Like all nonprofit leaders, Gooding said he feels the pressure of maintaining adequate funding once BxG is no longer in the picture. But he also is confident that stakeholders will come together to build a new initiative that will support entrepreneurial initiatives. He thinks about it in terms familiar to an entrepreneur.
“There’s always the seed funders,” he said, referring to BxG, “and then the next funders come in when it’s time to grow.”
He doesn’t see nurturing that growth as a challenge, he sees it as an opportunity.
“The opportunity is to continue the momentum that’s has been built up over the last three years,” Gooding said.
“I think many people around the state are feeling that momentum, not just in Portland. You look at what they’ve done with the BigGig in Orono and Bangor; the folks in the midcoast are feeling it; John Holden at the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council is feeling entrepreneurship is the way forward. We want to keep the momentum going – that’s the opportunity. And we don’t have to invest in anything new. We’re not waiting for someone else to come save us.”