A group of innovation organizations hopes to build on momentum in the state’s burgeoning startup community with an initiative that strengthens partnerships and leverages new sources of money.
The new effort, dubbed Maine Accelerates Growth, is a partnership of existing organizations in the state’s entrepreneurship space, such as the Maine Technology Institute, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and the University of Maine Foster Center for Student Innovation.
MxG, as it’s called, was born from Blackstone Accelerates Growth, a multi-year effort launched in October 2011 with a $3 million grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. Over the past four years that money has been used to grow Maine’s startup community, from expanding the Top Gun entrepreneurship training to helping launch the first Maine Startup and Create Week in 2014. But the money will run out by the end of 2015, prompting stakeholders to come up with a new way to carry on the momentum.
“Maine Accelerates Growth is an innovative, 10-year initiative built on the back of what we learned during the last almost four years of Blackstone Accelerates Growth,” said Jess Knox, statewide coordinator of the new group.
What makes the effort unique is the addition of the Maine Community Foundation to the startup community. The nonprofit based in Ellsworth helps funnel charitable giving to a wide range of areas, administering roughly $420 million in 1,500 funds created by family foundations or high-net-worth individuals as vehicles for their philanthropy.
The community foundation will administer a fund for Maine Accelerates Growth, seeded with a $200,000 donation that will be used to leverage matching funds from donors interested in supporting the state’s innovation community.
“Maine Accelerates Growth is leading the effort to build the fund, but it benefits from our partnership,” said Laura Young, vice president of philanthropy at the community foundation. “We are meeting with donors all over the state and talking about these types of issues anyway, so having this fund at the foundation makes it seamless and easy for us to promote.”
A NEW FUNDRAISING MODEL
Previously, fundraising was an independent effort undertaken by the individual organizations. A nonprofit organization like the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development would approach and raise funds from individual and corporate donors to advance its mission. But under the new model, all MxG partnership organizations will funnel their fundraising through the community foundation, which will trigger matching dollars and grow the MxG fund. So, for instance, if the entrepreneur development center raised $20,000 from a corporate sponsor, it would still receive that amount, but the funds would first be funneled through the foundation to leverage other money and grow the fund to support other efforts.
To begin, the Maine Technology Institute has pledged $200,000 to match dollar-for-dollar the money raised by the partnership organizations. The institute will also house MxG.
“The board felt it was important enough to commit $200,000 in a challenge grant to establish the Maine Accelerates Growth program so as to build on the transformative investment the Blackstone Charitable Foundation made in Maine,” said Brian Whitney, MTI’s president. “We want to continue to keep that momentum going, and that’s why the board stepped up and played such a significant role with this investment.”
Going forward, the community foundation believes it can leverage its existing donor network to find others to provide matching dollars.
The setup benefits everyone, Knox said. The partner organizations can tell potential donors that their contributions are doing double duty by triggering matching funds; donors now have an easy way to support Maine’s startup community; and the overall innovation community will benefit from having a liquid fund to support programs.
The fund will not provide money to startups themselves, but instead to efforts that help build or strengthen Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. For example, projects might include a group in Lewiston-Auburn that wants to hold a Startup Weekend, or launching a Midcoast Magnet networking event for entrepreneurs.
To tap the fund, an organization would have to sign up as a fund partner. That means their future funding efforts also would be funneled through the foundation, triggering more dollars, creating a self-sustaining fund.
“That’s how we drive the give-before-you-get model,” Knox said.
Greenlight Maine, the new, local “Shark Tank”-like show on WCSH-TV that will award $100,000 to a Maine startup, has also signed up as a partner organization and is expected to begin funneling its fundraising through the foundation. Our Katahdin, an effort by a small group of Millinocket-area natives who live out of state but are committed to finding a way to support their hometowns, also has joined.
“MxG allows us to plug into a statewide network of doers and programs, as well as the networks of resources across Maine and the nation, that can help us achieve the goals of our region,” said Sean DeWitt, one of Our Katahdin’s founders. “We also know that innovators from the Katahdin region are well-positioned to contribute their ideas and hard work to help build the capacity of this statewide effort.”
KEY GOAL: fostering ‘coopetition’
The most important part of the new MxG model is not the money, though, Knox said. It’s the “coopetition” among the various organizations working within Maine’s entrepreneurship community that began with the Blackstone initiative, he said, referencing a word that blends “cooperation” and “competition.”
Over the past four years, MTI, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, Maine Startup and Create Week, and the University of Maine Foster Center for Student Innovation have worked together more closely than ever before, Knox said.
“Strengthening the ecosystem is not just about more money, it’s about facilitating and driving ‘coopetition’ among projects, events and other stakeholders in the ecosystem,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Angus King praised the new MxG effort.
“For our economy to prosper, we need to foster an environment where people have the opportunity to turn their ideas into realities and where businesses are encouraged to try new things. That’s why public-private partnerships like this one are so important,” King said.
Gooding agreed, adding that the new effort strikes the correct balance between fostering collaboration and idea-sharing while also being nimble.
“I’m excited we’ve come up with something that has both the benefits of having a structure, but also the flexibility you need inherently in doing something entrepreneurial,” Gooding said. “As new people come to the table with new ideas, there is a structure to welcome them, give them feedback, surround them with resources, but also provide accountability.”
Knox echoes Gooding’s suggestion that MxG, despite being a collaboration among nonprofits, is pursing its mission with an entrepreneurial mindset. Knox said one of MxG’s guiding principles is “fail fast, fail cheap.”
“MxG is a learning collaborative that believes in iterative innovation,” Knox writes in MxG’s launch presentation. “When you don’t know what you don’t know, success is often the result of quickly learning from lots of failures. This process is marked, not by perfection, but by continuous improvement where entrepreneurs create, implement, fail, iterate and improve. By remaining nimble, MxG is able to respond to emerging trends and best practices with minimal investment.”
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at: