“Focus on research. Encourage risk taking. Embrace failure. Reward collaboration. Attract immigrants and venture capitalists. Build networks of experienced workers. Take advantage of nearby universities. Get professors to train the next generation of students and to work with local business leaders to spin out important technologies. The status quo only brings woes.”

The economic development marching orders noted above sound tailor made for Maine. They accept that legacy industries that have served as the basis for economic prosperity in the past have been disrupted by worldwide social and technological change, and that no policy seeking their return can be successful.

At the same time, they embrace the reality that progress toward any future prosperity will be messy and confusing, often involving missteps and failures and requiring fundamental transformations in all of our attitudes about economic development.

Interestingly, these marching orders are not taken from some new economic development plan for a rural state like Maine, seeking to join the economic growth ever more concentrated in the world’s major metropolitan areas. They come from an application submitted by the city of New York to the Bloomberg Foundation to finance a 2-million-square-foot Cornell Tech in Brooklyn, whose purpose will be “to stir up the melting pot and see what emerges from the primordial ooze of professors, entrepreneurs, students, venture capitalists and business leaders.” This messy vision, the application concludes, “is the recipe for transformation.”

To me, these words and their geographic origin underline two points. The first is that the need for transformative economic development is universal. It applies to all areas.

The second is that Maine’s most striking example of the messy “primordial ooze” required by “the recipe for transformation” was on display just over a week ago at the University of Southern Maine during Venture Hall’s Demo Day.

Venture Hall (on whose board I serve as a volunteer) is a nonprofit dedicated to stirring up the “primordial ooze” of Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. With major support from MaineHealth and Unum, it designed an accelerator program to help young startups improve their odds of success and accelerate their growth paths. It received applications from over 60 companies from around the world and selected six (two from Maine and one each from Colorado, California, Missouri and New Jersey) to participate in a 13-week program ending on Demo Day.

Company teams came to Portland for the summer and spent hours and hours with a wide range of mentors, business and subject matter experts and, most importantly, employees from MaineHealth and Unum whose jobs involved working on the problems that each member team’s products or services were designed to address. From more accurate delivery of anesthesia to improved employee participation in wellness programs, each participant team received enthusiastic and helpful responses to their product or service ideas.

Startup team members got immediate feedback, and sponsor participants were exposed to ideas that could help them improve their productivity and ease their own job challenges. The enthusiasm of both the participants and the sponsors throughout Demo Day was evidence of the program’s success at “accelerating” not just company growth but also the transformation of Maine as a participant in the entrepreneurial economy of the 21st century.

OK, so what? Will Demo Day simply be like Labor Day – an exciting end to the seasonal peak of Maine’s tourist year – for a new category of visitor? Or, particularly without a Bloomberg Foundation seeking to fund its future success, will it be simply a heady summer experience to be recalled fondly?

Two facts give me reason for optimism that Venture Hall’s accelerator program will continue and grow and thus become more significant in Maine’s necessary process of socioeconomic transformation.

First, two of the out-of-state startups in the 2017 summer program were so taken with Maine – both as a place to live and a place to do business – that they opened offices here. Without abandoning the states where they started, they’ve decided that growing in Maine will help accelerate their overall growth.

The second reason for optimism that this accelerator program will become a regular part of Maine’s “primordial ooze” of innovative energy lies with the enthusiasm of the employees of the program’s sponsors. Many spoke of the insights into improving their own job performances that they gained from participating in this program and how eager they are for potential new programs.

In other words, Maine can become a magnet for world-class entrepreneurs, and its existing major companies can accelerate their own innovative transformations by participating.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]