October 7, 2011

Making Maine a hub for innovation

A New York-based charitable foundation is launching an initiative that it says could create 10,000 jobs.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Leaders of economic development and entrepreneurial organizations say a new partnership with a New York-based corporate foundation could create thousands of jobs and transform Maine into a business innovation hub.

At an event today at Brunswick Landing, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation is expected to announce the launch of Blackstone Accelerates Growth, a three-year initiative that will distribute $3 million in grants and coordinate the efforts of Maine's entrepreneurial support programs.

"This will integrate innovation and entrepreneurship in a way that hasn't been done anywhere in the country," said Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, one of the program's partners.

The Blackstone foundation anticipates that Blackstone Accelerates Growth will help companies expand and could create as many as 10,000 jobs and $664 million in new revenue during the next 10 years.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are expected to attend today's event, as is Karen Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, a private equity and financial services firm.

The Blackstone grants will fund expansion of existing entrepreneurship and small-business programs into five to seven yet-to-be-determined regions of Maine, creating innovation "hubs," said Amy Stursberg, executive director of the foundation.

Among the programs to be expanded are the University of Maine's Innovation Engineering Jump Start and the entrepreneurial development center's five-month Top Gun program.

Jump Start teaches the nuts and bolts of transforming business ideas into marketable products, a process called "innovation engineering," said Renee Kelly, economic development director at the university and co-director of the Foster Center for Student Innovation.

The Top Gun program helps entrepreneurs manage business growth and pairs them with mentors, Gooding said.

"There will be more workshops and training sessions and hands-on work with individuals. We will build a mentor network (that) can connect with companies," Kelly said. "We are bringing these two programs together, helping startup and existing companies grow through innovation."

The grants will also support an internship program at UMaine and help cover education enrollment costs for 250 companies and individuals.

Among the partners is the Maine Technology Institute, which will help manage the project and distribute grant funds.

Institute President Betsy Biemann said the program will help build a "vibrant statewide system of support" for entrepreneurs.

"Over time, what will develop is a network of companies that have high potential for growth (and) a network of entrepreneurs," she said.

Stursberg said Blackstone Accelerates Growth plans to hire an executive director in Maine in the next few months.

She said the program is part of a $50 million effort by the Blackstone foundation to promote entrepreneurship in places with high unemployment. The foundation has already established entrepreneurship programs in North Carolina and Michigan.

Stursberg said her group chose Maine because the state has "sophisticated entrepreneurship programs."

She said that if the program works, it could be a template for programs in other rural states.

Biemann called the partnership "a great recognition of what Maine has accomplished so far, and of the potential we have to go even further."

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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