SCARBOROUGH – Abigail Carroll often jokes that she entered Maine’s aquiculture industry “by accident,” but her company, Nonesuch Oysters, has proven successful enough in three short years she has become a fixture of the Scarborough fishing scene, known among lobstermen and tourists alike as “the oyster lady.”

Now, Carroll is poised to take the next step, thanks to an invitation from the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development. Beginning in January, she will study alongside 19 other small business owners across the state in MCED’s Top Gun program for “entrepreneurial acceleration.”

“It will be interesting to do something on purpose,” joked Carroll, last week. “I think this is going to help me determine the best way to grow.”

Founded in 1997 as a traditional incubator that offered entrepreneurs office space, first at Southern Maine Community College, then at the University of Southern Maine, MCED created its Top Gun program in 2009 in conjunction with the university system’s Target Technology Center. The five-month course is designed to speed business growth though a combination of class training, mentoring from established businesses and workshops on how best to cultivate the community connections vital to a start-up’s long-term success.

According to MCED Program Manager Susan Ruhlin, recruitment for Top Gun focuses on new and recent start-ups that “aspire to be in the top 5 percent of all companies in their sector, regardless of their Maine location.”

Top Gun costs MCED $5,000 for each participant, but 90 percent of that is covered by Blackstone Accelerates Growth, a Maine-based kickstarter of new companies that is part of the $50 million Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

For Carroll, the remaining $500 of her tuition is being covered by a grant from the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, an Orono-based independent nonprofit created by the state legislature in 1988.

Even before the Top Gun invitation, 2013 was a heady year for Carroll. In February, her nascent aquaculture business got a major boost when the Scarborough Town Council approved a contract for her to set up shop on the town’s newly renovated municipal pier at Pine Point.

The deal let Nonesuch Oysters attach an 8-by-20-foot float at the end of the pier to serve as an incubator for “spat,” or baby oysters. From this nursery, juvenile oysters are transported for final growth to a 4.5-acre sea farm Carroll leases further up the Scarborough River.

By summer Carroll had 1 million oysters in production and by September her three-year-old company finally achieved positive cash flow. That’s not too bad, says Carroll, for a self-described “urban rat” with no previous experience on the working waterfront.

Before her venture into Oyster farming, Carroll parlayed a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University into a career launching various startups in France. Based on that experience, she was asked shortly after returning to her native state to draft a business plan for someone else who dreamed of breaking into Maine’s $1.75 million oyster industry. But Carroll quickly went from planner to principal financier to sole proprietor.

“My money came in first and then I realized the other money wasn’t coming at all,” she explained in an interview with Maine Women magazine, a Current publication, last spring. “The other person was never officially a part of the company. It’s always been me, which is funny because the one rule I had going in was I would not be the one going out on the water.”

Instead, it’s been dirty, demanding work for Carroll, learning on the job how to raise American Virginica and European Flat Belon oysters, cultivated in three-year cycles from barely sized spat to 3-inch cocktail shells, then sold to a local wholesaler.

“There’s a very romantic notion people have of oyster farming until they actually do it. It’s hard, physical, dirty work,” said Carroll. “You’ve got to really nurture these little guys, you’ve got to tend to them every day.”

Still, Carroll says, credit is due as much to the local fishing community as to her own hard work. From Harbormaster Dave Corbeau to sternmen on local boats, seemingly all of Pine Point has pitched in when needed, whether it’s been helping to troubleshoot a broken boat motor, or unloading product onto the pier.

“We’re just very grateful that Scarborough has been so very inviting,” said Carroll.

Participating companies in this year’s Top Gun class include what MCED calls “an impressive group of specialized food product entrepreneurs,” like Carroll. Others have developed and are nurturing new technologies that range from beehive monitoring and medical software development to efficient cellular genotyping and construction of an “unsinkable” boat.

Abigail Carroll, owner of Nonesuch Oysters, works a leased flat on the Scarborough River this past summer.

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