Cluster Payment low

Portland’s payment cluster includes nearly a dozen companies that employ 1,100 people

During the Maine Startup and Create Week panel on Portland’s payment innovation cluster, Nicola Morris, WEX’s senior vice president for corporate development, mentioned that WEX was contemplating the creation of a business accelerator program for startups working in the payment technology, or fintech, space. That piqued the interest of the crowd … until Morris said the company was looking to do so in London.

The admission likely disappointed many in the room who’d expect South Portland-based WEX to support such an effort in its own backyard, not on another continent. But pursuing such a program in London isn’t such a far-fetched idea for WEX, which is a global company that has its European headquarters in London.

WEX got its start in the 1980s providing payment services and fuel cards to businesses with vehicle fleets. It has since applied its payment technology to the health care and travel industries. It employs 1,200 globally, including 600 at its headquarters in South Portland. It posted $717.5 million in revenue in 2013.

A few weeks after Morris’ comments, I interviewed Stephen Crowley, WEX’s chief information officer, for an article I wrote about Portland’s growing cluster of payment technology companies (such as WEX, CashStar, BlueTarp Financial, PowerPay, Paymode-X, etc.). I asked him about the accelerator idea.

Crowley confirmed that WEX is talking about creating or supporting an accelerator that would attract and support fintech startups. He said the idea aligns with WEX’s commitment to focus on innovation. However, he also said the company hasn’t decided where such an accelerator would be located.

“Whether in Portland, Maine, or the U.K., we’re looking at hubs for innovation,” he said. “The innovation of the payment space is our lifeblood and the company clearly recognizes a need and will continue to drive innovation, both internally and externally in the community.”

The idea of a business accelerator is to bring together like-minded entrepreneurs who receive resources and support while they focus on building their businesses and technologies. The benefit for a company like WEX is it would have first shot at acquiring disruptive technologies, promising startups or stellar talent in the fintech space.

Besides giving WEX access to innovative ideas and people, such an accelerator would benefit the community it’s located in by virtue of the entrepreneurs and fintech startups it would attract. So economic development folks in the Portland area have a vested interest in advocating for WEX to locate it here.

Jess Knox, lead organizer of Maine Startup and Create Week and statewide hub coordinator for Blackstone Accelerates Growth, believes WEX would be smart to pursue such an accelerator program, no matter where it’s located.

However, given that his job is to build communities around entrepreneurs and innovators, he’d be remiss if he didn’t advocate for WEX to fund such an accelerator in the Portland region.

“WEX is an incredibly innovative company headquartered in Maine, so wherever they invest and are part of innovation ecosystems, that is a benefit to Maine and Portland because they’re from here,” Knox said. “I want them to make the best decision for them so they’re successful, but I have to add my advocacy for the area.”

He said, though, that presenting WEX’s decision as being between Portland and London is a “false choice.” Instead, a more realistic and accurate way to think about and market Portland’s payment cluster is as a Portland-Boston corridor. Boston has its own robust fintech cluster just a short two hours away. Such a corridor is not just a fancy idea; it plays out in real life. Ben Kaplan, CEO of Portland-based CashStar, commutes from the Boston area, as down Scott Simpson, CEO of Portland-based BlueTarp Financial.

“It’s really the Boston-Portland ecosystem versus the London ecosystem,” Knox said.

Gone are the days where Silicon Valley is the only place where innovation can happen, Crowley said. Technology has changed the business landscape to such a degree that businesses can operate from pretty much anywhere. This shift has benefited Maine, which provides a better quality of life than many areas, he said.

“I see Portland as an area where innovation is growing. We want to help that continue as time moves on,” Crowley said. “You don’t need to be in Silicon Valley to innovate. You can be in Portland, Maine, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected.”

A few weeks after my talk with Crowley, I reached out to WEX for additional comment on the accelerator idea and to ask about a timeline for the company’s decision on the initiative. WEX’s spokeswoman Patricia O’Donnell said the company didn’t have further details to share at this point.

“WEX recognizes the growing importance of and the interest in a FinTech Payments Accelerator in Portland and is working to assess the opportunity and define our path on the subject,” she wrote in an email.

I’ll make sure to update you when I know more.