A new business program is recruiting companies poised to grow Maine’s food and beverage industry.

The Cultivator program from the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs aims to help food and beverage startups overcome the challenges of scaling into bigger businesses and helping Maine companies tap into growing demand for authentic and sustainably sourced products.

“The food industry has been at the bedrock of the Maine economy forever,” said Tom Rainey, executive director at the Portland-based entrepreneur center. “We are looking to create a juggernaut to give companies an edge in the global market.”

The center wants 10 companies to participate in the first year of Cultivator. The program, referred to as an accelerator, offers a company an assessment and a specific action plan to move it into its next development phase. Companies also will be connected with specialized experts, a full-time staff member and a network of seasoned business leaders.

There are a number of programs to assist Maine startups, but none focused on helping food and beverage companies scale-up, Rainey said. The program is funded by FocusMaine, and is working with partners like CEI Inc. and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Aside from practical assistance, companies may get greater visibility and introduction to financing opportunities through the program, Rainey said.

Over three years, Cultivator is expected to help 30 companies that will create 90 jobs. Building a community of businesses facing similar challenges that can learn from and assist one another is an intended outcome.

“The expectation is that the first group of companies do take off and they become our next set of mentors,” he said.

Food and beverage industries have been highlighted as a potential growth area for Maine. Roughly 50,000 people are employed in the state’s food industry, and the state has potential to develop food processing, production and sustainable seafood, according to a 2015 Harvard University report.

The Portland area is well-positioned for the food and beverage manufacturing and processing because of low labor costs, according to national site-selection firm Boyd Co. The Portland area is federally designated as a manufacturing community for food processing.

Companies in that sector are exactly what Cultivator wants to help, said program manager Sue Hanson, who has more than 20 years of experience with Portland chicken products manufacturer Barber Foods and its parent companies.

The Center for Entrepreneurs is looking for companies that have a proven business model and annual revenue of at least $500,000. The year-long course costs $2,500.

Hanson would not say what companies have applied to the program so far because a final selection won’t be made until the end of March, but applicants included companies that make desserts, beverages and craft beer.

Maine food producers have an advantage by being associated with the state’s brand of authenticity, something craved by millennial consumers, Hanson said.

“I think there is a perception of purity,” she said.

Peter McGuire can be reached at 791-6325 or at:

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