Blackstone selects 5 Maine companies to pioneer innovation hubs

Ben Polito, co-founder and CEO of Pika Energy in Gorham, moved back to Maine to start his wind energy company, and says the state's &quotentrepreneurial ecosystem" has already helped him in that endeavor.
Ben Polito, co-founder and CEO of Pika Energy in Gorham, moved back to Maine to start his wind energy company, and says the state's "entrepreneurial ecosystem" has already helped him in that endeavor. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 02, 2012, at 7:12 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 03, 2012, at 9:39 a.m.
John Voltz, executive director of Blackstone Accelerates Growth, says he wants the &quotinnovation hubs" in Portland and Bangor to be a catalyst for entrepreneurial activity in Maine.
John Voltz, executive director of Blackstone Accelerates Growth, says he wants the "innovation hubs" in Portland and Bangor to be a catalyst for entrepreneurial activity in Maine. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — Five promising Maine companies have been selected by Blackstone Accelerates Growth to receive specialized business mentoring services, and to serve as the core of two new regional “innovation hubs” in Portland and Bangor.

The innovation hubs will act as “catalysts” for entrepreneurial activity in Portland and Bangor by offering and supporting a focused set of services and networking activities, said John Voltz, executive director of Blackstone Accelerates Growth, Tuesday morning at a press conference in Portland.

Blackstone Accelerates Growth is the $3 million, three-year initiative launched last year by the New York-based Blackstone Charitable Foundation to support entrepreneurship in Maine.

The five companies were selected because of their high-growth potential and progress, as well as their embodiment of four key values, Voltz said.

“We want those companies to innovate, to aim high, to attract resources and to add value today,” Voltz said.

Blackstone has selected the following five companies to receive customized business consulting services:

• Pika Energy in Gorham, which is developing small-scale wind turbines for residential use.

• Newfield Design in West Newfield, which is developing the next generation of land mobile radio systems.

• Fluid Imaging Inc. in Yarmouth, which is developing technology to improve the ability to assess particles in fluid.

• Cerahelix in Orono, which is developing ceramic filtration membranes for several applications.

• RH Foster in Hampden, which is reinventing a traditional regional oil and energy services company.

The first three companies — Pika Energy, Newfield Design and Fluid Imaging — will serve as the nucleus of Portland’s innovation hub, while Cerahelix and RH Foster will serve as the inaugural core of Bangor’s innovation hub. Blackstone has scheduled a press conference on Wednesday at Eastern Maine Development Corp. in Bangor.

Blackstone is not offering financial support to these companies. It is offering customized business consulting services and, via its innovation hubs, a “systematic and organized way to accelerate connections,” Voltz said.

“The challenge [for any entrepreneur] is you [have] got to meet people to grow your business,” he said. “Connections are the fastest way to get to talent, capital, resources and customers, and here we try to make it a regular process focused on entrepreneurship and growth.”

As an entrepreneur, Ben Polito, CEO of Pika Energy, knows the value in having connections. Polito grew up in Maine, studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for startups in Boston before moving back to Maine to start his own business in 2010 with two colleagues. He was enticed back to the state by the existence of MTI, which in turn connected him to the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and its Top Gun program.

“We’re a proud graduate of the 2012 Top Gun program,” Polito said, “[which] was a huge part of how we got in a position to raise private funding and really accelerate what we’re doing.”

It was through MTI, MCED and the Top Gun program that Pika Energy was connected with Voltz and Blackstone Accelerates Growth.

“We were connected through connections, which is the way this stuff works,” he said. “The more connections, the more great stuff will happen.”

Polito said Pika has secured some private financing, including from MTI and Maine Angels, and is about to launch a pilot program in western Maine. To realize its potential, the company’s goals are to reduce the cost of the technology and improve its performance, which doesn’t leave much time for the other myriad tasks entrepreneurs have on their to-do lists.

“When you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before … you have to do a lot of things at once and you have to do it with limited resources and that’s a challenge any entrepreneur faces,” he said. “And you just can’t do it alone, so we’re already benefiting from the great entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Maine.”

Polito and Pika Energy are the “living, breathing embodiment of what Blackstone Accelerates Growth is all about,” Voltz said.

Susan MacKay, CEO of Cerahelix in Orono, said she was excited to be a member of Blackstone’s inaugural group of businesses. The next few years will be critical for the company — she expects the company will commercialize its nanotechnology-based ceramic filtration devices in 12 to 18 months — and the support, expertise and connections Voltz can provide will be invaluable.

“From my initial experience, there’s a lot of value for Cerahelix from the relationship,” MacKay said.

MacKay worked with Voltz before his role at Blackstone, and so she is confident Voltz can bring value to Maine’s entrepreneurial landscape. Voltz helped MacKay navigate the process of attracting investors and seed capital last year.

“He had direct experience of working with a Maine company with the sort of things Blackstone wants to do,” she said.

Cerahelix and its technology are an example of the amazing entrepreneurial activity going on in Maine that most people don’t know about, according to Jeff Spaulding, a corporate attorney at Eaton Peabody in Bangor, as well as a board member of Mobilize Maine.

Partly that’s a result of Maine’s geographic dispersion, he said, which means entrepreneurs often are separated by distance, they’re not talking to each other and they’re not benefiting from chance meetings at entrepreneur-focused networking events. Another factor is the “Yankee independence” many Mainers exhibit, which leads to entrepreneurs being “less focused on seeking help,” while “service providers and others are less focused on offering help,” he said.

The innovation hubs Blackstone wants to foster could change all of that, Spaulding said.

“We have these pockets in Maine where we’re doing crazy stuff,” he said. “The research isn’t inferior to what’s going on in those bigger markets, it’s just a matter of accelerating it.”

The Blackstone Charitable Foundation last year provided the $3 million to create Blackstone Accelerates Growth. It’s part of the foundation’s larger $50 million, 10-year effort to grow entrepreneurship nationwide.

Blackstone has made similar investments in Michigan, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.

Voltz said the goal of Blackstone Accelerates Growth is not to reinvent the wheel. Instead it is to work with, support and enhance the assets and programs already in place, including MTI, MCED, the Top Gun program and networking groups such as Casco Bay Technology’s Pub Hub.

“We try to imagine it bigger and fill in the gaps,” he said.

An early example is that Blackstone served as a “catalyzing factor” in the expansion of the MCED’s Top Gun program in Bangor, and now statewide through an online version that currently has 50 participants, Voltz said. The expansion of the Top Gun program was a “first stab at doing some of the initial legwork to get the foundation for this hub in place,” Spaulding said.

Blackstone also launched a student scholarship program that supports students to participate in the University of Maine’s Innovation Engineering program, as well an internship program.

Through all its partnerships and networking events, Voltz estimates at least 250 Maine companies will receive some sort of attention from Blackstone Accelerates Growth. When it comes to companies such as Pika Energy and Cerahelix, which will receive more intense and targeted assistance, Voltz estimates Blackstone will work with at least five such companies a year, for a total of 15 over the course of the three-year Blackstone Charitable Foundation investment. Though there could be more depending on how the process goes and the availability of resources.

Long term, Blackstone set a goal of generating 10,000 skilled jobs and $664 million in revenues to the Maine economy over the next 10 years. As part of that goal, Voltz spoke of a desire to change the culture of entrepreneurship in Maine, and making the state a destination for talent and capital.

That’s a goal close to Polito’s heart.

“I always wanted to come back here, so this is something that matters to me personally, the ability for people to build exciting companies and do innovation in Maine,” Polito said. “What the Blackstone program is doing with its partners is really fantastic.”

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