Blackstone entrepreneurial program expands reach with new hires, more ‘innovation hubs’

Posted Jan. 27, 2014, at 4:53 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Blackstone Accelerates Growth, the three-year-old effort to help spur development of Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, is growing with the addition of two hires and increased involvement throughout the state.

The Maine Technology Institute, which administers the initiative, has hired Jess Knox to be statewide director for the initiative and Liz Trice to be the Portland innovation hub coordinator.

Knox is a former senior official with the U.S. Small Business Administration and business consultant who owns Olympico Strategies. He also writes a blog for the Bangor Daily News called “Disruptive Growth.”

Trice is the owner and operator of Peloton Labs, a co-working space in Portland.

Both are founders of the annual Startup Weekend event in Portland.

“Jess and Liz are critical to the Blackstone initiative’s innovation hub concept,” Bob Martin, MTI’s president, said in a statement. “It is not enough to have an organization and a program on paper. Jess and Liz will be on Main Street advocating for and supporting entrepreneurs where they live and work.”

The Blackstone Accelerates Growth initiative was launched in 2011 with $3 million from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, the philanthropic arm of The Blackstone Group, an investment firm that manages $248 billion in assets. Its goal is to serve as a catalyst for entrepreneurial activity in Maine. In October 2012, Blackstone announced the creation of “innovation hubs” in Portland and Bangor to further its goal.

Besides MTI, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and the Foster Center for Student Innovation at the University of Maine are also partners in Blackstone Accelerates Growth, commonly referred to as BxG.

“I see [BxG] really as having two broad goals,” Martha Bentley, MTI’s operations manager for BxG, told the BDN on Monday. “One is giving Maine entrepreneurs and startups the resources they need. … The other broader goal is to help build a intentional community and culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the state.”

No one has been hired to specifically serve as the coordinator of the Bangor hub because it’s being represented on the ground by Renee Kelly and Jesse Moriarty at the Foster Center, and Jennifer Hooper, Bentley said.

BxG also plans to create “innovation hubs” in the midcoast region, Lewiston-Auburn and in central Maine, Bentley said.

The midcoast hub is already in place, though there hasn’t been any big kick-off announcement yet, Bentley said. BxG is partnering with Midcoast Magnet on the effort.

BxG also expects to have innovation hubs in the Lewiston-Auburn area and another in central Maine by the end of this year.

Partnering with existing organizations already working on building entrepreneurial communities is key to BxG’s growing involvement throughout the state.

“We really want this to be an inclusive thing,” Bentley said. “We don’t want hubs to be duplicative. It’s like looking at hubs as routers. Anyone can plug in and get connected to a whole variety of things out there. It’s the resources we’re offering, but it’s also helping people connect with other resources that might not be funded by Blackstone Accelerates Growth.”

Though the initial $3 million investment from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation was to fund a three-year initiative, MTI has spread it out and expanded the program for a year. The $3 million investment has not been completely depleted and is what’s being used to hire Knox and Trice.

Bentley said efforts are in progress to ensure the initiative will be sustainable after this year.

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