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Determination, innovation, Yankee grit, connection: Necessities for Maine’s startup ecosystem

Posted June 27, 2014, at 5:57 a.m.

Amid the Maine Startup and Create Week frenzy, an extravaganza held in Portland earlier this month celebrating our brightest and best innovators, two Maine newspapers examined the Massachusetts and Maine entrepreneurial ecosystems and how — or whether — they should be compared.

The Bangor Daily News reported on June 18 that a panel of Boston professionals recommended that Maine not try to replicate the Commonwealth’s success, but it instead focus on the assets that make our startup system buzz. Maine’s entrepreneurs should band together when necessary, the Boston panelists suggested, to build capacity in our business development endeavors.

An earlier Mainebiz article from June 2 examined the challenges Maine faces on its road to an innovation economy by comparing the state’s circumstances to Massachusetts’ achievements.

Maine has a relatively small population of 1.3 million compared to a fairly large geography of 31,000 square miles, a state university system facing significant budget cuts and a last-place ranking on Forbes magazine’s ranking of business-friendly states. In contrast, Mainebiz called Massachusetts “an innovation powerhouse where venture capitalists line up outside renowned universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose 6,900 alumni companies have amassed $164 billion in global sales and alone account for 26 percent of the sales of all Massachusetts companies.”

The takeaway from these articles is that, despite long odds and its small size, Maine is really making incremental progress with true Yankee grit, determination and, yes, innovation.

This is particularly apparent in the clean technology sector, which grew jobs by 31 percent from 2003 to 2010, while overall employment in Maine grew by less than 1 percent. Firms in Maine’s cleantech sector are relatively young and predominantly employ five or fewer full-time employees.

According to a 2013 survey of Maine’s cleantech sector, almost half of firms indicated they had experienced an increase in revenue of more than 10 percent in the last year, and many expanded facilities. Firms also anticipate further growth of their services, products, and research and development activities.

Maine has a robust policy climate with regard to environmental and energy issues, strong backing for R&D in new technologies, and an enabling professional support services and nonprofit community. Maine’s quality of life is very positive for businesses, natural resources in Maine are an asset, and there is strong support from the Maine Technology Institute, Maine International Trade Center, University of Maine and others.

However, access to capital can be problematic, and geographic distances and access to out-of-state resources are a challenge. Maine cleantech companies say they could benefit from a production, manufacturing and service sector made more vibrant through public-private partnerships with other New England states. Another necessity is access to financial, intellectual and technical support and investment.

Companies are often not aware of all of the resources available to them and individually lack ability to scale up to meet market needs. Strong connections can, effectively, spread the word about those available resources.

While the Portland region is not Boston or any other large metropolitan area with a high concentration of technology companies, it is part of a rich regional ecosystem of research, innovation and commercialization activity in the clean technology sector.

Instead of comparing ourselves with Massachusetts and MIT, Maine can learn from and connect with those resources to its south, as well as identify and access business and economic development opportunities through them. Collaboration with regional partners can help Maine technology entrepreneurs attract visibility, investment and demand for their technologies and services.

The Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech) is establishing these connections to support, coordinate and assist entrepreneurs as they seek resources that may not exist in Maine, or that may be unique to an area outside the state’s borders.

During Startup and Create Week, E2Tech hosted a forum to introduce one such “one-stop-shop” regional program — Cleantech Navigate Northeast — a uniquely supportive environment for cleantech entrepreneurship with the goal of making the region the best and easiest place to start and grow a cleantech business. The program will increase the strength of the network and allow Maine companies to increase their connections with New England and New York businesses; R&D; and educational, marketing, training, workforce, manufacturing, incubator and investor entities necessary for them to succeed.

Jeff Marks is executive director of the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine.

 

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