#StartupsEverywhere: Portland, Maine

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Katie Shorey, President, Startup Maine

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

Driving Startup Innovation Across Maine

The Pine Tree State might be best known for its lobsters and coastal shorelines, but the state’s entrepreneurs and lawmakers are working diligently to also make Maine a haven for startup innovation. One of the groups working to build out these support networks is Startup Maine, an organization which has hosted a yearly conference since 2014 that brings together leaders from across the state. Appropriately, the theme of this year’s upcoming conference — which will be held from June 19th to June 21st in Portland — focuses on building stronger connections between startups, policymakers, and communities.


Tell us a little about Startup Maine. What is the work that you’re doing, and how do you engage both startups and creators?

Startup Maine is an organization formed by a group of doers, founders, and community members who came together to create a startup conference in Portland. We serve as a convener, educator, and accelerator of the Maine startup community.  Attendees of our programs and conference gain expert insight, new skills, and meaningful connections.

Can you tell us more about this year's conference and your theme of startups, innovators, and policymakers? How do you hope to bring all three groups together?

For 2019, we wanted to think broadly about solutions to big problems that affect us at all levels — locally, nationally, and globally. We will continue to offer our core skill-building content to those currently working in startups, and also help entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting a business think bigger and scale smarter.

This month’s conference theme is Startups, Innovators and Policy Makers. We have workshops led by entrepreneurs and business leaders who are focused on the future — what is being done, and what should be done to build companies that will be essential for our society in the coming year, decade, and beyond.

Some of our keynote speakers include Jennifer Pahlka, CEO of Code for America, who will share the stage with Hannah Pingree, who has recently been tapped to run Maine's Office of Innovation and the Future. They will discuss the intersection of innovation, technology, and government. Our goal is to have an audience of business leaders, startups, government employees, and members of entrepreneurial support organizations. By being in the same room, we hope to create intentional collisions.

Can you tell us more about your partnership with the City of Portland?

The City of Portland has always supported our initiatives and is taking active steps to be  part of the broader startup network. They recently hired Lena Geraghty to serve as the first Director of Innovation and Performance Management. She will be responsible for taking the lead on a number of smart and connected city initiatives currently planned and underway. She’ll also work to implement a full innovation, performance management, and process improvement agenda to support Portland’s commitment to improving its citizens’ quality of life, while providing efficient government services.

Lena is moderating a panel at our conference that will feature speakers from three different Maine municipalities. They will discuss how local governments can be active partners in innovation and support thriving businesses in our communities.

What makes Maine's startup ecosystem unique?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is that our size is a competitive advantage — people are well connected and want new entrepreneurs to succeed.

Startups are not a dime a dozen and can get the time, attention, and connections they need. While statistically we may not have a huge number of unicorns or gazelles, our companies last. Maine is the top state for companies surviving their first year, and slightly above average for surviving and growing to 50 employees in their first five years).   We are also connected to other national innovators in this space. There is a group here called Maine Accelerates Growth (MxG), and it’s a network of entrepreneurial support organizations that share ideas, events, goals, and sometimes even resources. MxG’s networked approach to the ecosystem, their partnership with Village Capital, and strong participation in national networks like Startup Champions Network lets us punch above our weight class.

”Technology” in Maine is also really broad. Besides supporting software-focused technologies, we are also leaders in advanced materials and composites, marine technologies, aquaculture, and biotech.

Lastly, we recognize the importance of community and culture. I have found that people genuinely want to help and are curious about what others are working on. It’s a giving/helping mindset, not a transactional one.

Are there any policies at the federal, state, or local level in particular that have helped Maine's startups?

At the state level, we have the Maine Technology Institute, which is a public/private partnership organization that provides grants and assistance to very early-stage ideas and companies. The Maine Seed Capital Tax Credit Program also encourages investment in Maine companies. People have varying opinions on the extent to which the Seed Capital Tax Credit actually benefits Maine startups, but it is certainly accomplishing the objective of spurring early-stage investment in Maine startups. This year, the program was exhausted on the first business day of the year, and within the first quarter of last year.  We also have the support of voters approving R&D bonds.  And there are tax credits to offset student loan debt payments. Lastly, Maine & Co. provides free and confidential consulting services to businesses looking to relocate to Maine or expand within Maine.

On the Federal-level, Opportunity Zone programs are also being used to redevelop some downtown areas across Maine.

What issues are Maine's startups and entrepreneurs dealing with that should receive more attention from state and federal policymakers?

In the last few years, equity crowdfunding has been established at the state and federal levels. However, the number of Maine startups that have actually been able to leverage these new regulations — which were intended to expand access to capital for start-ups — is next to nothing. We have a shortage of qualified workers, particularly in the fields of finance (e.g., companies needing CFOs/bookkeepers) and tech (CTO, developers, analysts, UX/UI).

There is a lack of access to outside capital, like venture capital funding, because the investor pool in Maine is insular and limited.

And access to broadband is also an issue. This is an initiative that Sen. Angus King and others care strongly about, so hopefully we will see some momentum.

What is your goal for the next year? The next five years?

We want to increase the diversity of Maine’s startups and increase who participates in Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. It is our hope to build upon our annual summer conference to hold year-round events that convene the various constituents of Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Over the next few years, we want to bring world-class talent to Maine so those entrepreneurs can share their knowledge and inspire others. We hope to encourage Maine to be an early adopter of new technologies. Furthermore, we want to support workforce development by giving people a reason to move to (or stay in) Maine for their careers. Maine is a great place to live, work and play - and to start a business - and we want to be part of that mission.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email edward@engine.is.