Entrepreneuring Maine: how to ‘start-up' a state economy

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — It doesn’t matter if you’re making a 21st-century reflective vest or software for virtual reality headsets,  Maine is trying to get all kinds of businesses to come here.

But at last check, if you Google how to move a business to Maine, you get a bunch of websites to sift through.

Personally,  I don’t have time for that, so I decided to do the work for all you budding Elon Musks and put tips for growing a successful start-up company in Maine in one place.

This search for the start-up recipe for success took me to Somerville, Massachusetts, specifically, to Greentown Labs, a start-up incubator.

The incubator’s co-founder, Sam White offered a tour of the facility and explained Greentown’s rather humble origins.

“We found a dilapidated warehouse in Cambridge where you’d get locked in the bathroom and you couldn’t get out and we were almost squatting, that’s how bad this was.”

Years later, Greentown Labs fills up a sprawling campus of desks, gadgets and gizmos in repurposed factory buildings and has dozens of companies based there.

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White explained how Mainers could also create more start-up incubators in the state.

“You start small,” he said. “You start grungy, you start with two companies that want to share space under one roof. You both need the same type of testing equipment, that you can share, and you can start there with a laser focus on sharing a particular type of machinery that’s too expensive for one person to be able to afford.”

Another key, according to staff at Greentown, is starting locally.

“We’re not trying to replicate what’s happening in Silicon Valley or New York or any other tech hubs,” said Elizabeth Barno, Greentown’s community director.

In other words, attracting a start-up away from its ‘natural habitat’ may cause it to suffer.

“Playing on the strengths of the area and the ecosystem that exists in the area is vital to sustainability,” she said.

» RELATED: Shipping up to Maine: employers target Boston for prospective hires

Still with me?

To recap tips for growth:

► Start small

► Find like-minded, focused entrepreneurs

► Be original

► Know your local market

But alas, one can only grow a business in Maine once he or she has a business in Maine.

To find out what such a start-up might need to be drawn in from Boston or created locally, I went to a futuristic place full of dazzling lights.

It’s called the Cloudport and it’s a co-working space in Portland that opened in September which different entrepreneurs can use in lieu of renting their own office space.

There I met Brian Harris and Owen McCarthy, executives at MedRhythms, a company that builds sensors for music therapy.

Their products can help people gain back cognitive abilities they’ve lost like speaking and walking.

McCarthy and Harris are Mainers who started their company in Boston, moved it home and want it to grow here.

They let me pick their brains about why they moved and the benefits and challenges they’ve faced trading Massachusetts for Maine.

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DUSTIN: What is the biggest difference between working where you were in Boston and working in Portland?

MCCARTHY: We don't get stuck in traffic anymore which is great. It is a bit hard to find engineers. When were looking for engineers in Boston you trip over them, they're all over the place but you here you have to tap into your networks, seek them out independently on LinkedIn. There needs to be a higher abundance of them locally.

DUSTIN: What was the point when you said, ‘we’ve got to get out of Boston, this isn’t working?’

HARRIS: Owen and I are both two guys from Maine and we have always been really passionate about Maine, the people of Maine, the economy of Maine. “When we started MedRhythms, we knew that we always wanted to come back and wanted to be here and wanted to hire Maine’s people. We wanted to make a difference in Maine’s economy. Luckily, within about a year and a half of us starting up, it was the right time. We were able to come back.

DUSTIN: What is a message that you would want to send to city officials, government officials at the state level, even the voters who vote for them, about what you need to succeed and do better business and about what others need to succeed as well?

MCCARTHY: In general I come back to training in science, technology in those areas for the future of the state.  The more of those people there are, the more likely they’ll want to create that those people build something here, then become successful and for us to create a larger pool to hire from and grow faster. We want to become a really large company here and to do that we're going to need that piece.

DUSTIN: Do you think city and government officials in Maine, particularly not in Portland, places that may be less familiar with co-working spaces, understand how this works, how entrepreneurs come into a space like this and get their work done or do you think there are still people who think in terms of big employers, large factories, that type of employment model?

MCCARTHY: I’m sure they recognize that entrepreneurship is really important and that people need to create their own things in their communities/ It’s just, there’s not a lot of examples of how to do that at a scale that can impact their communities. There's not an economic playbook for that.  It’s really hard to do. I think it just comes down to, can you create conditions where your community can grow companies. Maybe it's teaching people how to code and one of a hundred people you teach how to code builds something that employs another 20 of them. These types of things, I think, in terms of outside of Portland outside of Bangor, in Patten where I grew up, could create future economic development opportunities and future opportunities for companies to thrive there.

Got all that?

In short, start-ups in Maine need:

► Affordable places to work like co-working spaces

► More locals trained in science and engineering

► More Mainers trained how to code

Happy business building!

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© 2017 WCSH-TV


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