For Small Businesses, Maine Startup & Create Week A Time To Think Big

By Whit Richardson
Portland Press Herald, Maine.

Building on momentum started last year with the first Maine Startup & Create Week, organizers of this year’s event have created more opportunities for “colliding ideas” — the random spark that leads to big ideas and brand-new businesses.

This year’s celebration of entrepreneurship intends to be more inclusive, by providing variable ticket pricing, offering scholarships and breaking the weeklong event into different tracks. The second annual Maine Startup & Create Week, which starts Monday, includes more than 75 events between June 22 and 28 that range from panels on how small businesses can leverage the state’s new crowdfunding rules to how entrepreneurs could benefit from starting their business in Maine rather than a place like Silicon Valley. There are also five keynote addresses throughout the week.

The event has become an anchor for other organizations that work in the startup and entrepreneurship space. Several organizations are holding their own events to capitalize on the momentum, such as the Maine Technology Institute, the Maine College of Art, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, the Portland Museum of Art and Creative Portland. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which is a media sponsor of the event, is hosting its own partnership events Friday on innovation in the media industry and Maine’s emerging food sector.

Several things have been added or changed since the inaugural year. Like with any good startup, the organizers learned things from the first go-around and adapted accordingly, said Jess Knox, lead organizer of the event and statewide hub coordinator for Blackstone Accelerates Growth, a three-year effort to boost entrepreneurship in Maine.

“We wanted to experiment with other things that would bring more folks into the conversation about thinking big and doing world-class things,” Knox said. Last year’s event drew about 3,000 attendees.

Some of the new additions include daily keynotes and splitting the event into three tracks: innovation in the food industry, small businesses, and scale and growth. Kerem Durdag, CEO of Biovation in Boothbay, called himself a “massive supporter” of the initiative and what the organizers are trying to do, although he’ll be unable to make the event this year.

“It is invaluable to build and foster an ecosystem,” he said. “It creates validation, fosters a multiplicity of idea pollination, results in a lot of shoulders to commiserate upon, celebrates all we do and (reinforces) that what entrepreneurs do has meaning.”

It’s also an important marketing tool to raise Maine’s profile in the national conversation around startups and entrepreneurship.

“We need to externalize,” Durdag said. “Maine Startup & Create Week may be in Maine, but there are folks from outside of Maine who are participating, which is what we exactly need … to externalize our products, our lives, our ambitions so that the world can receive, evaluate, respect and respond.”

David Joseph, co-founder of Davo Technologies, a Portland-based software company, is looking forward to the spontaneous conversations and unintended consequences of attending some of the events. Although there are no panels that directly speak to his business of building software to help merchants collect and remit sales tax, he’ll find value. He uses what he calls the “golden nugget” rule.

“If you walk away with one nugget that means something, it was successful,” said Joseph, who is participating on a panel Tuesday morning on how startup founders should approach hiring and relationship-building.

For example, last year Joseph attended the Maine Startup & Create Week and went to a panel on the Internet of Things, which focused on how more everyday products, from smoke alarms to refrigerators, will be connected to the Internet. A woman from Central Maine Power Co. spoke about how smart meters will allow the company’s customers to track their daily electricity usage. That led to a conversation that revealed to Joseph that his company’s underlying technology could also be adapted by utilities like CMP to help collect fees from their customers on a more timely basis. That random collision opened up opportunities for his business.

“I walked out with a nugget that could potentially turn into a whole other product for us,” Joseph said. “And so that’s how I approach these things. You go and listen and look for the nugget. How do you make that work for me? Is there an application in my business? Go in with an open mind and you look for that.”

Those random conversations and unexpected collisions of ideas is exactly what the week is all about, said Knox.

“The whole idea of the event is to build structure around events where unintentional relationships can get built,” he said.

“The opportunity for cross-pollination between areas is exactly what we want to do, and that’s why there are some sessions that are track-focused and some that aren’t. We want to make sure there’s organic mixing throughout the week.”

Whereas last year there was only one track and several panels one after another, giving attendees less time for hall talk, this year features more time between panels and “collision lunches” to help bring more people from disparate backgrounds together to share their stories and ideas.

That’s likely where the value is for attendees, according to Johann Sabbath, chair of Maine Startup & Create Week’s program committee.

“I think there’s a lot of intangible learning that comes out of it if people actually take the time to leave their jobs and attend a session,” said Sabbath, a corporate development consultant at WEX Inc. and co-founder of Startup Portland, a website that serves as a clearinghouse of information about startups in Portland. “Sure, you could watch a YouTube video (of a panel), but the outcome is so much better if you sit in a room and can be part of a conversation rather than sitting at your desk and watching a video on your screen.”

The event’s program committee has been meeting weekly since March to organize each of the panels. Sabbath said the 27-member committee had two goals: “create content that is worth skipping work for,” and have more than 50 percent of the speakers be from outside of Maine.

The committee’s 27 volunteer members represent many more than the “handful” of volunteers that were involved in last year’s event planning, he said.

Knox said the daily keynotes will provide valuable insight and context for the world in which Maine’s entrepreneurs and innovators are operating.

The keynotes are:
* Donato Tramuto, founder of the Massachusetts-based Physicians Interactive and the nonprofit Healthy eVillages;
* Jules Pieri, co-founder and CEO of The Grommet, a Boston-based company that works with inventors and “makers” and provides them with a product development platform;
* Cheryl Heller, founding chair of the Design for Social Innovation Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City;
* Jon Gosier, an inventor, data scientist, investor and serial entrepreneur working in the areas of big data and user experience;
* Steven Kotler, an award-winning journalist and co-author of “Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.”

“They’re presenting about the future — whether the future of innovation, the future of design, the future of health care,” Knox said. “It’s really the big thinking that’s at the core of what Maine Startup & Create Week is, which is to give a place for Mainers from all backgrounds, from all industries — not just people that are entrepreneurs, but community leaders, nonprofit leaders, teachers, students, everyone — to view the future and think big about what that means for us and how we build incredible, world-class organizations and communities in Maine.”

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