Last fall, a handful of technology businesses joined together to establish the Casco Bay Technology Hub to serve as a central, unifying presence for southern Maine's technology community. The hub opened on the top two floors of converted mill space at 30 Danforth St., where companies can lease office space. Founding members of the tech hub include Hall Internet Marketing, Integra Strategic Technologies Consulting, Academic Merit, Aware Technology, Global Content Partners, LabelTop Software and Optimus Group Solutions. The building is owned by J.B. Brown, one of the hub's sponsors, which also include Time Warner Cable Business Class, Baxter Brewing Co. and Social Media Breakfast Maine. Since it's not a formal organization, there are no membership fees or other costs. Tom Hall, president of Hall Internet Marketing, says there's about 12,000 square feet still available.
"It just seemed like it would a fantastic idea to bring some other great technology companies together in the same building and create a collaborative space where businesses are working together, and business owners are talking and sharing stories with each other," Tim Brooks, president of Integra, told Mainebiz last summer.
In February, CBTH launched a monthly networking event called PubHub. Happening the first Tuesday of the month, the free event features a speaker, Baxter Brewing beer, snacks and other beverages. Hall says the goal of the events is connect technology entrepreneurs with their peers and available services, like the Maine Technology Institute and the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development. The first event drew about 35 attendees. The second event is happening March 6 at 6 p.m. at the tech hub.
It's been about six months since TechMaine, a statewide association for technology companies, disbanded, citing shrinking membership and revenues. The association ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Now, a group of tech professionals, including a former TechMaine board president, is working to revive the technology community, with plans to unveil a new website in the next month or so to serve as a hub for the state's tech businesses.
So far, the effort is informal and grassroots, with participants volunteering their time and ideas, says Tim Brooks, president of Integra Strategic Technologies Consulting, a web development and design firm in Portland. He served as president of TechMaine's board, but not in the last couple of years.
In January, he and other tech professionals began meeting to discuss the needs of the tech community in TechMaine's wake. "We really wanted to re-create that sense of community," he says.
Says Dana Hutchins, president of Image Works, a web development firm in Portland: "Once TechMaine disappeared, there was definitely a vacuum left."
To find out the best ways to fill the void, the group sent out an online survey that netted responses from about 130 tech businesses, most in Greater Portland. Questions included topics like the need for government advocacy, training and peer interactions (for more, see "Survey says," this page).
Top on respondents' list were networking opportunities. It might seem counter-intuitive that tech-savvy people would want opportunities to meet face-to-face, but Hutchins says that for some, it's their only chance to unplug. "People spend a lot of time in front of their computers, so it's a chance to have some pizza and beer and spend time in a more social environment," he says. "For some people, it's socializing they don't necessarily get to do a lot."
But it's more than just socializing. Technology changes fast, and regular events help professionals stay on top of the latest developments. "[Companies] rely so heavily on technology that it's good to have something people can go to to keep their skills sharp," says Michael Swartz, general manager of Tilson Technology and a member of this informal group.
Plus, "tech people love to get together and rub antennas," he adds. "It's just part of the culture."
Survey respondants also said they wanted educational offerings like user groups, a way for tech professionals to meet and talk about specific software, programming language or other technologies. Hutchins says former TechMaine members have kept some of these user groups alive, while new ones, like a group for iOS, Apple's mobile operating system, have sprung up since TechMaine's demise.
"Technology is getting more and more complex, and new things are coming up all the time," says Hutchins. "People are willing to share, willing to spend their time presenting and sharing their knowledge."
While Swartz and Hutchins say networking and user groups have continued post-TechMaine, sharing information on these events has been challenging. "What members found important was that there was no real centralized place to go and look at what's happening," says Swartz.
The planned website will be a place for professionals to find and post events. Not only will it help professionals find ways to network, but it also will signify to businesses outside of Maine that the state has a vibrant, connected tech industry, says Brooks. "Right now you aren't able to find it — you don't know about all the stuff that's going on."
The group plans to start small with the website for events and networking, but hopes to fill other voids, like a job board. Brooks also references TechMaine's TechConnect, where companies needing someone to, say, build them a website could fill out a form with their needs, which was then sent to TechMaine members. "There's enormous opportunity to get business that way," says Brooks.
The website could also serve as a way to facilitate training and certification opportunities for tech professionals. At some point, Brooks says, they'd like to bring back a technology conference, which he says was "one of the best things about TechMaine." Government advocacy is also on the list as a possible service, he says.
The big question is whether a formal organization like TechMaine will materialize. But group members are hesitant to commit to that model. "It seems too soon," says Swartz. Brooks agrees: "We don't want to rush out and create another organization."
The key will be building what the tech community wants. "Tech Maine became, 'create this thing and push it out to people,'" says Brooks. "I'm enormously passionate about creating some kind of recognized community that people can feel like a part of."