John Voltz, the California native and Maine resident who was named executive director of Blackstone Accelerates Growth in January, sees big potential for the three-year, $3 million Blackstone Charitable Foundation initiative to help business growth in Maine.
In October, BAG will officially launch innovation hubs in Portland and Bangor, which Voltz says will consist of a focused set of activities within a particular geographic area – essentially an hour's drive from each city. At that time, BAG will announce the companies it's been working with and open up the process to more companies. This summer, BAG's first class of 20 interns finished working with a number of growing companies across the state.
Mainebiz recently sat down with Voltz to discuss the initiative, its goals, the challenges it faces and the opportunities Maine presents. The following is an edited transcript.
Mainebiz: Why did Blackstone choose Maine?
Voltz: They're working in other areas around the country, but they're here in Maine specifically for two reasons, one of which is the challenge. Maine presents some unique challenges to economic growth and entrepreneurship. No. 2 is the potential. There are a lot of things in place, there are a lot of things already happening, and a lot of resources people have focused on addressing different parts of the solution. I think Blackstone saw a real opportunity to be a catalyst in accelerating what's already happening here, and to take advantage of the potential and look at how you can solve some of these challenges. Because the challenges that Maine has are not unique to Maine. Some of them are similar to other parts of the country.
What are some of those challenges?
If you look at where those hotbeds of innovation – Boston, Silicon Valley, even Boulder, Colo. – you've got a number of things that all have come together in a small space that make it easier to make connections, to recruit talent, to get capital. In Maine, it's a difficult challenge. Maine is the least populous state east of the Mississippi. So for growing companies, that can be a challenge.
The other thing is that Maine hasn't had a track record of attracting a lot of investment dollars, and it's also significantly below the national average in per capita wages. If you put all of this together, it sort of describes a more rural economy where growing large companies and growing companies fast is a challenge.
On the flip side, what are some positives?
There were a number of things happening, some of which Blackstone latched onto and folded into this initiative. The three key partners – the University of Maine, the Maine Technology Institute and the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development – are really doing very important and interesting stuff. So part of what we're doing is not to create something brand new, but to accelerate what's in place. We're looking to focus, coordinate and magnify. These institutions are now working together on a number of different things, which is almost an unprecedented level of cooperation. They're focused on reaching the same kinds of results, and they're all doing things that are really, really interesting in their own way.
Some of the things are just beginning, but I think what's already in place is good. Knowing about it and recognizing it is important.
What "important and interesting" things are they doing?
If you look at what UMaine is doing with its innovation engineering and bringing that into the classroom – it's now a minor at the University of Maine. Look at what MTI is doing in terms of how it's funding technology and technology businesses. When I got here, it was a shock to me. I actually think it's easier to raise early stage startup money in Maine than it is in Silicon Valley. I think the programs MTI has in place are easier to access. It's still done in a very sensible basis, but there are programs for the $5,000, $25,000 things that really get you going. In Silicon Valley, those things are not part of any kind of program. They exist on the excess resources of people who happen to be quite wealthy. There's still some of that happening here, but in terms of a programmatic way, $5,000 can really get people started to see if it will go or not. That's really important because if you fail fast, you put those resources back to work. Otherwise, you would have spent five years to learn that. Imagine for a second that that's a talented entrepreneur who's got a bunch more ideas to put into action.
And then you've got Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and its Center for Entrepreneurial Education. It's pretty cutting-edge for a state with 1.3 million people to offer this kind of in-person training after hours in two locations, and starting in September, statewide online seminars.
What are the initiative's goals?
We have specific goals around the number of companies we're trying to connect with and interact with, but the bigger goal, in my mind, is to create a shift in the way we're thinking in this innovation economy. When I came on board in February, I needed get a lay of the land. I have a couple questions I often ask entrepreneurs when I'm trying to determine whether they're ready for funding. One is to ask people, "What are the first three things you're going to do if you don't raise money?" The corollary to that is, "What are the first three things you would do if you had $100 million?" One of the big differences I found in Maine vs. California, where I spent most of my life, was that people in Maine often had very detailed answers about what they were going to do if they didn't raise any money, and had very thin answers or hadn't considered what they would do if they had $100 million. In California, it was exactly the opposite.
How do you see Blackstone Accelerates Growth affecting change in Maine?
We have a big goal out there. It's only a three-year initiative, but we've set a 10-year goal. We're really trying to make a change here and leverage what's out there. Maine is really known for creativity, independence and hard work. But on the other hand, it hasn't been known recently for growing big companies. There was a time when it happened. If you look around, you can see from the landscape that there used to be big companies here. So it's not anything new. You see all these big law firms in Portland, and they didn't get there all by themselves. There were businesses that grew up alongside them.
It's like you're walking in the forest and you can see where a big tree fell over and it's no longer there. And I think it will be more surprising if we look back 20 years from now if nothing grows in its place than if something grows in its place. All kinds of infrastructure is sitting there, ready and waiting to do something new again. So we're in a position now where we can help it grow faster and help decide what it is we want to grow there. That's what we're really trying to do is accelerate that growth and do it in a way that focuses on innovation and creates good jobs.
What do you look for in companies to determine which ones to work with?
I'm really looking for companies that have a high growth potential. I've started to develop a one-page form to assess companies' growth potential. I use that as a tool to prioritize who I engage with, and then engage with the management team and talk through the answers on that page to understand where they are on their growth path to see where we might be impactful.
What happens at the end of three years?
At this point, that's unknown. This is only a three-year initiative, so we're trying to create a more permanent change. What that means is changing the trajectory of things that are in place because those things will continue after we're gone.
My aspiration is that we will have made a permanent change and that there will be continuing support from Maine and elsewhere to continue the valuable set of activities that we have created. I think it's very important that we're not funding companies directly; that is a path to something that is unsustainable. Our hope is that the value will be evident and that there will be continued support to continue along.