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Ellsworth's haven for startups is looking for 'the next IDEXX'

BY Laurie Schreiber

9/3/2018
Photo / Fred Field
Photo / Fred Field
Left: Christine Soto decided to go out on her own, she set up Monoclonals Inc. at the Ellsworth business incubator, Union River Center for Innovation. Right: Carrie LeDuc is one of four founders of GenoTyping Center of America, another tenant at the innovation center.

Union River Center for Innovation tenants include:

Monoclonals Inc.: novel antibody producer


GenoTyping Center of America: genetic testing service


Eagre Games: video game developer


PT3D: rapid prototyping and 3D printing


SteriPEN: ultraviolet, handheld water purifier maker


Pro31 Cleaning Solutions: cleaning service


Gel Hydration Technologies: hydration solutions for dogs (planned move-in)

Christine Soto, a New York native and graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia, worked 15 years for various companies in the research and development.

But she was interested in focusing on the development of novel antibodies for strains of bacteria and virus that didn't receive much mainstream attention, like Lassa virus and meningitis. So she decided to go out on her own.

In 2017, she set up her start-up business, Monoclonals Inc., at a business incubator in Ellsworth the Union River Center for Innovation. Here, she would find affordable rent, support services like coaching and business workshops, a culture of responsiveness from established institutions to the needs of a biotechnology startup and a beautiful setting.

Finding it difficult and expensive to set up her own lab space in conventional settings like established biological firms, Soto discovered the innovation center through a web search.

“I just needed a small incubator so I could bootstrap my company,” she says. “I came here, it was beautiful, I loved it. Everyone knew what an incubator was. So when I went in, it was very nurturing.”

That's exactly what Union River Center for Innovation's organizers were aiming for.

“It's kind of like with kids. You raise them until they're mature enough to go out on their own,” says John Fitzpatrick, who is Jackson Laboratory's senior director of facilities and chairs the Ellsworth Business Development Corp.

Fitzpatrick is also on the innovation center's board and heads up its selection committee.

“The doors are always open and, in a good way, folks are hearing what others have going on to build off ideas, and even offer assistance with something as simple as, 'Do you need help taking stuff to your car?' Competition's great, but collaboration's better,” he says.

Other entrepreneurs agree with that take.

“We're like the Ellsworth think tank,” says Clyde Ford, who is in the early stages of setting up PT3D, a rapid prototyping and 3D printing startup. “We don't judge each other at all. There's no 'Your idea sucks' or anything like that. It's always about being optimistic, real and productive.”

Union River Center for Innovation began as a collaboration between the city and the Ellsworth Business Development Corp., which was established by the city in 2013 to attract new businesses and work with existing ones to expand their operations. The city development arm settled on two priorities aimed at revitalization: constructing a three-mile fiber optic broadband route and establishing a business incubator and co-working facility with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The focus was determined by the area's growth in those industries, particularly given The Jackson Lab's expansion this year into Ellsworth and the nearby research arms of the University of Maine and other higher education institutions, says Ellsworth Development Coordinator Micki Sumpter.

The city bought a 5,000-square-foot concrete building, at 415 Water St., for $125,000. Built in the 1970s, it was move-in ready. The purchase was made knowing there were potential startups wanting to be in the area, says Sumpter.

Union River Center for Innovation officially launched in 2016 with support from private donors and eight founding partners: the city and its development corporation, Jackson Lab, UMaine, Maine Technology Institute, Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, Maine Community Foundation and law firm Eaton Peabody.

The innovation center has joint workspaces, a community lab, private offices, high-speed internet and a conference room equipped with a 60-inch high-def video monitor. Printing, copying, scanning, mailing and faxing services are available. Co-working space can be rented on a day pass or monthly membership.

In the past year, the city received a dozen or so inquiries from as far as California and Canada. Most inquiries come from Maine and the Northeast. Word gets out through advertising, articles and partner networking, including referrals from the offices of U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins. The building is 80% occupied.

Why are folks interested in being in Ellsworth?

“A lot of them want Maine,” says Sumpter. “They want to be by [Jackson Lab]. They think it's beautiful to live here.”

Leases start at $10 per square foot. At that price, startups get networking events, volunteer mentors, workshops and onsite coaching by experts ranging from intellectual property attorneys to UMaine leaders. The center's “Dream Series,” open to the public, explores business topics.

“If they rented a space downtown, which might be a much nicer space, they wouldn't get these benefits or the coaching,” says Sumpter. “That's a big part of this.”

Veena Dinesh, director of business incubation at UMaine's Office of Innovation and Economic Development, provides the monthly coaching sessions and connections to university resources and potential funders.

“The entrepreneur may be great in their technology field, but running a business is completely different,” says Dinesh.

The four founders of GenoTyping Center of America, the innovation center's first tenant, have taken advantage those opportunities, says one of the founders, Strategic Director Carrie LeDuc. The GenoTyping Center offers a genotyping test that determines differences in individual genetic makeup to research labs across the country and in Korea and Canada. The innovation center's business services helped the company with funding applications, workshops on customer development and marketing, and presentations from companies on how they've overcome issues. It also helped navigate Small Business Administration programs.

“You might have the skills and talent, but you still need the business tools,” says LeDuc. Affordable leases and Ellsworth's affordable lifestyle help attract tenants, says Ford.

“It brings your overhead costs down for the development of your product or service,” says Ford, founder of PT3D at the center. “That's a real draw. They don't need that $2,000 to $3,000 per month in rent or lease plus utilities. They just need a place to work.”

Like Ford, who works full-time for Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, most of the entrepreneurs have “day jobs.” Monoclonals' Soto works in housekeeping for now.

“The team understands the idea of bootstrapping,” Soto says. “They understand the idea that you need another job. Someone who's well-funded might not understand that, 'Why are you working as a housekeeper?' But it's basically doing what you have to do.”

In addition to the innovation center's business services, collaboration between startups is important, the entrepreneurs agree.

“You talk with other people who are trying to do the same thing,” say LeDuc, whose day job is serving as a consultant for Eaton Peabody. “They don't have to have your same experience, but it's important to support each other and learn from others. We do that regularly here. Everyone at the center knows everyone else and talks with everyone else, even the day-use folks who are there for co-working space.”

For example, GenoTyping Center's test tubes must be racked in a specific configuration for the incubation oven. The racks they had didn't supply adequate heat transfer.

“We talked with Clyde and he said, 'Hey, I do 3D printing. I can make you the racks,'” says LeDuc.

“It's all the tiny synergies that make all of us better,” says Aaron Cox, brand manager for SteriPEN, maker of ultraviolet, handheld water purifiers. “Small businesses can't afford a marketing department and an accounting department and an IT department and all that. But I can speak with someone who says, 'Oh, I know the pitfalls of spending this kind of money on that kind of marketing technique.' Once we get to know each other, which is key, we're just willing to help each other.”

Applicants must fit with the STEM mission, says Fitzpatrick.

“Then we have other relatively standard evaluation criteria,” Fitzpatrick says. “Do they have a good business plan, do they have a good product, is it innovative, is it scalable? Where do they plan to be in five years?”

The incubator is itself a startup, so it's difficult to measure outcomes just yet.

“We're a couple of years into its life cycle,” he says. “Twenty years from now, hopefully, we can talk about successful companies that have spun out of it. What we hope comes out is the next IDEXX. That's shooting big. But if we can be a net importer of smart people with great ideas and a lot of energy, that's a good shot in the arm for the entire state.”