Their business ideas ranged from selling spelt flour bagels to making tidal turbines that are safer for fish. One would-be entrepreneur pushed her idea of selling unconventional wedding rings online, while another claimed that his technology allowing viewers to clearly zoom in on website photos would change the online retail experience.
These 11 budding entrepreneurs -- speaking in front of investors at an event last week at The Woodlands Club in Falmouth -- had all just graduated from the Maine Center for Enterprise Development's 15-week business training program.
Called Top Gun, the nonprofit program partners inexperienced innovators with seasoned business leaders and provides them with access to lawyers, accountants and funders. The business mentors help the students develop marketing strategies, devise revenue streams, find financing, put together teams and polish sales pitches. At the end of the course, the students are allotted eight minutes to present their business pitches to a roomful of investors.
"My highest expectation [for the course] was to network with many business leaders in Maine and be connected to professional services," said Kevin Grant, a Top Gun participant, in an interview before his pitch. Grant, who is seeking between $5 million and $10 million in investment, has developed an Internet-based communications platform for veterinarians, which he claims has a market opportunity worth $1.1 billion.
Beth George, a former lawyer, says Top Gun completely changed her perspective about her business, Spelt Right Baking Co., which she started two years ago in a mill in Yarmouth. She says she's now focused as much, if not more, on marketing, whereas before most of her energy went into developing her baked spelt goods.
Other students also talked about feeling transformed by the course. "We're different people now, especially our perspective about our future," said Sergei Breus of Blue Hill at the end of his pitch as he thanked his Top Gun advisers. Breus is working on a tidal turbine that he says makes electricity in slow currents and does less harm to fish. "Now we know where we want to be. I had no idea when we started.
"It's just an incredible journey," he added.
This is the second class to graduate from the Top Gun program, which was started by former MCED Executive Director Steve Bazinet. After steering students through his second Top Gun course, Bazinet is leaving his position at MCED to focus on his two businesses, Creative Digital Imaging in Bangor and Creative Printed Solutions in Portland. Don Gooding, a former telecom entrepreneur and venture capitalist, is taking over. Gooding says he would like to expand the Top Gun program to Bangor and the midcoast region.
Bazinet says many of the participants of Top Gun's first class are sending in good reports a year after completing the pilot program. "Two-thirds are doing well," he says, "and one-third is struggling." This, he adds, is a healthy ratio, considering nine in 10 startups fail.
Going into the future, the Top Gun program will try to attract out-of-staters who want to start a business in Maine. The program, which is part of MCED's overall mission to nurture entrepreneurship in Maine, invites any applicant with an innovative and plausible product, even if his or her business is still in the idea phase. In its second class, Top Gun accepted 11 out of 20 applicants. The fee per person is $500.
"We're looking for entrepreneurs who can create innovative, scalable ventures sometime in their career," Bazinet says. "[We want] entrepreneurs in the state of Maine who will be able to make these resources that will create jobs and wealth."