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May 22, 2013

Blackstone initiative embedded into MTI

Blackstone Accelerates Growth, the $3 million effort to establish innovation hubs in Maine that was launched with great fanfare in October 2011, is now being run under the wings of the Maine Technology Institute, and former director John Voltz has exited.

A new operations manager, Martha Bentley, will coordinate efforts among the three main parties under the BAG agreement, which are MTI, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and the University of Maine. Bentley has been with MTI for a while, managing the Maine Technology Asset Fund and the Cluster Initiative Program, and adds the BAG work to those duties, said MTI President Robert A. Martin.

The leadership changes at BAG, which is part of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation's $50 million entrepreneurship initiative, were made over the past two to three months, Martin said.

"John [Voltz] was a startup guy," Martin said of Voltz's exit. "John was ready to move on and MTI took on more of a role in that collaboration. There never was an intention that BAG would be a separate entity, but rather one that would be a more powerful and sustainable operation among those who are intently focused on innovation, and to build an intentional community of innovation." He describes the new structure as a collaborative effort between BAG and the three Maine partners.

Voltz did not return a call for comment by press time.

Tony Tolentino, program director at the foundation's headquarters in New York, told Mainebiz that the BAG program from Blackstone's perspective has had a lot of big successes. "We've learned a lot over the past year and a half. We decided for the sustainability of the program to embed it within MTI and for MTI to take a larger role in the partnership between them, MCED and the University of Maine."

Tolentino said Voltz's departure was not the result of a failure to meet goals.

"We realized on top of all our other programs across the country that it was better to embed a program within an existing organization to help sustain it after our grant is ended," Tolentino said. "It was a consensus between all the partners."

BAG has spent about $1 million of the total grant money so far and has named five companies as part of its partner program in two clusters, Bangor and Portland. They are Pika Energy in Gorham, Newfield Design in West Newfield, and Fluid Imaging Inc. in Yarmouth, which are in the Portland cluster. Cerahelix in Orono and RH Foster in Hampden are the initial core of Bangor's innovation hub.

Of the initial 10-year goal of adding $664 million in revenue to Maine's economy and upward of 10,000 jobs, Tolentino said that Blackstone is still evaluating the BAG program to see how they should proceed. He adds that BAG is on track, but the program in Maine was a pilot, and BAG has learned from its programs in Maine and elsewhere across the country that job creation and venture creation takes much longer than it originally anticipated. It still is not clear whether BAG will pour more money into the program at the end of the three years, and no decisions to reinvest have been made so far, he said.

Both Tolentino and Martin plan to attend the Top Gun Maine Class of 2013's business ventures pitches tonight along with a panel of experts from New England's venture capital, angel and business communities at the University of Southern Maine.

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