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June 5, 2014

Top Gun program to expand; grads ply Maine-made malt, other goods

FILE PHOTO
FILE PHOTO
Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

Maine entrepreneurs will have more places in the state to hone their skills in the future, with the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development planning to add a midcoast location next year to its current Portland and Bangor sites for the Top Gun Entrepreneurship Acceleration program, and Blackstone Accelerates Growth poised to start an innovation hub soon in Lewiston, adding to its current Portland, Bangor and midcoast sites.

Those plans were revealed last night at the Top Gun 2014 showcase at the University of Southern Maine, where 12 of the 20 recent Top Gun graduates made elevator pitches that were critiqued by a panel of industry experts.

"This is the fifth MCED class, the youngest and the most female class of Top Gun we've ever had," said Don Gooding, executive director of MCED.

The entrepreneurs discussed plans to make malt in Maine, nutrition bars, paintings created by a rider on a dressage horse, natural marine-based creams and other products.

Blue Ox Malthouse, for example, hopes to reverse a trend of Maine exporting its grain crops and instead using them for the local craft brew industry.

"There are 53 licensed brewing operations in the state," Blue Ox Founder Joel Alex said. "That is nearly double the 36 two years ago."

But to date, those brewers have been buying their malt from out of state, some 80 million pounds of it. Water, malt, hops and yeast are needed to make beer.

Alex said Maine could fill that need. In a separate interview, he told Mainebiz that Maine is the largest barley-producing state in the Northeast, and is a large producer of the small grains like wheat, rye and oats, that are used to make malt.

"There are about 40,000 acres of small grains grown in Maine," he said, quoting figures from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

And those grain crops, if used for brewing operations rather than exported to Canada for feed, could help farmers in Aroostook County — the largest source of such grains in New England — have a high-value rotation crop for their potatoes.

While his company still is in the early stages, nine brewers are beta testing his malt. Alex said he needs about $609,000 to set up a commercially viable pilot plant, and he currently is seeking a location for it. Some of that money already is committed.

His plan drew praise from Luke Livingston, the founder of Baxter Brewing Co. and the panelist tapped to give Alex feedback.

"To close the loop in the state is a tremendous opportunity," Livingston said of keeping the grains in Maine rather than shipping them outside the state and importing malt. "I look forward to working with you."

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