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September 3, 2018 Focus: Startups / Entrepreneurs

10 Maine startups to keep an eye on

Photo / Tim Greenway Flick the Tick co-founders and sisters Crystal Hamlin, left, and Heather Peel are moms and outdoors enthusiasts who have created a water-based tick and insect repellent made with cedarwood, citronella and other essential oils.
Screenshot / Courtesy upByte
Rendering / Courtesy Lockout Labs LLC Lockout Labs has pioneered a device for safer, more reliable testing of electrical circuits.

From a home-based insect-repellent maker to a medical-infusion service provider, Maine's business startups are making their mark in the state and beyond.

All have turned an idea into a small business, some with outside help and others on their own, undeterred by the fact that only one out of five startups make it past their first year.

“Maine is an awesome place to start a business for anyone with a well thought-out plan, a bit of money and a willingness to work hard,” says Nancy Strojny, Portland chapter chair of SCORE, which offers businesses free mentoring and workshops.

Below in no particular order are 10 startups worth watching and their owners' advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Keeping bugs at bay the natural way

Sisters Heather Peel, 40, and Crystal Hamlin, 45, are moms and outdoors enthusiasts who have created a water-based tick and insect repellent made with cedarwood, citronella and other essential oils.

After testing different formulas until they found the perfect blend, in 2017 they launched Flick the Tick, named by Peel's son Jackson.

They've sold more than 25,000 bottles — made and bottled in Peel's home — and now want to expand the product's distribution beyond the current 13 states.

“It's hard because we're a seasonal product,” says Peel, who keeps up with reports of new tick threats for any needed tweaks. “I was just reading an article yesterday about this new Asian tick spreading in New Jersey and New York.”

While product registration in Maine has been cumbersome, they just got the green light for their cedar-scented Hunter's Blend formula.

“Despite the frustration, I appreciate the higher standards that Maine upholds,” says Hamlin, who works full-time as development and admissions director at the New School in Kennebunk while Peel runs her own web design business.

Advice: “Don't be afraid to take risks” (Peel) and “Always start with something about which you are passionate” (Hamlin)

From woodworking hobbyist to furniture craftsman

Photo / Courtesy Higgins Fabrication
Keven Higgins, 37, makes and sells high-end furniture from a workshop in Bangor. San Francisco is the firm’s biggest market.

Keven Higgins has loved working with wood since childhood and now runs a custom furniture company in Bangor called Higgins Fabrication.

The 37-year-old studied philosophy and economics at Fordham University on an Army scholarship, served in the military in Colorado and Iraq, and spent a few years in retail management before making his hobby a business. He took the plunge after selling one piece after another on e-commerce site Etsy.

“It was going well enough I figured it was worth the risk and jumped in with both feet,” he says.

He launched Higgins Fabrication in March 2014 with a $1,500 Amazon gift card he used to buy equipment, and no debt. Working with one full-time welder and a part-time employee in the Bangor Innovation Center business incubator, Higgins crafts industrial-design high-end tables, chairs and benches made from wood that's locally sourced when possible, as well as steel and epoxy resin.

Products are sold on Etsy and to a target demographic of 35 to 60 years old — “old enough to have money and young enough to take design risks,” he says. San Francisco is the biggest market, followed by New York and Boston.

Advice: “Be ready to work hard.”

Tracking power outages

A database administrator in Portland, 26-year-old Jason (Chachi) Robinson spends his spare time tracking power outages across the United States — a personal project he's turned into a one-person business on next-to-no startup costs.

Doing business as Blue Fire Studios LLC, he gathers data from 540 utilities, pulling information every 10 minutes from their websites. He cleans it up to better pinpoint locations, then posts information on a free online map at

He also sells the commercial use of the information to clients that can't get it anywhere else and allows them to embed maps on their websites. Clients include IBM, who Robinson says is using the information to build its own outage prediction model.

Robinson used the name Blue Fire Studios as a child when he repaired computers for family and friends and registered it as an LLC last year.

“My company is slowly growing, and at some point I'm fairly sure it will become my full-time job,” Robinson predicts. “The first person I will hire will be someone to do data entry and quality assurance.”

Advice: “Find a hole in the market and figure out how to fill it.”

Aroostook County tater tech

Potatoes are big business in Aroostook County, where Steve Wimmer co-founded Sweden Street Software & Consulting in Caribou.

For client County Super Spuds in Mars Hill, Wimmer's startup pioneered an automated system for tracking and managing potatoes throughout the production cycle as well as contracts between the company, which grows and supplies potatoes, and its customers.

From multiple sources Spud Tracker gathers information on contract prices, inventory and storage, shipments, quality metrics and payments into a single databases, saving time and manpower.

“What previously took two people tens of hours a week is now done by one person is less than one hour per week,” says Wimmer, part of Sweden Street's five-person team.

The 48-year-old says he's not seen anything similar on the market, though some large Idaho potato distributors have their own software packages.

By early 2019, Sweden Street aims to release a cloud-based, lighter-weight version of Spud Tracker for smaller distributors.

“The potential is huge,” says Wimmer.

Advice: “You will never be completely ready. It will work out.”

Making skin-friendly soap

Photo / Courtesy Wylde Photography / SoulShine Soap Co.
Michelle Byram runs a one-person soapmaking business in Hampden.

Michelle Byram, 36, used to raise pigs and now makes soap.

She launched SoulShine Soap Co. in Winterport in 2013 when looking for a way to earn a living while caring for her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother and raising a daughter on her own.

“I wanted to be able to create something that could be sold retail or wholesale, I wanted to be involved in farmers' markets and local festivals, and I wanted it to be something that wasn't so perishable and seasonal,” she says. After deciding on soap, she read as much as she could and spent a day shadowing a local soap maker.

In 2013 she launched her company, whose tagline is “Clean up your act,” specializing in soaps made from certified organic and sustainable palm oils that are gentle on the skin. She first sold the products on e-commerce site Etsy and later also on her own website. She moved to Hampden in 2017.

Today, SoulShine Soap is doing a brisk business online and at independent retailers in Maine and elsewhere.

“I haven't moved out West yet,” Byram says. “That's on my list.”

Advice: “Take time away from production to map out a business plan.”

Providing a service to rural hospitals

Photo / Renee Cordes
Husband-and-wife team Dan and Ashley Rice, shown in downtown Portland, have started an infusion company called New England Vascular Access in Farmingdale.

Dan and Ashley Rice started New England Vascular Access in June 2017 to bring infusion services to hospitals mainly in underserved rural areas.

“With so many small and rural hospitals closing their doors due to the financial crunch and nursing shortage, we are focusing on partnering and helping them continue to keep their doors open,” says Dan.

The married couple, both 33, met in the U.S. Air Force and started New England Vascular Access in Farmingdale with a $30,000 loan from a fellow veteran. They received free training at an entrepreneurship boot camp for veterans. Dan is a registered nurse who went through the Army's anesthesia program, while Ashley is a chiropractor.

Today their business relies on 15 clinicians with two more in training and averages 200 monthly service calls in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Large customers include MaineHealth hospitals, Mayo Regional Hospital, Reddington Fairview General Hospital, Genesis long-term care facilities and Maine Veterans' Homes.

Advice: “Just get out there and do it.” (Dan Rice)

Mental health services for children and families

Laura Catevenis, 27, launched Black Bear Support Services LLC in Lewiston in 2016 to provide mental health services to children with developmental disabilities, including autism.

A so-called Section 28 agency financed by MaineCare, Black Bear Support Services provides one-on-one behavioral support to families in Lewiston, Portland and Augusta, with Bangor and Ellsworth next.

Catevenis says her company is on track to bring in its first $1 million in revenue this year, up from $380,000 last year, and reports an “easy time” using social media for recruiting.

She's up to 46 employees with plans to add 15 in Augusta and hopes to be across the country by the time she's 60.

Advice: “Don't get caught up on problems, find a way to fix them.”

Cybersecurity for small businesses

Defendify is a fast-growing provider of an all-in-one cybersecurity platform for small businesses launched more than a year ago by Rob Simopoulos, 41, and Andrew Rinaldi, 40, in Portland. Both are seasoned entrepreneurs.

“A lot of what we see in the marketplace is cybersecurity focused on enterprises like banks and hospitals, but for small businesses there was really no simple solution,” says Simopoulos. “We saw a gap that needed to be filled.”

Rinaldi adds that they're providing a service “so that business owners and managers can sleep at night,” and says he sees many entrepreneurs focusing too heavily on what they're selling rather than on what they're doing and why.

“It's the latter that truly resonates and drives the most impact — our product is just how we're doing it,” he says.

Defendify is looking to add to its 13-member team by filling several positions in business development, customer support and service, and administration.

Advice: “Be agile, look for the pivot, and execute it.” (Simopoulos)

Better care of the elderly

Aron Semle, 33, aims to use technology to improve care of the elderly through an innovation that combines wearable sensors and smart phones.

A year ago, Semle and two partners co-founded upByte, whose first product is known as upBed. It uses sensors worn on a patient's ankle to detect when the leg position changes and signals a bed exit, then silently alerts the caregiver by smart phone of a possible fall.

The upBed, which uses components available on the market, “is more accurate than alternatives and requires less manpower,” Semle says.

The company's biggest customer is Avita, a provider of assisted-living memory of care facilities where upBed is testing an algorithm to predict falls.

Semle says that if it works, it will be hard for any competitor to copy, adding, “We're building our special sauce.”

The ultimate goal is to prevent falls, a big expense and risk.

Advice: “Get in front of customers as fast as possible.”

A safer way to test electrical circuits

Testing electrical circuits can be dangerous and tricky, with workers often using electrical tape to close one switch while working on another.

Enter Lockout Labs LLC, a Sidney-based firm founded by engineers Zachary Atherton, 31, and Brendan Paradis, 29, both University of Maine alums.

They've created a compact device called FT Lock to keep equipment and personnel safer during power testing by providing an electrical and physical barrier that can be installed in seconds.

They're testing the market as they await a U.S. patent and are initially targeting utilities and engineering testing firms.

“We're hitting the industries we know first, and then plan to expand to offshore oil and gas and distribution plants,” says Paradis.

Advice: “There's no reason you can't make anything you want” (Atherton) and “I would definitely recommend SCORE.” (Paradis)

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