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In Waterville, Genotyping Center of America is in growth mode. Founded in 2012, the company provides genetic testing and colony planning services to accelerate preclinical and drug discovery research and improve laboratory animal welfare.
In recent months, the company tripled its space and added equipment and employees — driven by new customers, expanded business and the launch of a non-invasive genotyping technique.
In its early days as a startup, the company received grant funding from the Maine Technology Institute that provided valuable financial and business strategy support. It’s engaged with SCORE Maine members who have helped the company develop better revenue forecasting and capacity projections.
Most recently, the company participated in the Dirigo Labs accelerator program, which happens to be in neighboring offices at the Hathaway Creative Center in downtown Waterville.
For the Genotyping Center of America’s CEO and co-founder, Michael Greene, Dirigo Labs was attractive due to its focus on supporting businesses within the Waterville and Kennebec Valley region, its introductions to business mentors and temporary advisors, and the opportunity to interact regularly with other entrepreneurs.
“In addition to gaining additional visibility within the local community by being a part of Dirigo Labs initial cohort of companies, GTCA realized improvements across many areas, including improved budgeting and forecasting, a clearer roadmap of key steps and milestones required for sustainable growth, and valuable introductions and relationships with advisors and mentors,” Greene said. “The pitch competition at the conclusion of the program helped drive the development of a clear and compelling vision for GTCA’s future success.”
Whether participants are more experienced companies like Genotyping Center of America or newer ones still working on product prototypes, the consensus is that Dirigo Labs is providing a valuable service to the Central Maine region — not just from the standpoint of individual businesses looking to accelerate their ventures but as a networking and support system where entrepreneurs, mentors and other interests work together to contribute to the local economy, innovation and job creation.
“If you look at a company like Genotyping Center of America, which participated in our first cohort, you can see its direct impact on Waterville: skilled labor force creation, revenue generation to the local tax base, and potential for spinoff companies just to name a few,” says Susan Ruhlin, Dirigo Labs’ managing director.
The 12-week program guides startups through a targeted curriculum and helps founders execute individual project plans. Each company is matched with a curated board of local and national advisors from various industries. Seminar topics range from capital planning to intellectual property evaluation. Sessions are in-person and virtual. The program is capped by a pitch competition with a $25,000 grand prize.
Operating under Central Maine Growth Council and supported by several organizations, academic institutions and investment firms, the mission is to grow mid-Maine’s digital economy by supporting entrepreneurs building innovation-based companies.
Industries represented include health care, manufacturing and clean energy technologies. Participants are chosen based on founder experience, stage of development, scalability and potential for funded research and development projects.
The program was sparked by Central Maine Growth Council Director of Planning, Innovation and Economic Development Garvan Donegan, who sought to establish a regional hub that would foster innovation, stimulate economic growth and attract talent.
“Despite Waterville’s advantageous geographic location, world-class academic institutions, vibrant downtown and thriving small business community, a missing link was an organized continuum of startup and entrepreneurial support and attraction,” says Ruhlin. “Dirigo Labs fills this key gap by functioning as a startup hub and accelerator, driving entrepreneurship, and economic transformation in the downtown area and its surroundings.”
Launching the accelerator was a lot like launching the startups its serves. Before kicking off the first cohort in March 2022, organizers spent months considering value proposition, differentiators that would enhance the entrepreneurial ecosystem without duplicating work other organizations were already doing, and the type of founders it would to aim to serve; followed by logistics planning, securing space, building a mentor network and developing a curriculum rooted in a Vermont rural tech economy nonprofit called Center on Rural Innovation.
Now Dirigo has 25 strategic partnerships; 100 mentors; eight funders, including the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Maine Technology Institute, Colby College and the Bill and Joan Alfond Foundation; and several sponsors.
Dirigo Labs has dedicated space in the Hathaway Creative Center at 10 Water St. and participant workspace at Bricks, a coworking space across the hall.
“Dirigo made me realize what an amazing scale-up I have,” says Lisa Jones, founder of Black Travel Maine.
Jones participated in Dirigo’s recently completed second cohort. She has a 30-year career in the corporate digital marketing and travel industries. In 2006, she founded a proprietary booking engine, Worldwide Group Travel & Events, to help meet the needs of a growing market for group travel. With a mission to provide a blend of travel and event-planning services, she’s been featured in media outlets including Black Enterprise Magazine and Contemporary Bride Magazine.
In 2020, Jones, a global traveler, moved with her daughter from New York to Maine at the urging of a friend. “We were blown away,” she says.
The three explored Maine. “We said, ‘Why don’t people of color know about Maine?’” she recalls.
That started her on a mission “to expose Black and multiethnic travelers and organizations to the cultural beauty, richness and delightfully friendly people of the gorgeous state of Maine” through custom curated cultural tours. She created a website called Black Travel Maine.
The goal? To “help dispel the age-old myth of ‘Why go there? It’s too cold and too white,’” as the website says.
Jones needed a funding and marketing plan. Her friend suggested she contact Dirigo. The program connected her with an advisory board and the Maine Small Business Development Centers. She developed a plan and a pitch, and connected with professionals such as a software developer.
“Being paired with someone like that is invaluable,” she said. “He showed me exactly what I need to do to commercialize.”
Additional connections included an intern, video team, attorney and financing. Jones received free workspace at Bricks. Going live on Feb. 1, she now has her first Maine tour scheduled, a growing Instagram following, and plans to expand marketing.
“We’re starting in Maine, then moving into Vermont and New Hampshire, states that don’t traditionally have the diversity within tourism,” she says.
With years of experience as an occupational therapist visiting and treating the elderly, Heather Desjardins is the founder and CEO of i-Tell Alert, developing and patenting a reminder technology that includes two “smart” components — a module to be installed on walkers and a wristband. If the user walks away from her walker, the walker module sends a digital signal to the wristband.
A Presque Isle native, Desjardins has worked for MaineGeneral for 16 years. A couple of years ago, she realized there was an unmet need among patients who had falls or near-falls. The technology idea came from a virtual dog fence installed at her home.
She tapped into Maine Small Business Development Centers, SCORE advisors, FocusMaine, CEI Women’s Business Center, Maine Technology Institute grants matched by personal funds, a market feasibility study through the University of Maine and an engineer who developed a proof of concept device, which is now patented. A 2019 finalist in Top Gun Lewiston, she connected with a Michigan engineering consultant for prototype development, now in final tests, and a Winthrop manufacturer.
From what she heard, Dirigo seemed like a good next step. She recently completed the program.
“They connected me with some really great mentors who helped with a variety of things,” she says.
For example, one suggested submitting a request to determine if the device needs U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and connected her with other entrepreneurs in the medical device space. An engineer has been integral in helping Desjardins communicate technical specifications to the development team.
“It was pretty comprehensive. That was a big plus,” she says.
For Croft — a Rockland-based maker of carbon-negative prefab buildings launched in 2021, and this year’s pitch competition winner — Dirigo resulted in important outcomes, including developer introductions, new factory space leads, research on Maine’s tax incentive programs, mentorship on strategic decisions and introductions to Maine’s investment community.
“For example, in a session with Phoenix McLaughlin, tax incentive policy manager with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, we conducted a deep dive on Maine’s incentive programs,” says Co-Founder Evan Ryan. “This single workshop brought clarity to a very complicated policy landscape and helped Croft identify multiple cost saving opportunities that will lead to thousands in savings for the company.”
Kris McKenna, founder and CEO of Skowhegan armored eyewear maker Tardigrade Industries, recalls meeting with Ruhlin and her colleague Emalee Couture.
“I got the feeling that they had resources and connections that would ultimately reveal, ‘I don’t know what I don’t know,’” he says.
McKenna worked over two decades in law enforcement. In 2017, he started working with a colleague who was developing a helmet system for military and industrial use. The missing component was an eyewear component tough enough to withstand high-speed projectiles and other extreme conditions.
McKenna put in five years to develop goggle prototypes, now patented and third-party-validated. McKenna employs a CAD engineer and has several equity partners filling other functions.
“Once it’s finalized, we’ll be able to scale manufacture it,” he says. “We’ve hit trade shows. There’s a lot of buzz.”
Dirigo Labs offered key next steps. “One of the most challenging lessons in the realm of business is the realization that possessing a remarkable product or a groundbreaking invention alone will not guarantee sales without effective networking,” he says.
One mentor — a retired member of the military with experience in the regulatory space — reviewed certain regulatory matters for McKenna.
Dirigo’s network, he says, has the diverse abilities and resources needed to assist startups like his — helping entrepreneurs navigate potential pitfalls and avoid mistakes inherent to growth.
“This support system promotes a more sustainable and balanced approach, benefiting the well-being of business owners on both physical and mental levels,” he says.
Dirigo has further plans, including adding a month to the program, so it will be 16 weeks. It will host its second Better Maine DEI Conference in early October.
“Generally, I think accelerators play a vital role in supporting and nurturing the growth of early-stage ventures within a community,” says Ruhlin. “They provide the necessary resources, mentorship and networks to help startups succeed, thereby contributing to the local economy, innovation and job creation.”