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Updated: May 23, 2024

Food is the big winner in Top Gun, Tastemakers competitions

MCE employees pose with award winners holding an oversize check Photo / Courtesy, Top Gun Maine Center for Entrepreneurs Executive Director Tom Rainey and Program Manager Laurie Johnson flank Nor'Easter Oyster co-founders Jacqueline Clarke and Sean Corcoran.

A Brunswick oyster business has received honors from two statewide entrepreneurial competitions in as many weeks.

Nor'Easter Oyster won the top prize of $25,000 in the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs' Top Gun Showcase, held last week during the Maine Entrepreneurs Summit.

The oyster farming company was also one of nine companies from Maine’s food industry selected for grant prizes in Coastal Enterprises Inc.’s Tastemakers Initiative.

Cash awards from a growing number of pitch competitions are just one piece of a much larger funding ecosystem. But they can play a vital, just-in-time role for small companies looking to buy that next piece of equipment, create a marketing message or provide competitive wages.

Top Gun

The 2024 Top Gun competition featured the founders of 10 Maine startups, who pitched their companies before a panel of judges and a live audience of over 250 at Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland

The winning of the $25,000 prize, Nor'Easter Oyster, was co-founded by Jacqueline Clarke and Sean Corcoran. It's an aquaculture business working to create a new market for Maine oysters. The win came after Clarke and Corcoran emerged as first-place winners at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s 8th annual Top Gun LA Regional Pitch-Off Competition earlier this month.

Other competitors and their locations are shown here.

  • Balanced Card Sorts, Kennebunk: digital platform that colleges use to help students take charge of their well-being and succeed in school.
  • Chapped Hide, Cary: made-in-Maine, female-owned, skin care product line.
  • Glendarragh Lavender, Appleton and Camden: established brand that helps people experience the relaxing benefits of natural lavender.
  • Kili Organics, Yarmouth: provider premium organic superfood powders, specializing in baobab and moringa sourced directly from Tanzania.
  • Nautical Farms, Machias: regenerative ocean farm creating a range of high-quality, thoughtfully produced kelp and kelp-infused products.
  • Pen & Cob, Pembroke: provider of specialty food products using farmed and foraged ingredients.
  • ScrapDogs, Camden: curbside food scrap collection service, with compost manufacturing and sales.
  • Watermelon Pie, Belfast: social platform that helps the home cook collect, evolve and share recipe collections.
  • WAVED Medical, Orono: medical software company developing technology to enhance breast cancer screening. Waved Medical’s co-founder, Kendra Batchelder, is a 2023 Mainebiz 40 Under 40 honoree.

Panelists were Dan Walsh of Norway Savings Bank, Carla Muniz of MaineHealth's Innovation Lab and Jeremy Barron, director of the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship at Colby College. They judged pitches on scalability, feasibility, innovation and presentation.

"Today was a wonderful celebration of Maine's entrepreneurial spirit, filled with innovation, determination, and boundless potential," said Laurie Johnson, Top Gun’s program manager.

The Top Gun Showcase is the culmination of a 15-week program for competitively selected entrepreneurs, which combines mentoring with high-impact gatherings held across the state.

Since 2009, the program has assisted over 375 entrepreneurs accelerate their businesses.

The $25,000 Top Gun prize is sponsored by the Maine Technology Institute. Maine Entrepreneurs Summit sponsors included Norway Savings Bank, Focus Maine, Revision Energy and the Maine Department of Economic Development.

Tastemakers Initiative

From Brunswick to Thorndike, there are scores of farmers, processors and other food businesses. For five years, many have received CEI Tastemaker Awards, with grants that can be spent on anything that supports their growth, such as new refrigeration, packaging machines and solar panels. 

This week, nine food harvesters and producers were selected for the initiative. Each will share a portion of a $225,000 grant to invest in growing their businesses.

A person with Nauti Sisters Sea Farm handles equipment near the water.
Alicia Gaiero, operating Nauti Sisters Sea Farm, was one of nine food businesses that received a CEI Tastemaker Award this week.

The recipients are:

“The CEI Tastemakers Initiative Grant will help us acquire the equipment necessary to bring our next line of upcycled healthy snacks to market,” said Ben Slayton, co-founder of Spreading Good Inc. in Yarmouth, the maker of a brand of spreads called Harvest Maine.

“With help from the University of Maine Food Innovation Center, we are prototyping a fruit snack made from the remains of apple cider pressing, or pomace.”

The goal is to launch the product in late summer. 

“This timely grant will help us fit out our production facility with some new equipment, which will enable more efficient processing of our fruit snacks,” said Slayton.

Awardees are established food and beverage companies intending to increase production capacity, with “shovel-ready” projects that directly support Maine agriculture, aquaculture or fisheries as part of their supply chain.

Phoenix O’Brien, co-owner of Hall Brook Farm in Thorndike, said the grant will allow the company to invest in equipment to produce more food in less space while creating more jobs on the farm. 

“It is also allowing us to increase efficiency in our greenhouse tomatoes to better supply our current markets," said O’Brien.

The awardees have expressed commitments to sustainability as environmental factors disrupt the processes of food production, including planting, growing and harvesting.

Seth Kroeck, the farm manager at Crystal Spring Farm, said the award will allow the farm to pursue production development resources, with a goal of creating a new fresh produce product line.

“Having new products to offer increases sales with our current accounts and diversifies our offerings, making it easier to get in the door with new customers,” said Kroeck.

The awardees contribute to agriculture and aquaculture, both of which help fuel the restaurant sector and food retail industry in Maine and beyond.

“This year’s Tastemakers are representative of the diversity and tenacity necessary to drive Maine’s economy forward,” said Bradley Russell, CEI’s director of sustainable agriculture and food systems program. “The success of Maine’s food system relies on the success of local businesses that are willing to do that hard work of committing to sustainability and scaling their business for success.”

Now in its fifth year, the Tastemakers Initiative is a partnership between CEI and FocusMaine with the goal of supporting the growth of Maine’s food economy. 

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