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February 8, 2016

MCED, CEI get federal innovation awards

PHOTO CREDIT / LORI VALIGRA Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, traveled to Maine to announce the awards to the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and Coastal Enterprises. He said the awards support the president's efforts to engage and lift up the economy of rural America.

The Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and Coastal Enterprises Inc. are among 25 awardees nationwide sharing $10 million under the Economic Development Administration’s 2015 Regional Innovation Strategies program.

MCED will get $390,000 for its Top Gun Rural Accelerator Network expansion, while CEI will receive $250,000 for the CEI Natural Resource Business Seed Capital Fund. The grants required matches in the form of both cash and in-kind services from all awardees.

The awards were announced Monday morning during a press conference at MCED’s headquarters in Portland. In attendance were U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Jay Williams, U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Kate Norfleet (state office representative for Sen. Susan Collins), MCED Executive Director Don Gooding and CEI’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Development Keith Bisson.

“Our grant requires matching funds [and in-kind services] up front. MCED matched $453,000 and CEI is matching with $250,000,” Williams told Mainebiz in an interview. “It’s important for them to have skin in the game.” That brings the total funding to $843,000 for MCED and $500,000 for CEI.

MCED’s matches came from itself, the University of Maine, Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, Maine Angels and the Maine Venture Fund, according to Julie Lenzer, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

CEI’s matches came from itself, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

The awards, which have been instituted since 2010, also are measured for success. “We require all of our grantees to report on the same metrics. It's a fairly long list but it includes activities such as number of attendees at networking events held as well as outcome-based measurements such as number of new companies started, jobs created and revenue growth,” Lenzer wrote in an email to Mainebiz.

The grants support entrepreneurship and job creation by spurring capacity-building and access to capital for innovators and entrepreneurs, according to the EDA, which is part of the Commerce Department.

Reaching rural areas

Williams said he is excited to make the funding announcement in Maine for several reasons.

“We’ve appreciated the support Sen. Collins, Sen. King and Rep. Pingree have shown for innovation and entrepreneurship. They’ve been supportive of the president’s agenda with respect to providing resources and opportunities for small businesses,” Williams said. “And we have two outstanding grantees, MCED and CEI. They certainly stood out and underscore the importance of these investments here in the state of Maine.”

He added that it’s important to have a bipartisan congressional delegation that understands the importance of making strategic investments that are leveraged by private investment.

Williams said that MCED stood out because of the breadth of its partnerships across the state, and the fact that it is scaling an approach that’s already proven to be successful.

“And, they’re looking to expand opportunities to entrepreneurs and innovators in the rural economy of Maine,” he said. “That supports the president’s efforts to engage and lift up the economy of rural America.”

He said the two things that are critical for businesses are programmatic support and access to capital. CEI is going to be engaging in a feasibility study for potentially setting up the Natural Resource Business Seed Capital Fund.

“Our funds won’t go to capitalize that seed fund … but if they do establish it, they will make equity investments in promising farm, food, fisheries and bio-based businesses with potential for high growth. That notion of access to capital Is so critical to allow those businesses to survive and to ultimately be scaled up,” he said.

Ultimately, investments in MCED, CEI and the other 23 awardees will drive innovation and entrepreneurship, which in turn will drive Maine’s economy and the national economy, he said.

“The aggregate of the regional economies allows us to compete globally,” Williams said. “The president is going to spend the entire last year of his administration prioritizing these types of investments.”

Getting innovations to market

When the awards were announced, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said in a statement that her department “is committed to helping set the conditions for innovators and entrepreneurs to test new ideas, take risks, find financing and customers, and ultimately thrive. The RIS program is critical to ensuring that entrepreneurs have access to the tools they need to move their ideas and inventions from idea to market.”

Williams added that the programs “will reach all kinds of communities and help entrepreneurs gain the edge they need to succeed.”

The EDA’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship manages the 2015 RIS program, which runs two different competitions for the money: the RIS i6 Challenge and the Seed Fund Support grants competition.

The RIS i6 Challenge makes small, targeted, high-impact investments to support startup creation, innovation and to help turn technology into jobs. The money supports the development of new and existing proof-of-concept and commercialization centers. It helps entrepreneurs fine-tune and scale their innovations. The applications were evaluated based partly on the strength of their outreach plans to populations and communities underrepresented in innovation and entrepreneurship, according to the EDA. In all, $8 million was given out to 17 competitors, including MCED.

The eight Seed Fund Support grants totaling $2 million included CEI. The grants fund technical assistance to support feasibility, planning, formation, or launch of cluster-based seed capital funds for equity investments in early-stage, innovation-based, startups with high growth potential but that often struggle to get early funding. Projects were evaluated in part on their outreach plans aimed at underrepresented communities.

The other New England winner of the RIS i6 Challenge is the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which got $500,000 for its Quiet Cornet Innovation Cluster. No other New Englanders won the Seed Fund Support competition.

Read more

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CEI's new CEO is a familiar face in Maine

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MCED names interim executive director, looks for permanent head

CEI lands $1.75M in federal funding

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