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Updated: May 20, 2024

The good, the tough and the needed: 10 insights from Startup Maine Week

People in a classroom Photo / Renee Cordes Startup Maine Week, in Portland last week, attracted more than 375 attendees. Sessions included this one on Entrepreneurship through Acquisition.
Four people seated on stage Photo / Renee Cordes Startup Maine President Katie Shorey, far right, leading the kickoff event with Dave Furneaux of BlueIO, Helen Cohen of ReachMyTeach and Torey Penrod-Cambra of HighByte.

Last week's Startup Maine conference in Portland, the first since 2019, put a spotlight on what's working and what is still needed in order to spark new business growth in the state.

Over the course of four days, more than 25 events took place at various downtown venues. The conference was bookended by a kickoff panel discussion that attracted more than 150 attendees to the home of the University of Maine School of Law, at 300 Fore St., and a Friday night wrap party attended by almost as many at the New England Ocean Cluster Hús on Portland's waterfront.

Some 375 people purchased tickets for Startup Maine Week, with some sessions attracting audiences of nearly 100, according to Katie Shorey, president of Startup Maine, a volunteer-run nonprofit and the conference host.

She also serves as director of engagement for Live + Work in Maine and was honored as a Mainebiz 40 Under 40 honoree in 2023.

"I've been receiving such great feedback" about the conference, she told Mainebiz as the week went on.

10 takeaways from the conference

Woman with microphone
Photo / Renee Cordes
Katie Shorey

1. Startup Maine's long game. "We want to be the storyteller" of startups in Maine, Shorey said, describing her organization's mission in remarks at Tuesday’s kickoff event. "How can we make this entrepreneurial ecosystem what we want it to be?"

2. Supportive ecosystem. Maine's many resources for startups was highlighted by speakers including Torey Penrod-Cambra of HighByte, a Portland-based maker of industrial software that recently raised $12 million in venture capital funding. "Founder help founders," she said, touting Maine's angel investor community as "one of the best and strongest and most diverse in the country."

3. How Maine can "move the needle." Asked what Maine can do better for startups, Penrod-Cambra floated the idea of a centralized playbook of sorts. "We have a lot of resources, but they can feel scattered sometimes," she said. Helen Cohen, co-founder and CEO of the award-winning ReachMyTeach app, suggested looking at ways to involve students and get them to work with businesses in Maine.

4. "Building a company is hard." The quote, from American businessman Jensen Huang, was cited by Dave Furneaux, founder and CEO of BlueIO, a Boston-based investment firm. Noting that resilience and tenacity lead to greatness, Furneaux offered a shout-out to the co-founders of Defendify, a Portland-based cybersecurity startup. "I can tell you guys are suffering because you're succeeding," he said.

5. Maine needs more spinoffs. That was a plea from Katie Shorey, who asked attendees how Maine can inspire entrepreneurship among employees of large companies such as WEX, IDEXX and Unum. “We need people to spin out of these current companies,” she said.

Five people, sitting
Photo / Renee Cordes
From left, the Maine Equity Investors Panel featured Susan Morris, Chandler Jones, Lucy Barrett, Joe Powers and Tom Kittredge.

6. Plethora of funding opportunities. From the Maine Technology institute to the Maine Venture Fund, Maine offers a plethora of equity funding to startups willing to relinquish an ownership stake in return for financial backing and expertise. "It is a partnership," is how Lucy Barrett of Gulf of Maine Ventures described the relationship. "You're almost entering a marriage in some ways."

Susan Morris with a microphone
Photo / Renee Cordes
Susan Morris

7. Finding your angel. Noting that every angel investor is different, angel investor Susan Morris encouraged startups to find the right one for them. There's going to be an angel investor "that will be your flavor," said Morris, a member of the Maine Angels group of investors and Canada's honorary consul in Maine. She also offered the reassurance that in Maine, angel investors are "all over the place."

8. Venture funding. While securing venture capital funding within the state can be challenging for many startups, Chandler Jones, managing director of CEI Ventures, highlighted the pluses of the Maine Seed Capital Tax Credit program, which gives investors state income tax credits for 40% of what they invest in eligible Maine businesses. "It's a good thing to have on your radar," he said.

9. Acquiring is a pathway to entrepreneurship. Buying a business rather than starting one is another path to entrepreneurship, as highlighted in a panel facilitated by Martha Bentley, co-founder of Proprietor, a Portland-based company that matches buyers and sellers of small businesses. Panelist Krista Cole, owner of Sur Lie restaurant in Portland, Gather in Yarmouth and the new Catface Cafe in Biddeford, shared some of her experiences as both a business founder and buyer.

Photo / Renee Cordes
John Konsin

10. Biotech startups are a different beast. Long timelines for getting regulatory approval are unique to biotech startups such as Prapela. John Konsin, the company's founder and CEO, noted that commercializing a new biotech product is less about emotional appeal "and more about the efficacy and safety of what you bring to market."

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