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September 5, 2016

Thomas Rainey plots his to-do list for MCED's future

Photo / Courtesy of Maine Center For Entrepreneurial Development Thomas Rainey, the new executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, has experience raising money in Arizona, Vermont and Florida. He takes over for Don Gooding, who resigned in the spring.

When Thomas Rainey interviewed to become the new executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, he knew the Portland-based nonprofit already was running a deficit for this year and that raising money would always be a big part of his new job.

Rainey wasn't scared off by the $130,000 to $150,000 budget shortfall the former head of MCED, Don Gooding, had cited as among the reasons he resigned. MCED Board Chair Catherine Renault, who led the search for the new executive director, was among those who helped convince Rainey that this year's funding is “completely doable,” adding that the deficit is not that high.

Renault, principal of Innovation Policyworks LLC in Brunswick, told Mainebiz she and Rainey went through the books scrupulously before he agreed to take the job.

“When I met with the MCED board we went through the laundry list of opportunities being pursued right now and they raised my level of comfort that they had sufficient funding for me to come on board and start doing the work that I need to do,” Rainey, 54, told Mainebiz during a phone interview from his home in Phoenix as he readied for the cross-country drive to his new job, which he starts Sept. 6.

“Everywhere I've been, one of the responsibilities of running a program like this is raising funding for the organization,” he adds. “I try to develop a strategy that is focused on self-sustainability so that at some point in time we have enough stakeholders who are reliable and willing to put resources into the organization because you are getting results and you don't have to worry as much day-to-day about the funding piece.”

Working the funding chain

MCED, a private nonprofit launched in 1997, is considered a key piece of Maine's infrastructure designed to help entrepreneurs, startups and the general business community.

Rainey has to his credit 20 years in technology-based economic development in rural and urban communities across the country. In Phoenix, he launched the $5 million Bioinspire Medical Device Accelerator medical device accelerator. In Flagstaff, Ariz., he developed and served as president of the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology incubator, helping raise $5 million in real estate development funds and $220,000 in initial operating funds.

At the University of Vermont, where he was a consultant, he raised $3.6 million and helped develop and serve as president of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. In Florida, he was responsible for developing six NASA-funded business incubators for which he helped raise $4 million for new buildings and staff centers.

In letters supporting his work that Rainey supplied to Mainebiz, Janet Napolitano, who was Arizona governor when the Northern Arizona Center for Emerging Technologies was completed, thanked Rainey, writing, “The addition of the incubator facility in the northern region of the state plays a significant role in developing and bringing emerging technologies to northern Arizona.” She commended the center for “having the vision to create this incubator facility to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Like northern Maine, the northern part of Arizona once had an economy based largely on timber, but now has a strong tourism sector because of its proximity to Grand Canyon National Park. In the private sector, there is a developing industry around medical device manufacturing.

Experience in states like Arizona, Vermont and New Hampshire, with similarities to Maine, gave Rainey an edge with MCED's board. He worked in smaller cities, with universities, economic development entities and in rural areas, and has a track record raising money for enterprises similar to MCED.

Now, after nine years in Arizona, Rainey says he and his family were ready to come back east, closer to relatives in Vermont and in Quebec, from where his wife hails.

“He's going to fit in so well,” says Renault. “He's done this before. He has lots of experience raising money.”

The MCED board talked to five candidates by phone before bringing two to Portland, says Renault, adding that about half of MCED's board was involved in the search process and the vote for Rainey was unanimous.

“Everyone who met Tom remarked on his 'quiet charisma,'” says Renault. “That was a trait we all appreciated. He's confident, but in a quiet way.”

When the search committee recommended him to the 13-member MCED board, she says, it mentioned comments others had made about Rainey: he has a strategic view of the ecosystem, he is confident and credible, he has a powerful success record with organizations like ours, he has a good balance between strategy and execution, he would build a balanced team and he has great charisma and well knows the challenge of building a community.

Rainey will get on the ground by familiarizing himself with the programs and people in place at MCED, as well as other entrepreneurial organizations in the state.

“We want to give him the most degree of freedom,” says Renault. “It's a great opportunity to take a deep breath and assess where you are.”

Spreading the load via diversification

Renault says it's clear that MCED needs to diversify its funding sources. Even though it is a nonprofit that has to apply for grants from the state, it does benefit from Maine Department of Economic and Community Development grant funding, as well as money from entrepreneur services, other sponsors and other grants such as a recent $390,000 federal grant from the Economic Development Administration's 2015 Regional Innovation Strategies program focused on expanding the Top Gun program and on rural economic development.

“I'd like to see a bigger portion of our income from clients,” says Renault. “That's a directive from the board.”

Rainey says that's one thing that made his application attractive to MCED. “I have been successful in raising more than $45 million of federal funding from the USDA Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program to Community Development Block Grant funds to EDA grants,” he says. “So I have a good track record of bringing money into states.”

He says that's how the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington got kickstarted. He developed a feasibility study, then worked with the university as the lead partner on the initiative, helping pull in a number of stakeholder organizations to support initial development.

“Then we tried to get it quickly on a solid business footing to make it a self-sustaining organization so we didn't have to constantly go out looking for small grants,” he says. “We also got a real estate component where we could generate revenue with rental income as a business incubator.” Rainey, Renault and others say the incubator is considered to be among the top ones in the country.

Rainey also is interested in spreading another type of diversity, that of medium-sized companies that normally only do business with large, primarily contractors to look at business-to-business opportunities among themselves. He also would like to help companies with products focused on a single industry broaden their applications to other industries so they can grow.

One example in Arizona is helping companies in Sierra Vista, Ariz., capitalize on and spread the local expertise on cybersecurity.

“Those are the types of opportunities I'm going to be looking for when I come to Maine. Where are those opportunities? Where are the feeders to build on those?” he says.

Rural, international reach

“I've been doing this since the 1990s, running organizations like this one in Florida, California and Missouri,” says Rainey, a native of Missouri. “I think that this is one thing that was interesting to the MCED board of directors. I did it successfully in other places that required rural economic development.”

He describes his biggest strength as working with other people. “I'm pretty adaptable. I try to put myself in the shoes of the other people I work with,” he says. His greatest weakness: “I'm a pretty skeptical person overall. I don't take many things at face value. Part of that is having read so many business plans over the years.”

His work in Arizona not only covered all of northern Arizona, where he also worked with the Navajo reservation to boost entrepreneurship there and with little towns that rely on tourism and mining, but also to the south in Sierra Vista, trying to stoke more cross-border pollination of innovation opportunities with Mexican companies.

He said he hopes to do the same in Maine by using the state as a launching point, especially for Canadian companies to set up their first U.S. presence. He says he was able to entice Parallel Geometry, a Montreal startup, to set up its first United States. office in Burlington, and hopes to make similar cross-border headway while in Maine.

“Economic diversification is so critical. It's one of the big topics in economic development now because there's so much inequality from the large urban areas to rural areas,” he says. “Maine is one of those states that really needs to focus on getting the economic development tools out into those smaller communities and helping them adapt to the changing economy.”

Read more

MCED's executive director, Don Gooding, announces resignation

Don Gooding sings highs and lows of MCED in swan song

MCED names interim executive director, looks for permanent head

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