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Dirigo means, “I lead.” So it’s fitting that Susan Ruhlin, who has spent her professional life around startups and entrepreneurs, would lead Dirigo Labs to great heights. The startup incubator, which started with a modest base, has made waves in the startup community by continuing to grow one business after another. Some of the innovative startups that have gone through Dirigo Labs include the Waterville-based life sciences firm Genotyping Center of America, Brunswick Landing-based rocket builder bluShift Aerospace and Rockland-based Croft, which creates architectural products with a low carbon footprint.
Mainebiz: You were instrumental in Maine Center for Entrepreneurs’ Top Gun program in 2009 — the first of several accelerator programs that have been launched. How has Maine’s accelerator community evolved since then?
Susan Ruhlin: It has grown tremendously and is much more connected. When Top Gun launched in 2009, the prevailing wisdom was to try and clone accelerators like Y-Combinator. However, we lacked the critical mass of scalable startups needed to sustain that model. So, we pivoted a bit, focusing instead on developing earlier-stage companies. A defining moment in the evolution of Maine’s startup community was the 2011 Blackstone Accelerates Growth Initiative. That $3 million investment connected Maine’s entrepreneurial organizations under one umbrella. This collaboration and funding infusion led to Top Gun’s statewide expansion, the University of Maine’s renowned internship program, and established a connected partner ecosystem, Maine Accelerates Growth.
Today, our collective network of entrepreneurial support organizations assists companies at every stage of development across all stages and industries. Our accelerators play a crucial role within a broader continuum of support designed to meet companies where they are and help them scale.
MB: Dirigo Labs vows to ‘disrupt the status quo.’ What does that mean exactly?
SR: To me, that means that we don’t take a prescriptive approach to working with startups. Our programming is customized to help founders based on their individual needs, not a one-size-fits-all model. We also devote a fair amount of time to helping our founders understand state and municipal incentives as well, which can be incredibly helpful to new companies but not typically covered in other accelerators. At its core, our goal is to build lasting, supportive relationships with founders across the state. We aim to be a welcoming home base where entrepreneurs can always return to find the necessary connections, resources and assistance on their startup journey.
MB: You’ve been described as a ‘big picture thinker.’ Can you give us an example of where that thinking helped convert a small idea to a big idea (or initiative)?
SR: A great example would be how we laid the groundwork for Dirigo Labs. I thought we’d get lost in the noise if we weren’t successful in differentiating ourselves from the other entrepreneurial programs, so from the start, we planned to build an innovation hub, not just an accelerator. Our mantra was, let’s support startup founders across Maine, but also, let’s show them what a great city Waterville is and the central Maine region as a whole for launching a technology company. That meant building solid partnerships with our local academic institutions, professional services companies and Main Street businesses while at the same time connecting to Maine’s broader startup ecosystem partners and looking beyond (even nationally) for inspiration. We established a mentor network of over 100 professionals in diverse industries from across the country and developed a robust startup curriculum with help from our partners at the Center on Rural Innovation. Because our team brings so much diversity of talent and is, by design, highly collaborative, our brainstorming sessions always lead to successful initiatives.
MB: What are some of the firms that have been able to scale up after going through Dirigo Labs?
SR: We’re very excited by the progress Genotyping Center of America is making. Croft is off to the races, and bluShift Aerospace continues to impress and inspire us. I suspect Tardigrade Industries will be in the news soon as well. In six to 12 months, I think we’ll see several others on the list, so stay tuned.
MB: Small businesses face all kinds of challenges today, from finding financing to hiring employees. What is the state of the startup community in Maine right now?
SR: It’s stronger than ever! Industry-focused accelerators are emerging to propel innovations in aquaculture, food production, medical technology, biotech and more. The outdoor recreation and adventure tech sectors are also growing as Maine becomes a hub for emerging companies. This is extremely exciting to me because when a state can support and sustain multiple types of businesses at varying stages of development, we’re reaching a huge milestone. I like to say, ‘There are many startups in Silicon Valley because there are many startups in Silicon Valley.’ Reaching a critical mass of new companies will hasten the spinout of others while attracting new companies and talent.
Research at institutions like the University of Maine and the groundbreaking AI development at Colby College’s Davis Institute are fueling disruption in multiple ways. The Roux Institute elevates startups by combining world-class talent with a major university’s assets.
Maine-based finance and investment firms and state-sanctioned organizations are highly engaged in training and funding startups. Also, at the forefront of nearly every startup is the Maine Technology Institute, which has spent the past 25 years igniting innovation statewide through critical non-dilutive investments and commercialization capital.
With pioneering research setting the foundation and concerted support from startup-focused organizations, I believe Maine is poised to be a breakout hub of entrepreneurial growth.