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Updated: August 8, 2022 Women to Watch

Women to Watch: When it comes to startups, Renee Kelly has her foot on the gas

PHOTO / SOUBANH PHANTHAY Renee Kelly has been at the center of Maine’s startup community.

Renee Kelly is assistant vice president for innovation and economic development for the University of Maine. She serves as a liaison to the state’s economic development community and identifies opportunities for the university to partner with organizations to improve Maine’s economy. In addition, she leads the commercialization support and innovation programs of the University of Maine, including the MIRTA Accelerator program, Foster Center for Innovation, UMaine’s I-Corps Site and business incubation programs.

She has also been at the forefront of Maine’s startup community, and was a founding member of Blackstone Accelerates Growth (now Maine Accelerates Growth) and led the creation of the Maine Fellows Program. She is a Maine native, having grown up on a dairy farm in Newburgh, about 25 miles from her office. She has an undergraduate degree from Smith College and a master’s from UMaine.

Mainebiz: Did you have a mentor who was particularly influential?

Renee Kelly: When I was really young, I was interested in history. We had a chimney fire in our house. [Going through the debris] I found a trove of documents and ads for Model T’s stuffed in the walls of the house. I brought them to school. The librarian, Alice Hawes, said, ‘I do genealogy every Saturday morning,’ and asked if I wanted to join her. She started taking me to the library. It showed me the power of someone sharing your interests.

MB: How did you get interested in startups?

RK: After my husband and I got married, he was in the Navy and stationed in San Diego. I worked for a financial services startup, in marketing. It was a firm that developed technology to read documents electronically and was eventually acquired by SafeCo. I worked directly with the founders and learned a bit of everything. I was there through the process of selling. Later, when my husband was transferred to Connecticut, I worked for Manpower, which gave me an idea about the importance of systems.

The work I do now is to try to build systems. Sometimes innovation is not associated with systems, but we came up with three to four priorities covering commercialization, training and programs. If you have a systematic approach to an idea coming out of a lab, you can figure out if it’s a good idea. You can ask, ‘Are you actually solving a problem people care about?’

MB: How does the process of ‘starting a startup’ happen?

RK: First, I never tell the student, ‘That idea won’t work.’ Prove me wrong if I think it’s a bad idea. I teach them a process, or an approach. Nine times out of 10, they will change their idea significantly, and 90% of the time they pivot. We ask, What are the death threats to the idea? What could kill the idea as you develop the idea or bring it to market? Is someone already doing this? Will customers want this? What are the ideas that are out there? Can you bootstrap this? Can you get funding? Can you build a team? The biggest death threat is building something no one wants.

MB: How did Maine’s startup culture get its start?

RK: When I came to UMaine [in 1997] the state was just beginning to invest in innovation. We started to see some spinoff activity, but there wasn’t a network or experienced base to support growth. For instance, there were very few intellectual property lawyers. [Maine Technology Institute] had just been created. The Maine Venture Fund was just getting going. People didn’t have aspirations in that way. Maine was entrepreneurial in starting its own companies, but not in that way. We needed more of a resource network and culture.

That was the genesis of the Foster Center for Innovation. UMaine has 11,000 students, and many stay in Maine. Our idea was to seed the culture with students. Culture change takes time, but we could give them the skills. Created curriculum we could license to other universities … Maine has a ton of opportunity, but we needed to build this culture.

MB: How does the creation of startups intersect with economic development? And do they ever work at cross purposes?

RK: They do come together. I was on the board of economic development for the state. The thinking evolved so that economic development efforts included the startup community. There was a recognition that much of economic development was smokestack chasing: you go out of Maine, look for a big company and try to bring them in. But if something is started in Maine it is rooted in Maine. A startup won’t necessarily leave when a better opportunity comes along.

MB: What is still needed to help startups?

RK: Talent is the biggest issue. We’re still a small state. We have to be creative to find someone who can round out a team. We need people who can become CEOs and CFOs. [For a startup], these are big leaps from two people to 10 people to 25 people.

MB: What are other missing pieces?

RK: Live + Work in Maine is doing talent recruiting, to find people for bigger companies. Is there a campaign for startup talent? How can we leverage the good of the pandemic or people becoming more comfortable with distance? In the past two years, lots of people have come to Maine, but a lot of them still think of Maine as a vacation place, not as a place to do business. Finding talent is more and more critical as we try to scale up.

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