Amidst a pandemic-inspired economic downturn when many small business owners are questioning if they can afford to remain open and aspiring entrepreneurs are surveying whether conditions will ever be right to invest in their dream, Bangor Region’s startup community just received a major vote of confidence from three local funding sources.
Grants totaling $69,500 awarded to UpStart Maine from the Maine State Office of USDA Rural Development, Maine Community Foundation, and Bangor Savings Bank will spearhead a strategic effort to accelerate its work to grow the Bangor Region’s startup economy.
Upstart Maine, founded in 2016, is a volunteer-led coalition of programs and facilities consisting of pitch competitions, business accelerators, professional coaches and advisors, lenders, technical training, incubation and coworking spaces. The coalition brings under one umbrella the independent yet like-minded ventures of Top Gun, Scratchpad, Big Gig, MaineStream Finance, University of Maine Foster Center for Student Innovation, Bangor Innovation Center, UpStart Center for Entrepreneurship, and CoVort Coworking.
USDA Rural Development State Director Timothy P. Hobbs shared, “I am pleased that USDA Rural Development can assist Upstart Maine by providing essential funding that will help connect start-up businesses in the region to resources that will help them grow.”
Bangor Savings Bank’s gift of $10,000 will allow UpStart Maine to launch an independently-run assessment of how the greater Bangor Region (defined as an hour in each direction, MDI to Millinocket to Dover-Foxcroft to Waterville) is currently viewed as a center of innovation, as well as gain additional insights related to the community’s current awareness and impressions of the coalition’s eight entrepreneur-support programs and facilities.
Insights collected from the independent assessment will give the organization valuable direction on where and how to target their efforts to achieve the greatest impact.
Their long-planned search to engage an “ecosystem builder” is now underway, thanks to $34,500 from the USDA Rural Development Office and $25,000 from Maine Community Foundation earmarked for this initiative.
Over the next year, the ecosystem builder will vigorously forge connections between entrepreneurs leading innovation-driven startups affiliated with UpStart Maine’s programs with mentors, senior executives in established organizations, companies that can serve as first customers and industry contacts, early-stage investors, and other entrepreneurs who have achieved commercial success.
“We have a growing number of startups in the Bangor Region,” said Jason Harkins, vice president of UpStart Maine and co-founder of Scratchpad Accelerator, “but it is only through deep connections with the larger community that startups can grow – especially innovation-driven startups that are developing products and services for sale to the nation and world. They need quick market traction, talented teams that can navigate the business side of the enterprise, and eventually equity investors to scale their businesses. That’s the role of an ecosystem builder, to help entrepreneurs and the programs that support them to forge those connections.”
Differentiating itself from the multitude of effective programs around the state that support "Main Street" businesses that primarily serve local and tourist markets, UpStart Maine focuses on "innovation-driven" enterprises with the potential to reach statewide, national, and even global markets. The unique assistance often needed by these enterprises – such as executive expertise, b2b marketing, or outside equity investment – is not readily available outside of Portland, yet.
As the ecosystem builder work gets underway later this fall, entrepreneurs enrolled in UpStart Maine’s programs will directly benefit from the connections forged. UpStart Maine leadership will involve startup founders directly in these efforts. They will meet potential sources for technical assistance, mentorship, executive advice, customers, and seed capital to help them meet their business objectives.
A region's economy typically grows on a foundation of exports beyond its geographical boundaries. Unfortunately, the Bangor Region falls well below the average of most other metropolitan regions of comparable size on this metric. Built on a conviction that the region actually has the capacity and assets to "grow from within" but just lacks the critical mass of resources to drive such innovation, UpStart Maine’s purpose is to grow the regional economy through scalable enterprises with global market interest.
Local business leaders champion this mission as one that is beneficial for the entire community. Growth generates income that circulates through the area's economy – fueling spending on groceries, eating out, household goods, and everything else that goes into everyday living.
“UpStart plays an essential role in helping to diversify our economy by supporting the growth of innovative companies reaching markets outside of Maine,” said Maggie Drummond-Bahl, Senior Program Officer at the Maine Community Foundation. “And we know now more than ever before, a more diverse economy is a more resilient one.”
This article is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Maine Technology Institute, supporting UpStart Maine’s effort to increase awareness of its programs and facilities available to start-up entrepreneurs in the Bangor Region.