Portland, Maine has seen a bunch of startup activity in the last year. From Vet First Choice's raise of $223M, to CashStar's acquisition by Blackhawk Network for $175M and everything in between, the tech ecosystem is vibrant and showing no signs of slowing down.
Jess Knox, founder of Maine Startup and Create Week and cofounder of Startup Portland and Venture Hall, is a force in the Portland, Maine scene and is making moves to grow entrepreneurship. In this interview with #StartupsEverywhere, he discusses the latest from Venture Hall, inputs that have help the community grow and what is next for Portland.
What’s your individual role in your ecosystem?
What does Venture Hall do?
Venture Hall is a non-profit, educational organization that focuses on supporting high-growth, high-impact companies. We are able to help these companies meet their goals through proven programming, mentors, and services. We also run a healthcare-focused summer accelerator and a code school, support a local cohort of companies, and organize events to convene talent, ideas, and resources to invest in the development of innovation-driven enterprises.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in Portland in the past year?
First, the engagement of the corporate community as partners in innovation has increased significantly (MaineHealth and Unum are now our partners in our accelerator program). The second is the rise of participation of private foundations in our ecosystem. For example, Maine Community Foundation chose entrepreneurship as one of its seven goals for the next decade, and the Harold Alfond Foundation recently contributed $5.2 million to Thomas College for a Business Innovation Center.
What is the biggest challenge you face in Portland?
A big obstacle, which is really a long term challenge, is the cultural conflict between quality of life and building world-class companies. Many Portland residents have chosen to make a home in the city for the “quality of life” it has traditionally offered. This weighs on efforts to create world-class and ground-breaking technology and innovation because many people think they can’t coexist. Too often, this impact talent recruitments, investor pitches, and other inputs that help build a successful startup ecosystem. I’m incredibly confident that Maine can be both Vactionland AND Innovation-land.
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
The investment by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation in 2011 really helped provide the necessary fuel to the folks in our community trying to build the ecosystem. The visit by Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour also helped add momentum. In the last few years, Portland has also had some large acquisitions — over $300 million in value — which, for our small city of 63,000, was really huge.
What are some of your long-term goals?
My main goals for the next year and the next five years are ultimately the same. First, we need a high percentage of companies in Maine with high-growth aspirations. We’re good at starting, but we need to support the growth of founders who want to engage beyond regional markets. Second, we need to infiltrate the economic industrial complex and support an increase in the the people who want to build the ecosystem — we need more organizers, more investors, and more doers who are focused on supporting the companies in the first goal. Third, I hope to increase partnerships for our startups outside of Maine in places like Boston, Montreal and Iceland. Lastly, I hope to diversify the financial support for startup and innovation ecosystem activities and programs that go beyond sponsorships and into private foundations, corporate philanthropy, and high-net-worth individuals. Maine has is poised, both momentum-wise and geographically-wise to go to the next level, but we need to do things thing to do it.