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10/31/12 - Tech Innovators Connect at MTI Conference

(Reprint from MaineBiz 10/29/12) LEWISTON - An arena in Lewiston buzzed recently, but instead of its usual hockey fans, several hundred entrepreneurs, investors and government officials from inside and outside the state swarmed the Androscoggin Bank Colisée to see the latest biotech, alternative energy and high tech innovations by Maine businesses.

The more-than two dozen companies at the Maine Technology Institute's Innovation Economy Showcase all had MTI funding and had developed to the point where they could show commercial products. Among them were Pantheon Guitars, Sea and Reef Aquaculture, Cerahelix Inc., Ocean Renewable Power Co. and Pika Energy. Those in attendance grabbed a snack or drink, mingled and talked innovation.

And that's exactly what new MTI President Bob Martin wanted. 

"Not many people in the state know about the types of companies that are here," Martin told Mainebiz. "And people tend to think of

Maine as timber, paper and shoes legacy business. But about 85% of the world's tennis ball felt is made by a North Monmouth company (Tex Tech, which has MTI grants). These types of stories reposition the types of business in the state."

Martin said he wants to hold more frequent events to heighten awareness of Maine's innovation companies and to get entrepreneurs together and talking.

"Innovation is a contact sport. Where better to celebrate than in a place where people know about contact sports," David Kappos, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, told the attendees at the Colisée during a brief speech. "There's no question in my mind that Maine is an innovative state." He noted that Maine politician John Ruggles called for the creation of the modern patent system in 1836 and holds the first patent under that system.

Kappos, Martin and a couple dozen other investors and officials met before the event to discuss how to improve Maine's entrepreneurial landscape, including getting products to market more quickly. Among them was Desh Deshpande, a well-known serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and founder of Internet equipment maker Sycamore Networks Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass. He also is co-chair of President Obama's National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and he funded the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT and more recently, the Pond-Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada.

To Deshpande, the type of excitement evident on the floor of the Colisée is the first step toward building a cluster of innovators.

"You need to find ways to connect people. Rarely do people sit alone in the dark and form a company," Deshpande told Mainebiz. "Excitement comes first. You need to create a feeling of excitement, and a feeling that [a new venture] can be successful, and then everyone wants to be part of the game. Entrepreneurship works from the bottom up, not the top down."

Deshpande's message to Maine was to "get more people to play" the entrepreneurship game.

Making relevant connections

Martin said he wants to create more opportunities for that to happen, which is why an experienced entrepreneur like Deshpande was invited to talk at the meeting and during the event. He said the pre-event meeting discussed what the key innovations are for entrepreneurial success, what needs to exist in the entrepreneurial universe, and how to accelerate the process of getting products to market.

"It should have been a three-hour conversation instead of one hour," Martin said. "The state is rural and has a low population, so how do you get people together to talk?"

He said one effort that started recently is the Top Gun Prep online course, which brings together — virtually — early-stage innovators in weekly webinars and interactive discussions on customer development, revenue streams and business model innovation. The nine-week, $300 course, launched by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, Target Technology Incubator, and the Foster Center for Student Innovation, is open to up to 100 participants. Blackstone Accelerates Growth will underwrite a limited number of scholarships. There also was a meeting of the regular Top Gun at the Colisée after the MTI showcase.

Another effort in the early stages is a plan for Kappos to work with MTI to develop a database of entrepreneurial activity that will give an idea of the process of developing technology transfer and to capture skills and activities of the entrepreneur. The aim is to find out about entrepreneurial activity and collect and share the information using a tool that the patent office can replicate around the country, Martin said.

"What's interesting is there's lots going on in Maine," said Deshpande, adding that Internet and other technology can help entrepreneurs interact over distances. "Maine is trying to find a way. But you can never underestimate the value of face-to-face meetings. Maine needs to do more of that."

By creating its own ecosystem of innovation, the state can attract people, including investors, said Amy Stursberg, executive director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. "If we create a strong ecosystem, Boston will come here," she said.

Lori Valigra, a writer based in Harrison, can be reached at editorial@mainebiz.biz.

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