Top 8 Lessons from MTAF2.0 Lightning Round

By Martha Bentley
MTI’s Director of Innovation Infrastructure

This week MTI is announcing the final challenge grants for the MTAF2.0 Lightning Round – the bond funded program approved by voters in June 2017 and managed by MTI on behalf of the taxpayers of Maine. MTI’s President, Brian Whitney, is allowing me to make a guest blog appearance to share the lessons learned, from my perspective, from MTAF2.0. Many of these lessons will be familiar to founders and others who have worked to build their companies, but some are unique to MTI’s position in the innovation economy.

1.  It’s not easy to be entrepreneurial with taxpayer money
While MTI designed MTAF2.0 to be more applicant-friendly and flexible on the front end – – with workshops around the State for potential applicants, an open submission window, a simple slide-deck first step as a low barrier application, written feedback to applicants within a month of slide-deck submission, and very simple and friendly Program Guidelines – –  as the volume of interested potential applicants, current applicants and disappointed non-competitive applicants grew, we found it increasingly difficult to maintain the pace of business and the entrepreneurial flexibility to adjust our product to the customer’s needs.  We found ourselves slowed by legal complexities and pressed into a more bureaucratic box to ensure that our process was fully transparent, clear and consistent with the language of the bond, the Maine Constitution’s language on the uses of bond funds, and the Program Guidelines we had established and published.  The parameters on uses of bond funds and the care we must use to determine the best and highest uses of taxpayer dollars makes it difficult to pivot and roll to meet the timelines and needs of our customers.
 
2. Ideally, it’s best to build your systems before your launch your product, and PS make sure your entire team is on board  
MTI has been building “high touch” products for the majority of its organizational life and launching a new product – one that was deliberately designed to be both high touch and high volume – in addition to the products already available – was a strain on our systems, both human and technological. MTI’s effort to lower the barrier and decrease bureaucracy required a build as we go mentality and systems ability which has not been necessary with past products.

3. Bond funds are not necessarily the right vehicle for supporting world class tech startups
Maine’s constitution requires that bond funds must be used for capital assets and startups often need “soft” assets – like developers and space on cloud servers – not buildings and equipment. If Maine is to support tech startups in the software space, we must utilize a funding vehicle with less restrictive requirements.

4. With a relatively limited amount of funding ($45MM) and an enormous number of requests ($389MM), many good projects are going to go unfunded
MTI received many, many more excellent requests than could be funded and was always working with this fact in mind. There is a good deal of innovation, building new and improved products, and a strong desire to improve the productivity of companies and the lives of employees around our State. Additional dollars with potentially fewer requirements on the uses of spending would continue to strengthen our competitiveness in the global market.

5. Applicants typically don’t think like reviewers, and psst – reviewers are human
One of the best accelerator models nationwide is Village Capital, whose approach is designed to teach entrepreneurs to think like investors. MTAF2.0 applicants could take a page from the Village Capital book and learn to think more like reviewers.  Putting themselves in the shoes of the reviewers may have helped many applicants put together better requests. It might also have made interactions between MTI staff and applicants more productive. Applicants’ ability to begin interactions from a place of understanding would perhaps have made the application experience better for all.

6. Everybody loves you til you tell them no
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but the receipt of feedback and notice that a project was not selected to move forward in the Lightning Round was met by many with understandable disappointment, but also, in some cases, incredulity and anger.  Obviously, when you are tasked with establishing a competitive grant process, where you have far more people seeking funding than there are available funds, many good proposals end up going unfunded and many people end up being unhappy with you. We humbly accept that role and responsibility, although it’s not always easy, especially when we are on the receiving end of ire from companies that MTI provided early funding and other support to as they launched their companies in Maine.

7. Trust the process
Throughout MTAF2.0 Lightning Round, my mantra has been “trust the process.”  A clear, fair and transparent process, with evaluation criteria that is applied equally to each request, will lead to good decisions.  This is the case with MTAF2.0.  Eighteen projects are projected to lead to 5,359 NEW jobs and $1.37 Billion in aggregate economic output across multiple geographies, stages of company maturity and industries across Maine.  Does it mean that the process is perfect?  No, it doesn’t.  Does it mean that other projects received and declined were not strong? No, it doesn’t.  But it does mean that the projects that were consistently ranked highest against standard criteria and then each other were selected and the potential economic benefit will reach each of us as taxpayers and residents.

8. Keep your eyes on the prize
At the end of the day, MTAF2.0 is not about 18 “winners” and 165 “non-winners.” MTAF2.0 is bigger than any individual funding decision – it is about making investments with bond dollars to maximize impact and advance the economic prosperity of Maine communities by positioning them as places where companies can strive to be globally competitive.

As this Lightning Round comes to a close, I feel a little weary but also inspired. These MTAF2.0 investments will have a monumental impact on the State of Maine – – over 5,300 new jobs and over $1.3 billion in economic impact. I am hopeful that MTI will soon again be entrusted with the honor and opportunity to manage bond funds on behalf of the State so we can put the lessons learned through MTAF2.0 to work.