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Portland, Maine’s Startup Tech Scene Surges

July 6, 2015
Small Business
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Portland, Maine, is no Silicon Valley, and it’s not trying to be. But the northern New England city has a burgeoning technology scene that’s hard to ignore.

“The startup ecosystem in this city rivals any one in the world,” says Christopher Hall, chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Portland’s technology industry is a hodgepodge of companies working on software development, app development, health informatics, payment systems, clean technology and more. It’s grown substantially over the last five to seven years, says Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

“As technology developers are looking to build their families, Portland is attractive,” Gooding says.

People want to work in Portland because they want to live there; it’s safe, full of great restaurants and beautifully situated on a dramatic Atlantic coastline. With a population of just over 66,000, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data, Portland has a small-town feel and a tight-knit technology community.

“Everybody knows each other,” says John Spritz, manager of Growing Portland, a collaboration between the city and the chamber to spur innovation and job growth. “There’s about half a degree of separation.”

Access to capital is key

Getting access to capital is a universal challenge for small businesses, but companies in Portland find funding through a combination of venture capital and state-sponsored grant and loan programs. The state’s Finance Authority encourages private individuals to invest in startups through its Seed Capital Tax Credit Program, which offers state income tax credits to investors for up to half of the cash equity they invest in eligible Maine businesses.

“If you’ve got a good idea, you’ve got people beating down your door to give you money,” says Bob Neveu, president and co-founder of Certify, a Portland-based expense management software company. Since its 2008 launch, Certify has raised about $10 million in financing from various investors, including the state-backed Maine Venture Fund.

Other major players in the state’s funding community are the Maine Technology Institute, a state-created nonprofit offering innovative companies grants, loans and equity investments, and the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, a private nonprofit that has programming, events and mentoring for technology businesses.

Portland-based entrepreneur John Rooks and his three co-founders used resources from both MTI and MCED to start and grow Rapport, a software product to help small businesses manage their sustainability efforts. Rapport launched in 2014 using three MTI grants totaling around $40,000, Rooks says. The company also recently applied for MTI’s development loan program, which lends up to $500,000 to companies that can find a 100% matching investment.

In June, Rapport won first place in the Top Gun Showcase, MCED’s pitch competition that caps the five-month Top Gun accelerator program. The prize included $10,000 and access to Microsoft’s BizSpark program, a package of software products and technology services for startups.

Rapport’s momentum isn’t slowing. The company is competing in GreenLight Maine, an entrepreneurship competition in the format of the ABC reality show “Shark Tank.” The company is one of 26 semifinalists vying for $100,000 in the competition that will be filmed and aired on local channels in the fall.

“It’s an exciting time to be in Portland for sure,” Rooks says.

Other resources

Maine Angels: These accredited investors fund and mentor early-stage companies. Businesses can apply here to be considered for funding. The application requires an executive summary, business plan and financial plan.

Blackstone Accelerates Growth: This group works with MTI, MCED and the University of Maine to organize a range of events and accelerator programs for Maine entrepreneurs. It also connects entrepreneurs with resources including coaching and consulting and provides scholarships and internships for Maine college students.

Casco Bay Technology Hub: The nonprofit hosts networking events for Maine’s technology entrepreneurs including PubHub, a monthly speaker series.

Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine: Known as E2Tech, this organization offers membership to Maine entrepreneurs involved in clean technology. Members can attend networking events, lecture series and workshops, and participate in the organization’s clean technology projects.

For more information about how to start and run a business, visit NerdWallet’s Small Business Guide. For free, personalized answers to questions about starting and financing your business, visit the Small Business section of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor page.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @teddynykiel

Top photo: Don Gooding of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development (from left), Rapport co-founders John Rooks and Justin Jaffe, and Chris Pasko and Rumena Manolova of  Blackstone Advisory Partners celebrate after Rapport won first place at the 2015 Top Gun Showcase. Photo by Stephen Davis Phillips.