MCE helps innovators fill in the gaps between their deep industry expertise and the strategic business skills critical to launching a scalable, sustainable venture. Maine's unique economic and geographic challenges demand more that a traditional business incubator. They demand a catalyst.

Business incubators uniquely positioned to spark job creation

As local, state and national government agencies examine ways to create jobs and turn around the struggling economy, business incubation features prominently in the discussion. For 13 years, the Maine Center for Enterprise Development (MCED), a private, not-for-profit and Maine's first business incubator, has been helping entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable businesses, promoting innovation and creating jobs. Some of MCEDs' better known recent graduates include:

AccelGolf – William

Sulinski ORPC – Chris Sauer

CrossRate Technologies – Zack Conover

iBec Creative – Becky Stockbridge

As any entrepreneur can attest, starting a new business is not an easy task. Most business owners know every detail of their product or service, but many lack all of the skills necessary to turn their ideas into successful ventures. MCED is uniquely positioned to help entrepreneur's access resources through the incubator, business community, local colleges and universities, and other business assistance programs to help them develop the skills they need to grow successful, innovative ventures.

There is significant interest within the state for people to connect. All they need is a reason to connect and a group to provide context for connecting. Like many others, I have faith in the ability of entrepreneurs to jump-start our sagging economy by generating revenue and creating new jobs. Many times, however, they need a guiding hand to help them turn their ideas into viable businesses, particularly during times of economic turmoil. By focusing on developing a new generation of entrepreneurs – most of whom have ties to the state – MCED is helping to build companies that will create jobs and spark economic growth in the region for years to come.
There has been a renewed energy around the program, beginning last year, by the Top Gun mentorship effort, which attracted over 80 different individuals and organizations that gave back to the program in some meaningful manner. We are trying, in a difficult economic environment, to sustain an organization, which encourages and supports entrepreneurialism. We have expanded the scope of our offering, and we are aggressively trying to encourage business growth in Maine by getting the private sector more involved in mentoring innovative start-ups. Since we operate on a small budget and our strategic plan for this year expanded the scope of the organization, we therefore are going to need more support, in terms of leadership and finances.

A 2008 study conducted by consulting firm Grant Thornton for the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration found that business incubators produce new jobs at a low cost to the government. The report, Construction Grants Program Impact Assessment Report, found that for every $10,000 in EDA funds invested in business incubation programs, an estimated 47 to 69 local jobs are generated. As a result, business incubators create jobs at far less cost than do other EDA investments, such as roads and bridges, industrial parks, commercial buildings, and sewer and water projects. In fact, the study found that incubators provide up to 20 times more jobs than community infrastructure projects at a federal cost per job of between $126 and $144, compared with between $744 and $6,972 for other infrastructure projects. Although business incubation is still a relatively new industry, programs around the world have racked up impressive results that demonstrate the important role incubators play in stimulating economic growth and creating jobs. Like many others, I have faith in the ability of entrepreneurs to jump-start our sagging economy by generating revenue and creating new jobs.
But many times, they need a guiding hand to help them turn their ideas into viable businesses, particularly during times of economic crises. The world's existing network of business incubation programs – and the many new incubators under development – can assist entrepreneurs in growing new businesses that can help put many people back to work.

Now is not the time to cut back on one of our foremost job creators. Thankfully, our private sector partners recognize that. As government agencies at all levels continue to debate how to revive the economy, it's important that incubators – a critical component of the entrepreneurial support infrastructure that have proven themselves to be significant generators of new jobs – be at the forefront of these discussions. Clearly, we need to target our investments to those projects that will have the greatest return and create the greatest number of jobs: business incubators.

We hope you will join the effort in whatever way you can. Please blog, email, tweet and generally help spread the word.

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How did Top Gun start?

I usually don't write blog posts, but I'm excited about Top Gun applications opening today. A number of people have asked me the story behind Top Gun — so I decided to tell it here. You can apply for Top Gun here and view the schedule of important dates for the program are here.

It all started November 12, 2008 when the Office of Innovation convened some of the economic development leaders in the state to explore the creation of a leadership and entrepreneurial development program that would theoretically match up to 10 high-growth potential entrepreneurs with best-in-class training, resources and mentors. At the time, I had just assumed the position of Director at MCED in July and was really wet behind the ears in the world of economic development.

This was simply a brainstorming session to take a look at what another program – KTEC Pipeline had created in Kansas. As I listened to the description of the KTEC program, I remember asking the consultant who helped develop it "is this similar to the Navy's Top Gun program for its top aviators?" Of course he confirmed it was and the name stuck with me.

I don't know if I was the only one, but I decided that Maine needed a program like KTEC Pipeline and that I wanted to create Top Gun for Maine. So, I decided I was going to do just that. Now, I just needed the support of the private sector in Maine to rally around the idea.

I began by asking people I respected "what's missing from the current offering, what they would find of benefit?" I was told that companies were unprepared for the rigors of a start-up, lacking in managerial talent to execute their plan, and unprepared when it came to presenting their business model to potential sources of capital. In effect, they didn't know what they didn't know.

There was also a question of the quality and quantity of Maine based businesses to invest in. I remember being told that if we could create a program that addressed those issues, then we would have a successful program deemed worthy of support and recognition. That's not to say the goal of the program was to get funding for its participants. It wasn't. The goal has always been to develop the entrepreneur, who will, in-turn develop our states future innovative businesses – thus attracting talent and capital.

Being new to this world of economic development, somewhat strong minded and determined to make a difference, I approached eleven individuals who I wanted to help me create this program. I then met with the Maine Technology Institute in early February 2009 and Applied for a Cluster Feasibility grant later that month. Our challenge was to demonstrate that there was strong private and investor support, as well as strong support from the entrepreneur's themselves, both existing and prospective, for such a program. I remember being told "the key will be getting meaningful private sector support".

On the heels of this meeting, two early supporters – Matt Burns and Lib Butler organized a breakfast meeting with a dozen local influential's to discuss the need for a program like Top Gun. I was encouraged by this initial showing of outreach and support. There was just some doubt that we could pull it off. Questions remained: "Were there really enough Top Gun caliber candidates in the state? Could we really find the support in the way of mentors and service providers? How would the program succeed where others had failed?"

We were given the opportunity to develop and pilot the program in March and awarded a Cluster Feasibility award for $50k. Without their belief that this kind of program had to be given a chance, Top Gun would not have been possible. Thank you to the Maine Technology Institute.

In the summer of 2009, with the help of a committed advisory board, I began meeting with the entrepreneur and professional community and asked them to collaborate with us in supporting the launch of Top Gun in September 2010. The results were incredible. We received huge support from an amazing list of experienced entrepreneurs willing to act as mentors. In total, over 80 individuals and organizations elected to materially support Top Gun in some meaningful way.

That's how Top Gun began. Applications open for Top Gun 2010 today: May 03, 2010 and the program starts in Aug 2010. If you're an innovative entrepreneur, you should consider applying here.

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