#StartupsEverywhere: Jess Knox (Portland, ME)

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

What’s your individual role in your ecosystem?

I’m the Founder of Maine Startup and Create Week; the co-Founder of Startup Portland and Venture Hall; and the Director of Maine Accelerates Growth.

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?

I lot has happened here lately, but I think I can boil it down to two things. 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.

Are there specific public policies that have enabled innovation or startup growth in Portland?

Yes, several. The Maine Seed Capital tax credit has allowed both outside investors and local investors to de-risk their investment. Another, the Opportunity Maine tax credit is a student loan repayment program that allows talented individuals with student loans to still try their hand at entrepreneurship. Finally, Maine’s Laptop program, which was the first program of its kind, and provided a laptop for every 6th grader in Maine, has really helped to increase our statewide technology literacy.

Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?

Yes, many. We view elected officials and policymakers as key partners in our work. From the members of the city council in Portland all the way to U.S. Senators Angus King and Susan Collins. Senator King’s office has a director of innovation in it, which provides us and companies a natural place for connecting and for outreach. For example - they weren’t just leaders in D.C. on net neutrality -- but they were continually engaging the ecosystem.  I mean, Senator King was an entrepreneur in the renewable energy space, Senator Collins was a Regional Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration and Cong. Pingree is a small business owner too -- they get it. They’re always sending us ideas on people to bring to Maine to speak or engage with to help build the ecosystem in Maine. I’m betting that they’re combined knowledge makes our delegation one of the most knowledgeable for it’s relative size.  Combine that with the fact that Maine’s federal elected officials have a long history of being very grounded in their approach. They are deeply involved in the community and their offices are very responsive in their work. It’s just a Maine tradition.

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What is your goal for the next year? The next 5 years?

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.  

What are some startups to watch coming out of Portland?

Definitely look out for MedRythms, ShockAnalytics, Rapport, HistoryIT, VetsFirstChoice, and Tilson Technology.