A Startup Accelerator Gets a Boost
A successful entrepreneur returns to Waterville to take up residence at Dirigo Labs
What do floating, motorized picnic tables, artisan pizza dough made with Maine-grown grain, and eco-friendly rockets powered with bio-fuel have in common?
They’re all ideas brought to life by the dreamers, founders, and entrepreneurs who made up last spring’s inaugural cohort of Dirigo Labs, a new startup accelerator in Waterville’s Hathaway Creative Center. The goal of the organization is to support Maine entrepreneurs who are launching companies, and two Colby alumni are adding their creativity, energy, and expertise to help make it happen.
Jeremy Barron ’00 is Dirigo Labs’ new entrepreneur-in-residence, and Jake Conterato ’20 has been working for almost a year as its projects and innovation network coordinator. They said that although Central Maine does not have the same kind of reputation as a cradle for innovation as New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and other major hubs, it is nonetheless a great place to locate a startup accelerator.
“It actually allows for something really nice within the cohort. They all were able to give each other a lot of advice and create a really collaborative work environment,” Conterato said. “The goal is to actually connect these companies with the amazing resources that exist within Maine. Part of that is creating an environment that is really an ecosystem, and not competitive.”
For Barron, an entrepreneur who helped found a successful technology company while a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s exciting to see this kind of effort located in a rural location.
“You can start and build a really successful business in Maine,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can to help these entrepreneurs be more successful.”
An entrepreneur’s journey
He knows what he’s talking about. Barron, who majored in anthropology and biology at the College, returned to his home state of Colorado after graduation. There, he worked for a philanthropic foundation for a few years before taking a job as an analyst for an investment bank, where he enjoyed working with entrepreneurs.
And when he returned to the East Coast in 2006 to pursue a master’s of business administration at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, it wasn’t a big stretch to imagine becoming one himself. There, Barron met a group of students who were also interested in starting something from the ground up. They became best friends and shared a willingness to take chances.
“We had a really high risk tolerance. We weren’t scared to have financial stress,” he said. “We understood the value of leverage: if it’s successful, it could take off exponentially.”
The idea they pursued had to do with finding a way to use technology to assist in accessibility. As an MIT undergraduate, one member of the team had worked at the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Later, he worked at MIT OpenCourseWare, a pioneer in the open educational resources movement, which had received a grant contingent on making online video courses accessible. Finding a way to do video closed-captioning economically with the use of AI was the challenge that sparked, Barron said. He and his friends were up for the entrepreneurial challenge.
“A paying customer has a need,” Barron said. “What can we do to invent around this problem and create a solution?”
It wasn’t always a smooth and easy path. There were moments they thought they would crumble, Barron said, with challenges emerging on both the technical and non-technical sides of the equation. But they stuck to it, raising capital with the help of early investors and friends, and ultimately created the company 3Play Media. It was successful, counting Netflix as an early customer. After a decade the founders ultimately sold the majority stake to a Boston private equity firm.
Lessons from success and failure
After that, Barron spent time decompressing. He traveled around the country in a van with his wife and dog for a couple of years, eventually choosing Portland, Maine, as a place to put down roots. Last January at Colby, he taught a Jan Plan course in entrepreneurship he called New Enterprises, with a goal of teaching students some of the lessons he had learned.
“Most entrepreneurs that are successful are actually not successful the first time. The key is to jump in and try. If you fail, do so with dignity. Be above board and honest with your investors. Learn from that failure,” he said.
Barron also wanted his students to dive into entrepreneurship right out of the gate. Within the first or second class, they were practicing their elevator pitches, and the final exam was a pitch to a group of venture capitalists that he knew well.
He’s looking forward to sharing more of his experiences and expertise with the entrepreneurs at Dirigo Labs. They’ll also learn about funding sources that may be available to them such as tax credits and other resources, Conterato said. Helping the entrepreneurs succeed with their startup ideas will, in turn, likely help the whole region, he said.
That’s what’s happening with many of the entrepreneurs from the labs’ first cohort. Maine Float of Winthrop had a busy summer season selling its innovative picnic tables to recreationalists around New England. The Good Crust, a Canaan company that makes pizza dough from Maine-grown grains, is selling its wares to restaurants and stores around New England. And Brunswick’s bluShift Aerospace is making both state and national headlines for launching rockets with eco-friendly, bio-derived fuel.
“A lot of it is about that ecosystem component,” Conterato said. “It’s creating a symbiosis between municipalities, academic institutions, and companies so that they can lift each other up.”