Tech Entrepreneurs Flock to Maine's Quality of Life, Innovative Culture
Quality of place, talent, and a dynamic enviroment for entrepreneurs draw tech firms to Maine and help them thrive.
When Corky Ellis decided to leave his New Jersey business to launch a software company, he knew exactly where to go. Ellis and his wife had driven through Maine before and fell in love with its wide open spaces, rugged beauty and coastal culture. “I started the company here because this is where I wanted to live,” Ellis says. Twenty years later, Portland-based Kepware Technologies has grown into a leading provider of communications software for manufacturers, oil and gas producers, utilities and other industries, helping them connect disparate automated devices and software applications. Rising demand for automation across all industries fuels the company’s growth, but the secret to its success is its collection of high-caliber talent, Ellis says. Half of Kepware’s employees are University of Maine graduates, including its CEO Tony Paine, who started as an engineer at the firm. “The most important thing in running a business is having good, smart people who share your values – it’s not hard to find that in Maine,” says Ellis, Kepware's chairman. Information technology companies gravitating to the state also find this to be true. Maine’s colleges and universities produce a high share of skilled, tech-savvy graduates who attract diverse technology firms, from semiconductor producers like Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor to cloud-based data protection groups like Carbonite, to software companies developing technologies for mapping, bioinformatics and financial services. Adding to the workforce advantage are lower costs for businesses and a highly rated telecommunications infrastructure that includes more than 110,000 miles of fiber optic cable and 100 percent digital switching technology. Innovative Energy Maine’s depth, breadth, and quality of technical and software talent is impressive, says Ben Kaplan, CEO of CashStar, a startup formed in Portland in 2007, which provides digital gifting services for major retail and restaurant brands such as Starbucks, Gap, Best Buy and Home Depot. “There is an energy in the technology and startup communities here that feels like San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Boston,” Kaplan says. “It has the same vibe but on a smaller scale.” Kaplan compares Portland to Seattle but with “skiing and lobster instead of rain.” Portland's progressiveness and culture have been natural draws to tech-oriented workers. Its 90-minute proximity to Boston puts CashStar at the “center of gravity for technology and payment technology innovation,” Kaplan says. While many of its employees are Maine natives, quality of place is a key selling point for the company, which has doubled its employment to more than 100 in the past few years and ranks as the sixth-fastest growing software company on the Inc. 500 list. A Dynamic Network Maine’s small setting lowers the barriers of entry for tech entrepreneurs and allows them to tap into a close-knit, collaborative network of like-minded businesses. “We have gotten access to projects here that we wouldn't have in other states,” says Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson Technology, which constructs smart-grid, cellular, and broadband networks for public and private entities throughout the eastern U.S. “In Maine, we got a shot at doing them first, and that gave us the experience we needed to compete nationally.” Since buying the Portland-based business less than five years ago, Broder has built it into an Inc. 5000 firm with more than 100 employees, thanks in part to support from mentors, state incentives and a grant from the Maine Technology Institute, which provides early-stage capital and commercialization assistance to technology-based projects in key industries. Setting Maine apart from neighboring states are a growing investment network, enhanced by proximity to Boston's venture capital hotbed, and organizations supporting startups, including the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which provides training and counseling along with guidance from experienced executives and serial entrepreneurs. “We have a robust network of mentors because we have extremely talented people who have chosen to live and retire in Maine – and they want to give back,” says Don Gooding, the center's executive director. Ellis, Kepware's chariman, is one of those. He serves on boards of several venture capital groups, and his company provides software and scholarships for University of Maine engineering students. Ellis also works closely with robotics teams and STEM initiatives in schools to strengthen the pipeline of talent for the future. From taking out-of-town clients lobstering to spending long weekends by the coast, he still finds ways to incorporate what he loves about Maine into every aspect of the day. “It’s a beautiful place to live, raise a family, work and play,” Ellis says. “The quality of life in Maine is the reason Kepware and lots of other companies stay here, grow and succeed.”
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