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February 9, 2017

Leading Maine firms put $200K toward first state startup accelerator

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Jess Knox, founder of Maine Startup & Create Week, at center, leads a planning meeting for the event in Portland in this file photo from 2016. Knox announced today that MaineHealth and Unum US have agreed to provide $100,000 each to boost Portland startup accelerator Venture Hall in its inaugural program this summer.

Portland-based MaineHealth, Maine's largest health network with member hospitals in 10 communities, and disability insurer Unum US, the third-largest employer in Portland, will each provide $100,000 and other support to collaborate with Portland startup accelerator Venture Hall on its inaugural startup accelerator program this summer.

The aim of the 13-week summer program, announced Wednesday by Venture Hall President Jess Knox, is to attract entrepreneurs and innovators from across the country and the world to create new solutions for the health care industry. He told Mainebiz this is the first such accelerator effort in Maine, and with the big-name companies' backing, it could get the state on the map as an innovator and attract more entrepreneurs and startups.

"This is the first time in my work where two of the state's largest corporations have gotten together with this kind of money and human capital for high-growth, high-impact ventures," Knox, who also started Maine Startup & Create Week, told Mainebiz in a phone interview.

He said both organizations found they had similar problems to solve to help health care workers better do their job, and with Venture Hall in the mix, decided to collaborate to find startups that address common challenges in their industries. Both organizations will provide support to the eight to 10 entrepreneurial companies across all industries to attend Venture Hall's 13-week summer accelerator program. They will provide the entrepreneurs with mentors, business resources and subject-matter expertise.

Mutually beneficial to startups, giants

In a recent interview with Mainebiz, Unum US President and CEO Michael Simonds said he wants to grow the company beyond its current disability, life, and recently acquired dental and vision products. Unum US had revenue of close to $940 million in 2015. It is the primary business of Unum Group (NYSE: UNM), a $10.7 billion corporation based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"We hear from so many of our health care clients that they need innovative solutions to support their employees," Simonds said in a statement. "We see this partnership with Venture Hall and MaineHealth as an opportunity to explore and support ways to solve those challenges, while also fostering economic growth in Maine."

Added Bill Caron, CEO of MaineHealth, "Our joining with Venture Hall and Unum to help grow Maine's startup and innovation ecosystem is not only critical to MaineHealth, it's critical to all of Maine."

Intense program seeks applicants

Knox told Mainebiz that startups can start submitting applications for the program next week. MaineHealth and Unum will participate in the selection process to assure the startups are addressing the key problems the two giants face. Knox said he expects access to the two large companies to be an asset in attracting top applicants to the program.

During the three months, the companies will work through an intense program developed by Venture Hall and its national partner, Village Capital. A Washington D.C.-based venture development organization, Village Capital supports startup accelerator programs around the world.

The accelerator program will start in late June and companies will spend about 13 weeks with space provided in Cloudport CoWorking MultiSpace in Portland.

Venture Hall, a nonprofit funded by donations, also will provide housing for the companies. The startups, however, must pay the salaries of their participating employees.

Knox said Venture Hall still has to raise an unspecified amount of money to add to the $200,000 total from the two companies.

"The deep industry insight and global reach that corporate partners like MaineHealth and Unum provide are of critical value to start-ups — not just for the teams who participate in the accelerator program, but for our innovation ecosystem at large," Knox said.

"We also knew that Maine has some great capital resources, like Maine Technology Institute, Maine Venture Fund and Maine Angels," Knox added. "So instead of trying to raise a big fund, we focused on building these corporate partnerships to create meaningful opportunities for companies to come to Maine and get deep connection to the subject-matter expertise, channels and market-knowledge that the state's largest healthcare provider and a global insurance provider could provide for them."

At the end of the program, Knox plans to invite 20 to 30 investors from across the country to a demo day of the participating startups. Any additional interactions between MaineHealth and Unum and the companies is up to them, Knox said.

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