Monday, November 4, 2013

Maine Angels Encourage "Boomerang Entrepreneurs"

A “boomerang” entrepreneur is one  who grew up in Maine, went to work elsewhere, and then brought his business ideas back to where he wanted to live,  according  to a recent feature in Maine magazine.

An example is Ben Polito, CEO of Pika Energy, a company funded by the Maine Angels, the eCoast Angels of NH, and the Maine Small Enterprise Growth Fund (SEGF). Polito grew up at the remote end of Georgetown Island, beyond the reach of Central Maine Power’s utility poles for the first seven years of his life. After earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT, where he developed 3D printers, built autonomous submarines, and worked on Eink, the display technology of the Amazon Kindle, he returned to Maine where he co-founded Pika.

Encouraging Polito and others is Don Gooding, vice chair of Maine Angels and executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

“Sorry, not a boomeranger,” says Gooding.  “I grew up in Mass., married someone who was a third generation summer person, but that's not the same. But I'm a "boomeranger catcher." In addition to Ben Polito, I've worked with Shannon Kinney of Dream Local, Stephen Andrews of Abogen, and Kristen Gwinn-Becker of HistoryIT, all of whom are high potential boomerangers.”

Dream Local has received funding from three individual Maine Angels and the Maine Venture Fund; Abogen is negotiating with the Maine Angels and presented recently at the New England Angel Capital Association syndication summit in Boston.

“Watching Gooding connect people and ideas is like watching a bee pollinate an orchard—so many flowers, so much fruit to grow!” says Maine.

Phillip Conkling reports in Maine on recent visits to the Maine Angels and to Pika Energy. “When it comes time to report on current members’ investments, Paul Farrow holds up Pika Energy’s first wind turbine blade, a sleek biomorphic form made from a new injection molding process. For homeowners, a turbine blade is the key to energy production. Blades typically cost several hundred to a thousand dollars apiece. But Pika’s new process has reduced the cost to $30 per blade, which is a key part of their strategy to reduce the costs of the machines by half of the going price. Another key to their technology is  a patent-pending microgrid that allows customers the option of plugging in solar panels and tracking system performance.

“I had visited Pika’s new facilities at a Westbrook industrial park several weeks earlier and met its president, Ben Polito, and his partner, Joshua Kaufman, director of research. The pair met while they were students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The six employees at Pika were still unpacking after moving out of Polito’s and Kaufman’s basement, where they have been working for the past three years. Kaufman, who greeted me while intently fiddling with a little box filled with microcircuitry, said that because 96 percent of wind customers want the ability to add solar, Pika’s sophisticated electronic micro-grid technology is at the heart of their marketing strategy. 

“Polito tells me that they have recently closed their latest round of angel financing, which allowed them to invest in manufacturing tools and to double their workforce, including hiring an experienced plant manager, formerly of Tom’s of Maine. But this is also a personal quest for Polito, who grew up at the remote end of Georgetown Island, beyond the reach of Central Maine Power’s utility poles for the first seven years of his life. He remembers “electricity was this cool thing that I saw in kindergarten and the neighbors had,” and he got interested in how electricity makes things work. At Morse High School in Bath, Polito built small turbines for science projects.  He says, ‘You don’t really know how to design stuff until you know how to build stuff.’

“Polito, who has benefited from MCED’s  Top Gun’ program, is a big believer in locating business in Maine, where everything is much more affordable and there is an ample supply of talent due to the quality of life. ‘Maine was a backwater when my parents came here,’ recalls Polito, ‘but the Internet has democratized where you can do innovation.’

Up in Aroostook County, North of the Haynesville Woods (“A Tombstone Every Mile”) close by Frenchville and the Republic of Madewaska, they say that Maine’s biggest exports are pine, pulp, potatoes, and people, eh!   Maybe someday a few more entrepreneurs will boomerang back.

Don Gooding at Work

République du Madawaska

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