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Startup community growing in Waterville, central Maine

Thomas College and Colby College have entrepreneur programs and resources for students as more startup companies launch in Waterville.

WATERVILLE, Maine — It is a good weekend for young entrepreneurs or startup companies to tune in to Thomas College's annual Converge and Create event. In its fifth year, the virtual event will feature established Maine companies, venture capitalists, and state agencies offering advice for aspiring business owners.

Mike Duguay played host for the conference that kicked off Friday afternoon. When he is not taking over the microphone, he serves as executive director of Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation at Thomas College. 

What does it actually take to start a business? How do you know you have the right idea? How do you validate that in the marketplace?

Those are questions Duguay has heard from students for three decades. The work by Duguay and his colleagues appears to be paying off. Duguay said he has seen "significant growth" in the startup community in Waterville.

“You can do this remotely and in remote areas, and in many cases, those are the parts of the state we represent, right?” Duguay said.

The new generation of business and industry doesn't require factories or hundreds of employees to get off the ground, Duguay said. Most startups begin with one founder and a laptop.

Because of all the resources in the central Maine region, he added any business can grow not too far from home.

“If you have a good idea, you can do it right here in Maine," Duguay added. “Not only in Maine but in Waterville.”

Across town, Colby College is close to opening its own center for interested students looking to get started in this sector of the business industry. Todd Halloran is a Colby graduate and one donor helping make the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship come online early next year. 

Credit: NCM

“What we’d like to see is both a campus location and a downtown Waterville location," he said Friday. “Where students can go innovate and collaborate.”

Despite being a liberal arts school, Halloran believes there are plenty of benefits for offering these resources to students on campus. 

“[Students] could benefit from some sort of avenue that’s related to innovation, competitiveness, job creation," he said.

The Central Maine Growth Council is also responsible for the 'growth' of the startup scene in the area. The group also manages the Dirigo Labs accelerator which is also set to launch fully soon.

Susan Ruhlin is the managing director of the lab and said another benefit of the Waterville area is having the two colleges nearby will help attract a fresh workforce right after school.

“Maine needs to position itself to be ready for a knowledge-based economy," she said. “And we really need to impress upon them that Maine is a great place to start a company."

Maine is well-known for its heritage industries like fishing and logging, but the state is well-positioned to transition with the next generation of technology and data businesses. Those kinds of companies will be working closely with Ruhlin at the incubator.

“I think it is all about the people, the resources, the community, and that’s all right here," she added.

Ruhlin, Duguay, and Halloran all added Maine is a great place to start a company. And with programs offered at local colleges with assistance from institutions right downtown, Waterville continues to grow as a place for new companies to get their start.

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