Words by Charlotte Janelle
Maine Center for Entrepreneurs Helps Drives Maine Food Economy
Get to Know Your Maine Nonprofit
Mushrooms are growing out of the woodwork at a family business in Springvale. There, Mousam Valley Mushrooms cultivates and sells 200,000 pounds of native and exotic organic edible fungi annually. They thrive in a controlled, indoor environment where local wood chips and straw are the growing medium of choice because the mix minimizes waste and maximizes production. Emily Sharood, who runs the company with her father John and brother Robert, credits her company’s sustainable growth, in part, to the business guidance it received from the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs (MCE).
MCE offers training in best business practices, fosters mentoring relationships, and provides networking opportunities to help new businesses thrive. In its more than 20-year history, the organization has accelerated the growth of hundreds of businesses and established a mentor network of over 175 members. In 2018, MCE joined forces with FocusMaine to launch food specific programming. FocusMaine is a private sector–driven initiative created in 2014 to support three of Maine’s most competitive and high-growth fields—agriculture, aquaculture, and biopharmaceuticals. As a result, MCE has assisted food and beverage companies like Sharood’s, ranging from Baxter Brewing and Gelato Fiasco to Two Fat Cats Bakery and Bangs Island Mussels, make their mark on the local, regional and national food systems.
Top Gun, a program MCE started in 2009, is a 15-week business development course for all sorts of Maine entrepreneurs looking to start their company on a solid foundation. To be accepted into the program, fledgling companies must have an innovative idea, have proven the company’s financial feasibility, and shown their business model is scalable to a certain extent. As a final project, Top Gun participants create a five-minute pitch about their companies designed to woo potential investors. They are given the chance to do just that as MCE assembles panels of industry experts who ultimately award a cash prize for the best pitch. Sticky Sweet, a plant-based ice cream company in Portland, for example, won a showcase prize in 2019. With Top Gun alone, MCE has served over 280 companies who have gone on bring in over tens of millions in annual revenue.
The Cultivator food, beverage, and agriculture accelerator program is a year-long program MCE launched in 2018 to assist established food companies looking to scale up. Cultivator Program Manager Sue Hanson says companies admitted to this program have passed the startup stage. Early in the program, they are evaluated by MCE staff from a whole-business perspective to identify gaps in where they stand today versus where they want to be in the future. They create action plans to fill those gaps. This year’s participants include Aurora Mills, Avena Botanicals, Bigelow Brewing, Foulmouthed Brewing, Maine Cap N’ Stem, New England Distilling, Pemberton’s Gourmet Foods, and Thirty Acre Farm.
Sharood says her company’s return on the time invested in the Cultivator program was exponential. For example, the marketing strategies and technical assistance MCE provided have been instrumental in providing fresh content for Mousam Valley Mushrooms’ online presence. The program gave Sharood the opportunity to network with fellow fast-growing food companies to create ongoing collaborations. And with MCE’s help, the company scaled up to widely distribute their product in Hannaford supermarkets. “The Cultivator program is not only an experience, but a long-term business relationship that continues to surpass our original expectations,” says Sharood.
A third MCE program called MarketShare was created in 2019 to help more mature food and beverage companies looking to expand their sales regionally, even nationally. This 12-month subscription program focuses on advancing sales, innovative marketing, and channel distribution through training sessions and access to market data and consulting resources. While Mousam Valley Mushrooms is currently participating in the Marketshare program, Bangs Island Mussels is the only business to date to complete all three MCE programs. But given how Top Gun and Cultivator have enabled a growing body of Maine food-business entrepreneurs, there are sure to be more to follow.