Greg Powell, chairman of The Harold Alfond Foundation, and Laurie Lachance, Thomas College’s president.

Thomas College on Wednesday announced a major new initiative designed to promote innovation and spur entrepreneurial activity in central Maine.

The Waterville-based college has created the Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation thanks to a $5.3 million donation from The Harold Alfond Foundation. It is the largest gift in the college’s nearly 125-year history.

The institute’s namesake (and the foundation’s), the late Harold Alfond, founded Dexter Shoe Co. in 1956 and is one of Maine’s most well-known entrepreneurs. He died in 2007 at the age of 93.

“Our mission and vision for this institute is to build on the legacy of Harold Alfond and what he accomplished, not only in the business world but also what he has done to contribute to Maine’s economic growth,” said Laurie Lachance, Thomas College’s president.

The institute was designed with three prime objectives, according to Lachance. Those are to:

  • Provide professional development opportunities to local business owners,
  • Create and foster a regional innovation ecosystem to help entrepreneurs become successful and “catalyze the innovative capacity of our people,” and
  • Get students involved with the local business community sooner with paid internship opportunities.

The institute plans to offer entrepreneurial-minded students a one-week intensive course on entrepreneurship that will walk them through how to create a business and introduce them to things like the ‘Lean Startup’ method of business creation.

The idea for the institute stems from two-and-a-half years of research, according to the college’s press release, including focus groups with roughly 500 business leaders, entrepreneurs and students, to discover what type of business education would be most likely to help students succeed.

Greg Powell, the Alfond Foundation’s chairman, called the gift “a smart investment” in Maine’s economic future.

“We believe Laurie’s leadership, knowledge of economic development, and vision for how Maine can grow its workforce makes this a smart investment,” Powell said. “The foundation is confident that Harold Alfond’s entrepreneurial spirit will live on through the work here at Thomas College and the individual business leaders and entrepreneurs that take part in the wide range of opportunities that will be available to them.”

The institute is housed within the college’s existing H. Allen Ryan School of Business and will be led by Mike Duguay.