Back in March, Village Capital, a D.C.-based venture capital firm, announced it had selected Portland to join a national pilot program designed to support entrepreneurship in underserved communities.
The pilot program, called VilCap Communities, is modeled after startup accelerator programs Village Capital has administered around the world, including an innovative investment model in which investment is directed to startups selected by their peers in the accelerator program rather than partners at the VC firm.
Portland was one of 16 cities in the United States selected to join the program (out of 100 cities that applied), the result of a competitive application process that Maine Accelerates Growth pursued. Each community applied with a specific focus in mind; Portland’s is food and agriculture.
However, that was in March and nary a peep has been heard of the effort since. Until this week.
Alex Quarles, an associate at Village Capital, was in Portland on Thursday meeting with various stakeholders in Maine’s entrepreneurial community. She traveled here at the suggestion of Maine Accelerates Growth and with the purpose of driving support for pursuing the opportunity to join the VilCap pilot program and set up an accelerator program in the food and ag space.
Village Capital’s mission is to support entrepreneurs solving real-world problems, and the firm’s partners believe those entrepreneurs are most likely found outside Silicon Valley and other tech hubs.
“We believe very firmly that the best entrepreneurs are solving real-world problems that they themselves have experienced, so in a place like Maine it could be interesting, especially in the ag space. I’m sure there are small farmers with family farms facing challenges. Those will be the best people to solve their problems, not a Silicon Valley tech guy who’s going to come in with a solution,” Quarles said.
Village Capital isn’t promising any investment, but the benefits to Portland would include access to the firm’s network of investors and mentors around the country, as well as its operational expertise in running an accelerator program. The only cost to the local community is raising enough money to run the program, as well as invest at least $50,000 in the top two startups selected by their peers among the cohort.
Jess Knox, statewide coordinator for Maine Accelerates Growth, said Thursday not much progress had been made on officially joining VilCap Communities since the March announcement as it was unclear which various stakeholders would be leading the effort to raise the funds and spearhead the accelerator program.
FocusMaine is one group that has expressed interest in raising the necessary funds and driving the effort, according to Knox. FocusMaine, in case you forgot, is the economic development effort launched in January and spearheaded by some of Maine’s most well-known business leaders.
While Portland was selected as the VilCap Community and the accelerator program would convene there, the startups that applied to enter the yet-to-be-created program could potentially be from anywhere, from Aroostook County to Iowa.
“The opportunity for us is to do a good job and become a permanent outpost of Village Capital and become a core program for food and ag here,” Knox said.
Interest in the ag-tech sector has increased in recent years, with total investments doubling in 2015 to $4.6 billion, according to Village Capital.
There’s no firm deadline, but Quarles from Village Capital did imply progress would have to be made this fall in getting Portland’s program up and running if it wanted to remain part of the VilCap Communities pilot program.