Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space at the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville has been active in helping to create and retain businesses in the digital economy. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The Central Maine Growth Council has been awarded a highly-competitive $600,000 federal challenge grant to help local entrepreneurs retain or start and grow new technology-based companies that, combined with matching dollars, is expected to pump $1.2 million worth of investment into mid-Maine.

The Venture Challenge Grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build to Scale program allows the growth council to embark on a three-year project to help build regional startup companies and help recruit, expand or retain startups or small businesses in Maine and provide them with infrastructure and tools they need, according to Garvan Donegan, the growth council’s director of planning and economic development.

The grant was awarded for the growth council’s Dirigo Labs: Fostering Innovation and Collaboratively Supporting Maine-based Entrepreneurs program. Donegan said the funding will help stimulate the establishment and growth of technology-based startups in mid-Maine, focusing on Maine-based, high growth industries including bioeconomy, information technology, financial services and Maine’s legacy industries in precision manufacturing and the “blue economy,” which includes environmental technologies in marine businesses and aquaculture.

The growth council raised $602,910 as a match for the grant and received a $300,000 Maine Technology Institute Range Four Investment Grant, as well as a $125,000 contribution from Colby College. In-kind support also comes from entities including Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space at the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville, which allows use of its space. The growth council will work with academic and economic development partners in the region and state on the effort, according to Donegan.

As part of the program, a network for entrepreneurs and startup companies will be cultivated, and a collegiate peer-to-peer network also will be developed. Importantly, the program will help companies get financial access to investment capital, according to Donegan.

The growth council is  a public-private economic development organization serving municipalities including Waterville, Winslow, Oakland and Fairfield.

Rural Innovation Strategies Inc., a social enterprise advancing inclusive economic development in the rural United States, announced the grant award Wednesday. The growth council took part in the enterprise’s Rural Innovation Initiative launched in 2018 through an agreement between the Economic Development Administration and and Rural Innovation Strategies. The initiative is a technical assistance program seeking to empower rural communities as they develop innovation hub strategies. RIS operated the initiative with its sister organization, Center on Rural Innovation, which received funding from EDA, the Siegel Family Endowment and Walmart.

Donegan said Friday that last year, the growth council was accepted into the 2020 Rural Initiative, which put the growth council and the communities it serves into a network of peers that could share ideas. As part of the program, the growth council received free technical assistance and advice on applying for the EDA grant.

In January, Matt Dunne, RIS executive director and founder of the Center on Rural Innovation, led an event at Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space as part of the initiative to help create digital economy jobs with an innovative hub strategy.

Dunne, whose companies are located in Hartland, Vermont, said in a press release Wednesday that he is excited and inspired that Waterville received the grant.

“In a time when the pandemic is creating a ‘rural moment,’ these funds will allow forward thinking small communities like Waterville to support local entrepreneurs to build new companies for the future,” he said.

Dana Gartzke, who performs delegated duties of the assistant secretary of commerce for the EDA, said those selected for the grants were chosen from a pool of more than 600 applicants representing exemplary innovation and entrepreneurship from rural and urban areas of the U.S.

“In addition, projects in federally-designated Opportunity Zones will bring new capital and opportunity to communities that traditionally have been ignored,” Gartzke said in the release.

The growth council award comes as Colby College is investing millions of dollars in Waterville’s downtown and other colleges are helping to spur economic growth.

“We really believe in this, and this grant award is a reflection of a lot of the good work that’s been done in downtown Waterville and the region,” Donegan said Friday.

He said Colby, Thomas College, Kennebec Valley Community College and Bricks Coworking must be credited for their involvement in the effort to help retain and create businesses.

Meanwhile, more than 250 communities have applied to participate in the Rural Innovation Initiative program in the last two years.

“We are tremendously proud of the work community leaders in our Rural Innovation Initiative have done to prepare for the Build to Scale grant opportunity,” said Leah Taylor, RII manager at Rural Innovation Strategies. “They worked around the clock to refine their digital economy ecosystem strategies, and each community’s ideas have grown immensely during this project. There’s unlimited potential in small towns, and we’re continuing to see what that can look like all across the country.”

The 2020 Venture Challenge program awarded 52 grants to applicants from all over the U.S.

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