WATERVILLE — Dani Mawhir gave up another engagement this weekend to attend the Roux Institute‘s Maine Start Summit at Thomas College, and she’s glad she did.

The 24-year-old organic vegetable farm worker hoped to pick up some ideas for starting her own business one day. She lives on a homestead called Center Pond Farm in Phippsburg and recently started working at Goranson Farm in Dresden.

“I came here really wanting to work and think through the creative process in other people’s relation to business,” Mawhir said Saturday at the college. “This has really provided a lot of ideas and structures and resources to use.”

Innovators of all types gather Saturday for Roux’s Institute’s Maine Start Summit at the Harold Alfond Institute for Business at Thomas College in Waterville. Teams of entrepreneurs make a pitch to launch a new business or startup and receive feedback/guidance from business leaders. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

About 65 business owners, founders, entrepreneurs, students and others turned out for the Roux event, hosted by Thomas’ Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation, whose executive director is Mike Duguay.

Billing itself as a “startup” weekend, the summit directed participants to form teams, develop a unique idea, create a prototype and pitch it on Sunday, the final day, for prize money.

Mawhir sat at a round table with her team members — Tom Kittredge from Maine Technical Institute in Brunswick, Liliane Ruvakubusa of WEX Bank in Portland and Brian Laich, a graduate student from Falmouth who studies artificial intelligence and data science at the Roux Institute in Portland.

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Mawhir explained that the team was focusing on the societal disconnect from food and cooking.

“We’re currently brainstorming ways to bring people and skills and food knowledge together, both in a hub and in a mobile aspect,” she said.

As she finished her sentence, Anna Ackerman of the Roux Institute introduced workshop speaker Owen Sanderson of IA Collaborative, based in Chicago, who directed a workshop for the group on “design thinking.” Describing himself as a researcher, designer, strategist, islander and dad — he lives on Peaks Island — Sanderson began by discussing the importance of going out and understanding what users want.

The teams broke up into new groups for the next hour, taking part in exercises designed to help them think through a process as designers, from identifying an idea to solving problems and then moving to a prototype and developing a pilot. Design thinking, he said, is a way for people to solve problems by speaking to other people. Understanding your user, he said, is important in the research phase.

Dani Mawhir listens Saturday to team member Diane Zhang, right, at Roux’s Institute’s Maine Start Summit at the Harold Alfond Institute for Business at Thomas College in Waterville. Teams of entrepreneurs will make a pitch to launch a new business or startup and receive feedback/guidance from business leaders. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It’s super important to walk in their shoes,” Sanderson said.

Mawhir was in a group with Julene Gervais, producer and host of the television show, “Greenlight Maine,” who also was a workshop facilitator; Mary Axelsen, CEO of WeMaax Consulting; and Diane Zhang, a senior and computer science major at Colby College in Waterville.

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They worked as a team on developing an exciting vacation, focusing on creating a hierarchy of needs, brainstorming solutions and building a simple prototype.

Zhang, who plans to attend graduate school at Northwestern University to pursue a master’s degree in computer science after graduating from Colby this spring, said she hopes to start a technology-based company one day and the summit was helpful in that respect.

“I’m very interested in starting up and I had no experience,” she said. “This gave me ideas.”

Four workshops were planned for Saturday to help the teams build out their ideas. Besides Gervais and Sanderson, facilitators were Leslie Hyman of Circa and Nick Rimsa of Tortoise Labs.


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