Plugging the ‘brain drain’

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LEWISTON – Craig Saddlemire and Ryan Conrad were at a crossroads when they applied for the Libra Foundation’s Future Fund in the spring.

Their fledgling Round Point Movies, a Lewiston video company serving nonprofits and community groups, was getting hired for one project after another. The team could keep up with demand, but moving forward – taking on more projects at once – was nearly impossible.

For that, the 24-year-olds would need new software, editing equipment, a higher-speed computer to replace their aging Mac. They’d need Libra.

“You reach a critical mass where you have to slow down or do the projects you want to do,” Conrad said. “This was an exciting opportunity to do more of the projects we want to do.”

With a $5,000 Future Fund grant, the team bought all the equipment their business lacked, and just in time. Round Point has at least four films in the works.

Across the bridge in Auburn, a young entrepreneur is using his Future Fund money to expand his FUEL MP3 Players, a company that sells innovative headset-only players geared toward athletes. In Turner, 27-year-old Cassandra Liliane is using her $2,000 Future Fund grant to complete a market analysis for her new business helping insurance companies.

Two years after the Libra Foundation started the Future Fund, it’s still too early to say whether the grant has fulfilled its mission to entice young innovators and entrepreneurs to stay in Maine. But some local grant recipients say it’s definitely helped.

“It just makes more possible,” Saddlemire said.

Numerous studies have shown that Maine’s young people are fleeing the state for greater opportunities and higher-paying jobs. Officials have dubbed the phenomenon “brain drain,” and they worry the lack of a young, educated work force will keep prospective businesses away. They worry Maine will be left with an aging population and no way to replenish its talent and creativity.

In 2005, Portland-based Libra Foundation decided to try to stem that flow of talented young people. It set up the Future Fund.

“I think when you show them there are job opportunities, there are grants available for them, that changes the game completely,” Future Fund President Erik Hayward said.

The fund has awarded 17 grants to help young people jump-start their businesses, nonprofits and projects, paying for everything from a state-of-the art recording studio to marketing materials. The grants were originally earmarked for Mainers 18 to 25 years old, but the foundation recently expanded that to age 29.

“To attract nontraditional students, grad students,” Hayward said.

The Future Fund also started a side venture – internships. Last summer it paired six college students with three companies in a pilot program. This summer it helped 31 in-state and out-of-state college students get research and professional internships at Maine Public Broadcasting in Lewiston, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland and other organizations throughout the state. The interns also took field trips around the state and spent an evening with some of the state’s top business leaders.

The goal: get young people to fall in love with Maine and realize they really can make a life here.

Hayward believes it’s going well so far.

Of the 17 new businesses and projects given Future Fund grants over the last two years, only one has closed shop. And the internship program is in such demand that Hayward believes it can handle 50 interns next summer, a huge increase in two years.

“I am very optimistic,” he said. “I think this is helping.”

In Turner, Liliane thinks so, too.

An entrepreneur by day and a waitress by night, she’s struggled to get her new business off the ground. The Future Fund money helped, as did the faith Libra showed in her.

“It’s given me credibility,” she said. “I’ve been able to say the Libra Foundation thinks enough of my idea to give me money.”

And if her business thrives, Liliane said, she’ll do exactly what the Future Fund hoped its grant recipients would do. She’ll stay.

“Without the money I would have been able to continue,” she said. “But I would have been three steps behind.”

FMI: www.librafoundation.org

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