AUBURN — A successful Maine program for entrepreneurs may be headed here.

Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s Top Gun is eyeing Auburn as its fourth location in the state.

Portland, Bangor and Rockland already host the classes that pair local mentors with local startups for an intense semester of business boot camp that culminates in a grand prize pitch for $10,000 toward their efforts. 

“Maine’s second-largest urban area ought to have it, too,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said. Last week, he sat as a judge in Portland during that program’s semester-end pitch, the Top Gun Showcase. 

“The depth and breadth of companies that were there, the sectors that they represented, certainly gave me great hope,” he said. “It made me even more committed to making sure that Lewiston-Auburn and entrepreneurs that will rise up here get a seat at that table, too.”

Susan Ruhlin, MCED program manager, said it’s now a matter of lining up local support, securing space, finding mentors and speakers, and firming up sponsors.

“We think that Auburn has an unmet need and a wealth of really great startup companies,” she said. “It’s a section of the state we haven’t done much in yet and we think it has a population base to support another program. We’re just really excited.”

Since 2009, more than 100 people have gone through the Top Gun program, some with businesses already generating revenue, some with concepts just beyond the idea phase. Graduates have gone on to create more than 100 jobs and raise $7.5 million in capital.

At each site, applications open in November with interviews in December. Ruhlin said between seven and 12 participants at each location is ideal. From January to the showcase competition, entrepreneurs meet biweekly three hours a night.

“We want to talk about the kinds of things that are not covered in business school, what you really need to know,” Ruhlin said. “Issues of hiring people, for instance, or planning for scale-ability or some of the legal issues that entrepreneurs face.”

Everyone who completes the session is considered a graduate with one company at each site also walking away with the grand prize. Last week, Microsoft surprised the top three Portland finalists with an additional $60,000 each in software and services. 

The Blackstone Accelerates Growth Initiative has been a major backer of Top Gun but that funding is coming to an end and needs to be replaced, Ruhlin said.

Executive Director Don Gooding said it costs about $50,000 to add a new location.

It took two years of planning to set up the Rockland site, he said. He isn’t sure everything could come together fast enough to launch the Auburn program this fall.

LaBonte doesn’t have any doubt that Top Gun would find enough interested entrepreneurs and business leaders stepping forward to be mentors. He plans to attend Top Gun’s first 2016 planning meeting Wednesday.

“Folks often think about economic development as bringing a large business from away here, and the reality of economic development in the 21st century is that may happen every once in a great while, but it’s really about growing from within,” LaBonte said. “People don’t realize the type of innovation that’s happening here in Lewiston-Auburn. I think we need to encourage more to come here and those that are here to think about new product lines or even expanding their businesses.”

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