Kym Dakin first heard about the Top Gun at a social media presentation last fall. It was about a month before the deadline to apply for the five-month program that, according to the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, was “designed to accelerate entrepreneurial development using training, mentoring and community connections.” Since its formation in 2009 more than 80 companies based in Maine have gone through Top Gun training.
Dakin worked quickly to get her application in by the November deadline for the program, which runs from January through May.
“I had been working with a mastermind group through Peloton Labs in Portland to develop a tool, a game designed to help business teams communicate,” said Dakin, who is in her 50s. “I realized I needed help on structuring future development of the tool and thought Top Gun would be an excellent venue, although I thought it would be a long shot (to be accepted into the program).”
Dakin was accepted for the Top Gun class of 2015, along with 32 other entrepreneurs, comprising teams with one to three members. The cost to participants in the program, which provides mentoring and biweekly classes in Portland, Rockland and Orono, is $500 per team, which represents about 10 percent of the total cost. Top Gun Maine is primarily funded by a grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation through its Blackstone Accelerates Growth program.
Don Gooding, executive director of Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development since 2010, said that while Top Gun is open to both male and female entrepreneurs, a few years ago his organization took steps to attract more women to the program. Nearly 40 percent of this year’s class are women.
“We have a good balance now,” said Gooding. “We believe women have just as much chance to succeed as men.”
And while no specific accommodations are made for women participants, Gooding said, the program does offer opportunities for women to work with women.
“All classes have multiple women and women mentors,” said Gooding. “Peer-to-peer networking is an extremely important part of the value of the program.”
Gooding has found that women often underestimate their value and ability.
“Women tend to have underinflated egos. A member of last year’s class didn’t think what she was doing was anything special,” said Gooding. “By participating in the program, she realized that what she was doing was special.”
Dakin, who is originally from Colorado but has been in Maine for 20 years, expected to be one of the few, and probably the oldest woman in the class.
“I am neither. It’s a good cross-section,” she said. “I don’t feel like an outlier. The classes themselves are packed with information. I am grateful for the way it is structured with both online and hard copy resources. There are lots of sources to pull from no matter where I find myself. The key to the program for me is the mentor connection. Three women signed up to be my mentor. They are really on board and I’ve made great connections through them.”
Dakin said that every two weeks a different topic is covered through presentations and discussions. There is also homework to do, which helps hone skills.
“It has been interesting to learn from others in the process,” said Dakin. “It’s been a positive experience. I like the underlying assumption that is operating – not everyone comes fully loaded with entrepreneurial skills. There are visionaries, technicians, mechanics, managers, all types of people in the group. It’s great to be in a situation with diverse people, see other perspectives and gain a clear understanding of the kind of marketplace we have in Maine. It’s incredibly inspiring and I feel deeply honored to be in the room with people doing so many creative and interesting projects.”
Dakin’s project, Shift/P.O.V. is a card game used to help groups grappling with issues or communication challenges or other problems. The three-round discussion game gives each participant a chance to experience other points of view and each side of an issue that the group is working to resolve. Dakin said the audience for her product includes facilitators, mediators and others that meet with groups on a regular basis.
“I want working teams to have a tool and know how to use it,” said Dakin, whose business is located in Yarmouth. “The game positions a group for collaborative problem-solving and creative brainstorming because all sides (of the issue) have to be heard and all members of the group have to hear other points of view. In conflicts people often feel that they haven’t been heard. But if you feel your point of view has been heard you can be at peace with the outcome.”
As an entrepreneur living in Portland, 27-year-old Abi Barnes asked around about programs that might help her secure investment seed funding and get her business off the ground. Her inquiries ultimately led her to Top Gun. Barnes was accepted into the Top Gun class of 2015. She is also a graduate student at Yale University and a JD candidate at Vermont Law School.
Barnes has found the experience enlightening.
“I have already received invaluable feedback and insight through the program that will undoubtedly help me further my business in the years ahead, regardless of whether my company secures the final prize or not although, admittedly, the $10,000 would certainly help,” said Barnes.
The $10,000 prize Barnes refers to is part of the Top Gun program. This year, for the first time in the program’s history, participants will be eligible to present their product in three regional pitch-off events in May with winners then competing for $10,000 in cash during the Top Gun Showcase in June.
Barnes’ company is in the process of developing Allergy Amulet, a portable, rapid, point-of-consumption device to detect food allergens, an issue that has a personal aspect for Barnes.
“I’ve suffered from life-threatening food allergies my entire life, and so I have always wanted a device like this to exist; especially when I was living in China, (where) peanuts are in everything,” said Barnes. “I approached a professor at Dartmouth a couple of years ago, an expert in sensor technologies, to see if his technology could be applied to allergens. He said he thought it could, and we’ve been working together on the Allergy Amulet ever since. We both have food allergies. While I’m not usually one to read into signs, when he said he was also allergic to nuts, I incorporated my company that very week.”
Barnes said that while vying with other entrepreneurs in the regional pitch-off event and competing for $10,000 is a bit “nerve-wracking, especially since there is really an incredible amount of creativity and talent in the program,” classmates and staff have all been “tremendous and clearly care” about helping each other with their business.
“I received a call during the day from one of the Top Gun coordinators asking me if I was allergic to coconut because she was picking up dessert for that night’s event,” said Barnes. “Based on my work with other entrepreneurial organizations, I can safely say Top Gun is a cut above the rest.”
MECD’s director said the program has been a good fit with the organization’s mission and has proven to be a success.
“The core of our mission is to revitalize Maine’s economy from the bottom up,” said Gooding. “We need to provide all the support we can for entrepreneurs trying to do something on a larger scale and generating new jobs.”
Gooding said that of the entrepreneurs that have gone through the Top Gun program about 78 percent have achieved a level of success, including companies that have become solid, small businesses, those that are still growing and those that have grown and been sold.
“And it’s homegrown business,” said Gooding. “Only one company that has been through the program has moved out of Maine.”
bizzieMe is one of the companies that took part in Top Gun and has stayed and grown in Maine. The company creates technology “that helps kids to engage in, not escape from, their world,” according to Emily Bernhard, one of the company’s founders.
Bernhard said bizzieMe is using a patent-pending digital platform to “provide a relatively low-cost way for companies to engage and entertain kids with their brand. Once the bizzieMe app is downloaded onto a mobile device, using geo-location technology and Augmented Reality, kids can access different branded content as they travel from place to place.”
To explain, Bernhard said to imagine starting the day with your daughter at a coffee shop.
“She opens the bizzieMe app on your family tablet and plays games and activities that teach her all about coffee, how it’s roasted, the countries where it’s grown and the people who live there,” said Bernhard. “Then maybe you go to a dentist’s office and she takes a virtual tour of her mouth through her bizzieMe app.”
The bizzieMe team met at the first Start Up Weekend in Portland. Start Up Weekend, an event that brings entrepreneurs, designers, developers and others together to pitch and explore ideas, is part of the UP Maine organization.
“I pitched the original idea and a team formed around me. We didn’t win but I believe we’re the only team that’s still together from that weekend. I did Top Gun Prep online then that fed into Top Gun which our entire team did in 2014,” said Bernhard.
Would Bernhard recommend the Top Gun program to other women?
“Absolutely. I found it provided incredible support and delivers what it promises which is to accelerate your business. Our mentors were incredibly generous with their time and experience. Two of them continue to meet with us regularly,” said Bernhard. “I don’t think we’d still be afloat without Top Gun.”
The Top Gun program of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and University of Maine’s Target Technology Incubator provides training, support and connections for Maine entrepreneurs of all ages. Courtesy photoKym Dakin hopes to further develop her product, Shift/P.O.V through her involvement in the Top Gun class of 2015. Photo courtesy of Kym DakinTop Gun 2015 class member Abi Barnes, who has life-threatening food allergies, is working on development of a device that detects food allergens. Photo courtesy of Abi Barnes