Teams brainstorm at Workforce Innovation START Summit in Biddeford

Teams brainstorm at Workforce Innovation START Summit in Biddeford
Workforce Innovation START Summit judges Amy Geren and David Engle listen as fellow judge Dan Koloski speaks Saturday night at the summit at University of New England. SBN STAFF/LIZ GOTTHELF
Liz Gotthelf, Publisher

BIDDEFORD — The tension in the air was palpable Saturday night at the Workforce Innovation START Summit as seven teams gave a three-minute pitch on a business idea, hoping to impress a panel of three judges and win prize money.

The day-and-a-half-event was one in a series of “idea hackathons” across the state put on by The Roux Institute Northeastern University, bringing people of different backgrounds together to develop a plan for a new business that addresses a specific challenge.


The Biddeford event began Friday night with a panel of local business leaders and networking at Think Tank in downtown Biddeford, then continued on Saturday at University of New England. Saturday morning participants were divided up into teams of three. The teams attended workshops and worked together to brainstorm an idea and form a pitch to present Saturday night to a panel of three judges: Upright Labs founder David Engle, Northeastern University Professor of the Practice and Head of Learning Programs Dan Koloski, and Catherine E. Cutler Institute Policy Associate Amy Geren.

The teams had to come up with an idea that addressed a workshop challenge, such as workforce skill gaps, employee retention, affordable housing, and transportation.

The Innovative Residency Programming team poses with judges at Saturday night's summit. SBN STAFF/LIZ GOTTHELF

The team that rose to the top and won a $2,000 grand prize for their business idea, Innovative Residency Programming, was comprised of Chris Hynes, Jacob Rha and Anna Pun.

During the group’s pitch, Pun shared the story about her roommate Susan, a recent immigrant. Susan has a PhD and was a professor in her home country. Now, she works at a grocery store.

Rha said there was an opportunity with New Mainers to utilize a talented and motivated pool of people to help reduce unemployment, underemployment and also reduce the skilled labor shortage.

“Our solution is a training program, focused on exposing employees to all aspects of the business. This two-year program will be a cohort-community program approach,” he said.

Through Innovative Residency Programming, a cohort of participants could spend a year moving from department to department within a business, learning the skills necessary to be successful. The cohorts would spend a second year doing rounds in each department as a cohort leader, said Rha.

He said as an internal medicine resident in a rotation program at Maine Medical Center, he felt this project was feasible and achievable.

The Aspire ME team poses with judges at Saturday night's summit. SBN STAFF/LIZ GOTTHELF

Winning the runner-up prize of $1,000 were Sam Smithwick, Lisa LeDuc and Joel Alex with their idea for Aspire ME.

There are specific careers in Maine that aren’t attracting the needed number of employees, said Smithwick. He said in his position at Biddeford Adult Education he connects students to local job opportunities that take advantage of their skillset, while LeDuc in her career is trying to create a pipeline for local nursing students and Alex is trying to find workers who understand his agri-business.

“These connections are not being made by Indeed and LinkedIn, (which are) text heavy and not visually engaging,” said Southwick. “Gen Z is absorbing information online, engaging in highly visual Apps.”

The team’s proposed Aspire ME would be an app designed to engage and connect users with career opportunities in their community through visual storytelling.

Alex said Aspire ME would take elements from business apps and combine it with aspects from “visually engaging” apps where “people are spending all of their time.” It would also borrow some characteristics from dating apps, and instead of matching a user with a partner, it would match someone to a business using specific variables.

He said there were opportunities to monetize the app through advertising and sponsorships and selling analytics to businesses.

The panel of judges praised both teams for bringing real-world personal experience to their proposals and coming up with projects that addressed current problems in the workforce.

Other partners involved in the weekend’s summit included Heart of Biddeford, Biddeford + Saco Chamber of Commerce + Industry, City of Biddeford and Biddeford Regional Center of Technology.

Publisher Liz Gotthelf can be reached at [email protected].