Calvin Johnstone and Cooper Giblin, the team’s younger pair, aren’t from Freeport, but both have Maine connections. Giblin is a 2023 graduate of Colby College and had recently landed a summer job in Freeport. Johnstone, a 2019 graduate of Bates College, has a family home on Matinicus Island and signed up for the summit to gain a better understanding of Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The unlikely quartet came together at the Freeport Start Summit, a low-barrier entrepreneurship event offered by the Roux Institute that allows anyone, regardless of experience, to participate in a day-long event that has participants working on randomly assigned teams to come up with a business idea that addresses a certain challenge. The event was held inside the Smith Center for Education and Research at Freeport’s Wolfe’s Neck Center. The modern, high-efficiency building, with large windows overlooking Wolfe’s Neck’s organic farmland and rocky coastline, was the perfect venue to discuss the past and future of the town.
Our differences are what made us successful.”
Freeport Start Summit Participant
This particular Start Summit was centered around the theme of “regenerative entrepreneurship,” an idea that a business gives back more than it takes, creating a net positive impact on the environment and community. Around forty people, from Freeport and beyond, participated in the summit. The nine teams spent the day brainstorming, honing, and iterating on their regenerative business ideas in between quick workshops on design thinking and idea pitching.
Sullivan signed up for the summit because of her interest in regenerative practices and because she, like a lot of longtime Freeport residents, grapples with the changing identity of her community. She’s been living in Freeport since it was a rural “shoe town,” with one factory and one store – L.L.Bean. Today, Freeport’s downtown is shopping mecca, home to L.L.Bean’s astounding flagship store and several other high-end outlets and shops.
“When your entire downtown is taken over by outlet stores, we residents are left wondering, ‘Who is Freeport? What are we? Outside of L.L.Bean, what is our identity?’” Sullivan asks.
By creating the space and structure for networking and teambuilding among community members, we’re encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to take the first steps towards solving a real, pressing challenge.”
Entrepreneurship Program Manager
The Roux Institute
Johnstone credits the Design Thinking workshop, run by facilitator Owen Sanderson, with teaching his team how to collaborate and iterate on ideas in a positive, productive way. He said it was the practice of staying open to each other’s perspectives and pursuing pieces of ideas that they liked and related to, rather than focusing on what they didn’t like, that allowed them to realize that their personal challenges intersected in a way that was ripe for innovation.
“We ended up coalescing around housing because we’re all passionate about it,” Johnstone said. “Cooper was in a position where he had this job in Freeport but couldn’t find affordable housing. Steve and Kathleen have lived in Freeport for years, and they want to be able to age in place here, and they’re depending on a young, vibrant community to help them do that.”
“Cooper is a wonderful young man who can’t find housing in Freeport. I’m an older person who would love to have Cooper living on my block, to maybe shovel my walk or help me with groceries,” Sullivan said. “Freeport is aging out. We need young people. We need their energy and their ideas.”
The team’s idea started to take shape in the form of Intergen, an organization that would facilitate the construction of accessory units located on properties owned by Freeport’s older generation and be made available to a younger generation. Property owners would lease the accessory units to Intergen, and Intergen would in turn sublease these units to younger occupants. The idea would open up affordable housing for younger people, who would, as part of the agreement, provide support to their aging neighbors.
As the team worked on their concept and pitch throughout the day, a strong connection formed between them, something that was evident in their confident camaraderie during the pitching portion of the evening. At the end of the day, the panel of judges — which included University of New Hampshire Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer and Director Fiona Wilson, Deep Wave Founder and Director Richard Gorvett, and Maine Technology Institute Senior Investment Officer Tom Kitterage — named team Intergen the winner.
Winning teams of the Start Summit are free to do what they want with their prize after the event ends; there’s no requirement to continue to develop your idea. But team Intergen decided to move forward – slowly but deliberately.
“After the event, we all went back to my house for a glass of wine, just get to know each other better and discuss what we wanted to do next,” Sullivan said. They acknowledged that everyone was busy with their own lives and pursuing a solution to a problem as critical and prickly as affordable housing seemed daunting. But they decided to simply commit to taking things one step at a time.
The first step was talking to Sullivan’s daughter, who works as an affordable housing attorney. It was through conversations with her that they learned how expensive it was to build Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, on properties – enough to feel like a roadblock. But the team is still taking steps and exploring other options, including a collaboration with a member of the second-place team at the summit, whose idea involved building affordable container housing on open land in Freeport.
It’s a long road ahead, but conversations are happening, and connections are being made, all stemming from the innovation and energy of the Freeport Start Summit. For Anna Ackerman, the Roux Institute project manager who organizes the Start Summits, team Intergen is what these events are all about.
“Intergen team is a perfect example of how a randomly selected team of individuals from different backgrounds and ages can come together and combine their unique perspectives on a specific challenge to create a new solution that otherwise might not have been possible,” she said. “By creating the space and structure for networking and teambuilding among community members, we’re encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to take the first steps towards solving a real, pressing challenge.”
With a future Start Summits in the works, Ackerman encourages community members to join, even if they don’t have an entrepreneurial background.
“Start Summits are designed to be open and accessible to everyone. Everyone is capable of being creative, working with a team, and solving a problem in a new way,” she said. “We want to reach people who might feel intimidated by the world of entrepreneurship and startups and show them that they have what it takes to build a unique solution, and if they want, turn it into a business.”
You can read more about the Roux Institute’s upcoming Start Summits here.