Guest editorial: Vermont is a greenhouse for entrepreneurial businesses

“I’d love to move to Vermont and start a company here,” the snowboarder said with a sigh as we shared a chairlift at Stowe. I sighed too: If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, my mortgage would be paid.
That was nine years ago. Chris Kaiser, the snowboarder, went on to found Vermont Peanut Butter and this Feb. 6, he will join a panel discussion at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier to celebrate Vermont Entrepreneurship Week.
Kaiser moved to Stowe in 2005, started making peanut butter in his kitchen. He moved operations into a plant in Waterbury in the summer of 2011. Weeks later, the facility was wiped out by Tropical Storm Irene. He rebuilt and is now selling his all-natural nut butters internationally. Kaiser has joined the ranks of hundreds who came here to ski and went on to build a business here. He’s become a “Vermontrepreneur.”
What makes a Vermontrepreneur? It’s hard work, creativity, resiliency, and a dedication to quality. It’s also an ethic about life and work and giving back. Vermontrepreneurs measure profits in ways accountants could never calculate. Yet, the funny thing about Vermont startups? According to the Census Bureau they are less likely to fail than those in neighboring states.
“Vermont is very good at growing companies, we’re like a greenhouse,” said Joe Fusco at an economic development workshop held in late January. Fusco is vice president at Casella Waste Systems and an adviser at University of Vermont’s new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program (SEMBA).
As a greenhouse state, what is Vermont doing to help grow its entrepreneurs?
•  Prizes for business plans. Recently LaunchVT announced it was upping its 2014 business plan prize money to $25,000 (as well as a suite of more than $45,000 in pro bono services ranging from legal to design work). And Strolling of the Heifers is looking to offer nearly $90,000 across multiple categories for business plans in the farm/food sector.
•  Innovative business-focused education, such as Champlain College’s gaming curricula and UVM’s new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA). State colleges such as Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont are also incredible resources for entrepreneurs and offer a suite of programs — ranging from cheese making to sustainable design, SEO to manufacturing.
•  Technical and business assistance. Vermont’s Small Business Development Center and 12 regional development corporations reach out across the state advising start-ups and growing businesses alike. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provides early-stage grants, loans and technical assistance to businesses that focus on sustainably produced goods and services and has been the driving force behind Vermont’s Farm-to-Plate strategic plan.
•  Venture funding for start-ups. Fresh Tracks Capital (proud venture parent to Vermont Teddy Bear, Mophie, EatingWell) has a new fund now and is once again interviewing its next potential entrepreneurs in a truly Vermont manner: The annual Peak Pitch event, to be held at Sugarbush on March 6, involves “chairlift” pitches. And consider Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET) in Middlebury and Burlington, which has been named one of the top 11 university-based incubators in the world.
•  Access to big capital. For those entrepreneurs (such as Jay Peak’s Bill Stenger) who have had a big idea, Vermont’s EB-5 program has provided access to more than $300 million in capital for projects around the state and generated thousands of jobs. In January, a Mount Snow EB-5 project worth $52 million was approved.
•  Incentive programs with a proven track record. The self-funded Vermont Employment Growth Incentive rewards companies for growing businesses and jobs here and was named one of the nation’s top incentive programs by Good Jobs First. Since its inception in 2007 this performance-based incentive has promised to return more than $34 million to companies if they create jobs and payroll and make capital investments. By 2016, this will have generated more than 6,145 jobs with an average  compensation of $57,641, over $546 million in new capital investments in Vermont, and a net return of $24 million to state coffers.
•  Workforce training. Another program housed in the Department of Economic Development, the Vermont Training Program, helps pay up to 50 percent of training costs for employees in qualified businesses. In 2013, VTP helped train more than 3,850 Vermonters, who then went on to improve their wages by 13 percent.
•  Help with government contracting. Vermont’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), has helped companies such as Simon Pearce (which recently received a $5 million order for its fine stemware from U.S. embassies around the world) and Darn Tough socks and Revision Eyewear provide products to our government. In fiscal year 2013, Vermont companies working through PTAC received 519 contracts, worth $73,822,954 — that’s nearly double last year’s figure.
•  Export assistance. The Department of Economic Development’s Vermont Global Trade Partnership (VGTP) allocated over $400,000 in federal grant funds to small businesses to help offset the costs of trade shows, export compliance training, and other international market support. VGTP also provides international market data and research to companies already exporting or those who seek to enter the export market.
•  Mentoring. And lastly, we have businesses that reach out to help their younger siblings. Recently Dinse Knapp McAndrews announced that over the next month it is offering free lunchtime legal advice to start-ups as part of its support of StartUpVT. IBM, which was a key partner in launching StartUpVT, is hosting a suite of online programs, events and classes for entrepreneurs from Feb. 3-7.  
We’ve already seen many of Vermont’s seedling companies grow into Ben & Jerry’s, Burton, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Dealer.com, Commonwealth Dairy, Biotek, Logic Supply and others. But if Vermont’s greenhouse economy is to continue to be successful, we need to find new ways to nurture the state’s businesses: start-ups, emerging and even established larger corporations. 
As the Department of Economic Development works with partners around the state to develop a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, we are taking a hard look at what helps companies at all stages of growth.      
We welcome your suggestions and comments. As we know full well, Vermontrepreneurs have no shortage of good ideas.
To learn more about how to start or grow a business in Vermont or to submit ideas or comments, visit the Department of Economic Development’s website, ThinkVermont.com.
— Lisa Gosselin, Commissioner of the Department of Economic Development
Editor’s note: Gosselin is married to Addison Independent Editor and Publisher Angelo Lynn.

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