Frustrated by the lack of easily accessible trail information for snowmobilers in Maine and fed up with the hours it could take to plan a single trip, Jake Warn decided to do something about it.
Warn, 22, is the founder of SledTRX, a new statewide online snowmobile map designed to help riders easily plan their trips for free. And he’s not the only Maine entrepreneur to turn an interest in an outdoor activity into a new startup. A company that makes portable campfires and another whose high-tech taillight helps bicyclists stay safe are among those that surfaced as the coronavirus pandemic pushed people outside.
Investors, entrepreneurs and outdoor industry professionals have taken notice of the growing interest in the great outdoors and the new technology-driven ways people are connecting with it. With ample outdoor recreation opportunities and with a growing number of resources for entrepreneurs, they believe Maine is well positioned to carve out a place in the field.
Brian Whitney, president of the Maine Technology Institute in Brunswick, has seen “a precipitous increase” in technology-based startups such as SledTRX seeking funding and other assistance from the business development engine since the start of the pandemic, and he expects them to keep coming.
“Some of that is based on our unsurpassed quality of life and the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities,” Whitney said. “It is also the result of younger entrepreneurs leveraging their tech know-how to make outdoor experiences more accessible and enjoyable.”
SETTING THE SCENE
Maine already values and is valued for its outdoor recreation opportunities.
According to a recent report from the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, Maine’s outdoor recreation industry made up 3.3 percent of the state’s economy, ranking it fifth in the country.
While the economic value added by outdoor recreation has declined across the U.S. since 2019, Maine’s decrease (15.6 percent) was less severe than the country’s as whole (19.5 percent) and the nonprofit trade group Maine Outdoor Brands said the decreases were expected – the result of canceled events, closed stores, supply-chain issues, travel bans and other disruptions.
Meanwhile, a report from the Outdoor Industry Association found that in 2020, 53 percent of Americans ages 6 and over participated in outdoor recreation at least once, the highest participation rate on record.
Outdoor recreation in Maine generated $2.3 billion in gross output in 2020 – $260 million of that from the manufacturing of outdoor recreation gear and equipment, according to the department of commerce report.
While the overall value declined, several activities saw significant increases in Maine, such as boating and fishing (which make up one category) and biking, which jumped 27 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Jenny Kordick, executive director of Maine Outdoor Brands, said the surge in outdoor participation since the pandemic has created “an environment ripe for new companies to start.”
Membership in her organization has increased by over 60 percent since the start of the pandemic.
“There’s a growing customer base and new market opportunities with so many beginners getting outdoors,” Kordick said. “The pandemic has lasted long enough now that those habits have stuck … and the environment we have in Maine is the best place to be if you want to be outdoors.”
Within the nearly two years since the pandemic started, a handful of startups have sprouted roots and are growing rapidly.
SledTRX, which Warn launched in December 2020, is averaging between 35,000 and 40,000 views per month.
An avid snowmobile rider, Warn is used to seeing a cluster of riders at any given trailhead trying to figure out where they’re going. SledTRX aims to take the guesswork out of the equation by working with the state, municipalities and local clubs to fully map out all the trails, not only so riders can know where they’re going, but also so they can discover what might otherwise be hidden gems.
The Waterville resident is hoping to expand into other parts of New England soon, with plans to add trails for all-terrain vehicles “when the time is right.”
The site’s mobile app, which will be more user-friendly for riders using the map while out on the trails, is set to launch later this year.
Tree Free Fire, an online company manufacturing small, portable campfires, has seen significant growth, with roughly 4,000 unit sales since it launched in late March.
The company’s product is relatively low-tech, but as Nick Rimsa, co-owner of Waterville’s Tortoise Labs noted, the definition of a “tech company” is starting to shift as more businesses like Tree Free Fire break into the e-commerce market.
Started by Dylan Veilleux of Waterville and Henry Gilbert of Portland, the canister-enclosed fire kits are based around the basic idea of “getting people around a fire and making that as simple as possible,” Veilleux said. The small canisters use peat moss briquettes and organic soy wax, operating similarly to a candle but with more flame and no wick.
Joshua Fox of Scarborough is preparing for a spring launch of Survue, a bicycle taillight that uses artificial intelligence to warn cyclists when a vehicle is approaching and takes photos in the event of a collision.
As interest in outdoor activities continues to grow, the industry will continue to gain momentum, Fox said.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
These startups and others have the potential to create a niche in the state, Whitney said.
“Maine is ideally suited to foster and grow these types of enterprises,” he said. “We have a strong innovation ecosystem to support them and, while every startup venture encounters risks and pitfalls, our natural resource advantages and the strong desire by people to get outside and enjoy all that Maine has to offer positions us well to grow this industry here.”
Organizations such as the Maine Technology Institute, Maine Outdoor Brands, Northeastern University’s Roux Institute and various business incubators and accelerators, college programs and prize competitions serve to help facilitate and encourage this growth with funding, technical assistance, networking and product development tools.
The more businesses that crop up, the easier it will be for others to create their own companies.
This, according to Joe Powers, managing director of Portland-based investment firm Maine Venture Fund, is what is known as a “cluster.”
Clusters can be recognized, at a very large scale, in Detroit’s auto industry, computer chip production in Silicon Valley, wine in Napa Valley or even film in Hollywood.
Clusters have “really shown that when there are companies together, there are a lot of positive feedback loops,” Powers said, and while they can create competition, they also allow for collaboration.
So can Maine become a Silicon Valley for outdoor tech companies?
“It’s not yet obvious that Maine is going to have a cluster of outdoor companies, but I think it’s intuitive that we would,” Powers said.
Rimsa, the co-owner of Tortoise Labs, a “rural product studio” helping Maine entrepreneurs turn ideas into profitable apps, products and services, has noticed more tech-based outdoor companies emerging.
The lab works with organizations such as the Maine Technology Institute, Roux Institute, Dirigo Labs, Maine Outdoor Brands and others for funding, marketing and other resources to help grow and scale the companies they incubate. SledTRX, Survue and Tree Free Fire all were aided by Tortoise Labs.
Rimsa, too, sees Maine’s potential to grow in this tech and outdoor space, especially as more companies sprout up.
“Success begets more success,” he said. “As these things continue to thrive, it only brings more entrepreneurs into the ecosystem and gets more people excited about Maine being the right place.”
Henry Gilbert, Veilleux’s partner in Tree Free Fire and a consultant for NaviTour, a two-way online marketplace for travelers and tour guides set to launch in the spring, noted that Maine’s outdoor product manufacturing sector has been growing for quite some time, but he said adding technology into the mix is a logical next step.
“There are more and more resources for tech startups in Maine than there ever has been,” Gilbert said. “The fact that Maine is a very outdoorsy space with outdoor-minded people, it only makes sense that a lot of tech businesses that come out of it would be focused on that.”
Plus, he said, there aren’t as many existing tech businesses focused on the outdoor industry as there are focused on, say, sales software, so Maine has a good opportunity to play a leading role.
Funding remains one of the biggest barriers for companies and the industry, Gilbert said.
There are only a handful of investors in Maine, and other agencies and venture capitalists don’t realize there’s an economy here, he said. Gilbert is hopeful that will change soon, though, as groups such as the Roux Institute and Maine Outdoor Brands continue working to put Maine on the map by growing and promoting the companies and the industry as a whole.
Chimani, which develops app-based national park and outdoor recreation guides, is one of Maine’s big outdoor tech success stories.
Since its inception in 2010, Chimani (named for Chimanimani Mountains National Park in Zimbabwe) has been steadily growing, gaining key partnerships with large brands such as Ford and Subaru, according to its founder, Kerry Gallivan. After some struggles with how to monetize the business, Gallivan has found success with the subscription model.
Admittedly, subscriptions to the Yarmouth-based company’s service, which fell at the start of the pandemic then started to rise with vaccinations and the lifting of travel bans, are down again following the recent increase in cases. Gallivan attributes this to the fact that visiting national parks often requires a great deal of planning ahead, something that has been hard to do with the frequently changing travel restrictions over the past two years.
However, the pandemic did provide Gallivan the opportunity to expand the company’s reach to statewide guides not based solely around the national parks. Chimani’s guide to Maine, which went live last year, features state parks, local parks, hikes, bike paths, land trusts, beaches, scenic byways, waterfalls and other unique geological features along with carefully researched information and history.
The next stage of rollouts, slated for January, will feature guides to other states, including California, New Hampshire, Vermont and Texas. The launch will also feature an app redesign.
Gallivan lives and works in Yarmouth, but the company is fully remote. Still, he said, there are benefits for outdoor startups getting their footing in Maine.
“Maine is inherently an outdoor experience,” he said, calling it “one of our biggest assets.”
However, Gallivan noted, it’s also important for companies, especially those that are tech-based, not to think of Maine as their only focus.
“They need to think of the national market and use Maine as an experiment to test things,” he said.
For example, Chimani’s biggest market is California, but Gallivan used Acadia National Park for the first national park guide and Maine for the first statewide guide.
“Maine is a great place to build products because of the culture here,” he said, but “Maine’s just a small market. You have to think from the start, how does the product I’m building work from a national perspective?”