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Loan fund aims to spark innovation, sustain coastal Maine economies

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Loan fund aims to spark innovation, sustain coastal Maine economies

PEAKS ISLAND — Charles Friedman grew up on Peaks Island, where he fell in love with simple life, only a short boat ride from the bustling of Portland's Old Port.

Throughout high school, Friedman worked in a sail shop in Yarmouth. When his grandfather lost his wallet, Friedman made him another out of unused sail cloth, beginning a hobby of making wallets as gifts for his friends and family.

After graduating in 2010 from the University of Maine in Orono, Friedman returned to Peaks Island with a plan to convert his hobby into a small company, Lifethereal, which sells products under the Flowfold brand.

Although the business was not in civil engineering (his field of study), the 23-year-old said the two interests are not dissimilar. Both have elements of sustainability.

Civil engineering focuses on low-impact and energy-efficient infrastructure, he said, while Flowfold deals in "upcycling."

"It's not post-consumer recycled," Friedman said of his wallets. "It's scraps from the manufacturing process, so it's really clean. It's good fabric, but it would have ended up in a landfill."

Now, Friedman is in-line to receive a micro-loan from another group that has sustainability in mind – the Island Institute, which recently established an Island and Coastal Innovation Fund to help diversify and strengthen island economies.

Rob Snyder, Island Institute executive vice president, said the innovation fund evolved out of conversations with residents of Maine's 15 year-round island communities. They said economic development is their No. 1 priority.

"Beginning in 2009, we began an internal process at the Island Institute to figure out what it would take to move beyond ... all the things we've traditionally done, to think about how we could become a lender, an investor and someone who could work on a business-to-business basis on the islands," Snyder said.

Snyder said the goal is to raise $2 million by 2013 for the innovation fund, which consists of three components: $500,000 for micro-loans ($5,000 to $25,000 each) to create or maintain jobs, $300,000 for investments and $1.2 million for groundfish permits.

Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, a fisherman-owned, vertically integrated lobster business based at the Portland Fish Pier, was one of the first businesses to receive funding through the program.

"We just had an idea, a real interest in it," Calendar Island President John Jordan said. "But we needed to do a lot of work to move it beyond that to an actual business plan."

The business was launched in 2009 with a website that listed biographies of the 38 Calendar Island lobstermen, an effort to bring consumers closer to their food.

Jordan said the Island Institute funding allowed the company to develop a business plan for it retail products, allowing it to find its target audience, network and explore the concept.

"We really tried to establish a new category for lobster, which is basically gourmet comfort lobster," Jordan said.

In January, Jordan said the business opened its retail business for eight products, including Maine Lobster Mac & Cheese, Maine Lobster Pizza, Maine Lobster Corn Chowder and Maine Lobster Pot Pies, among others.

Those products are available online as well as in supermarkets in St. Louis and Hawaii, with contracts pending in Dallas. 

"So, business is good," Jordan said. "It's going very well."

At a press conference announcing the loan, Snyder highlighted Friedman's business as one that would also benefit from the fund.

"He's excited. He's growing. He's got a vision for the future and he's got a social mission attached to his business," Snyder said. "We want to be organized to work with guys like Charlie."

Although the details of the micro-loan for Flowfold aren't finalized, Friedman said the money will allow his company to expand its product line faster than otherwise could have.

After hand-making and selling upwards of 500 wallets, the business earned enough money to have some of their wallets made by Lewiston-based Allen Manufacturing.

FlowFold has been making iPad and laptop cases on special order, and Friedman said he plans to introduce a wholesale version at the Surf Expo in Orlando, Fla.

"Things have grown organically for us so far," he said. "(But) We're going to be trying to reach a more coast-to-coast retail market. That will definitely be exciting."

The loan will not only help his business grow – it will also allow him keep it rooted on Peaks Island, where the simple life costs a little more and everyday tasks are a little more difficult.

"You can walk down the road, go for a swim, go for a canoe and then hop on a boat and you're right downtown," he said. "That's why I'd like to stay here."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.