Roux Institute’s Founder Residency gets a boost in helping diverse Maine companies solve the world’s most pressing challenges

Person sitting on a park bench using their laptop.
The Roux Institute’s Founder Residency aims to light a spark in Maine’s already growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The U.S. Department of Commerce recently announced 60 organizations that received grant funding through its Build to Scale program, including Northeastern University’s Roux Institute in Portland, Maine.

To those in Portland and Maine’s growing network of businesses, it doesn’t come as a surprise. The $2 million grant, administered by the Economic Development Administration, will go toward supporting and growing three programs, including the Founder Residency, a yearlong program that focuses on funding entrepreneurs from underrepresented and marginalized groups. Through ongoing support for all three programs, the Roux Institute aims to build a pipeline of diverse entrepreneurs in the state of Maine.

The Founder Residency program on Northeastern’s campus in Portland helps new business ventures develop plans and raise investment funds to grow the companies. The one-year program is a startup residency designed to support companies solving the world’s most pressing challenges.

“We support these diverse founders as they build, grow and scale their companies,” says Santiago Zindel, director of the Founder Residency. “We help them better understand their customers, get traction and revenue, and begin fundraising.” 

The businesses — including those run by women, people of color, LGBTQ+ or other historically marginalized people — take up residency at the Roux for a year. During that time, they receive grant funding, access to joint research opportunities and programming like workshops, talks and sessions to help them learn more about how to build a business, a network of expert advisers and a peer community.

Founders also have access to Northeastern’s global network of mentors and investors, along with researchers, academics and students in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer and data sciences, digital engineering, advanced life sciences and medicine.

The Roux Institute aims to use the EDA grant not only to support the Founder Residency program but “to create an entire pipeline that supports founders across their entrepreneurial journey” in Maine, Zindel says. That includes the other two programs that will receive support from the EDA grant: the Start Summits, a series of two-day ideation hackathons, and the incubation Propeller Program run by and in partnership with Coastal Enterprises Inc. 

As the first entrepreneurial program at the Roux Institute, the Founder Residency, which currently includes a portfolio of 26 companies, has already experienced success. In three years, it’s portfolio companies have created 175 jobs, raised more than $28 million in capital and hired 11 Northeastern co-ops.

“The impact the Founder Residency companies have made in Maine and beyond is incredible … and we’re just getting started,” says Chris Wolfel, associate vice president and head of entrepreneurship and venture creation at the Roux Institute. “With the support of our partners, philanthropic supporters, investment partners, and mentors, we look forward to expanding our programs into new verticals soon to continue to drive economic development through high-growth startups here in Maine.”

One of the most recent Founder Residency success stories is Tanbark, a Maine-based company that makes packaging using wood fiber rather than plastic.

Two years ago, Tanbark was in its infancy stage when Melissa LaCasse, the company founder and CEO, entered the Founder Residency. The company uses two machines to produce its product out of a 10,000-square-foot facility in Saco, Maine. 

collage of 9 images of Tanbark packages in different colors on contrasting colored backgrounds
Melissa LaCasse, the founder and CEO of wood fiber packaging producer Tanbark, is one of many success stories to come out of the Roux Institute’s Founder Residency. Photo Courtesy of Tanbark

Wolfel says LaCasse and her team came to Northeastern as experts in the packaging business.

“What I believe we added was how to build and scale a high-growth company and connections into talent and corporate partners and how you approach building a company that is highly scalable while staying here in Maine,” Wolfel says. 

Within the first four months of joining the residency program, Tanbark was able to secure about $1.8 million in seed funding. Since leaving the program, it has secured another $1.5 million, bringing its total amount raised to a little over $3.2 million in pre-seed funding.

Tanbark isn’t the only success story. Other recent graduates of the Founder Residency program include Michelle DeBlois, CEO of ReMo, who further developed her startup at the Roux Institute.

ReMo is a web-based application created for students and literacy educators in grades 4-12 to inspire independent reading and create lifelong, engaged readers. 

“The Roux has really helped us on a number of levels”, DeBlois says. “First of all, we have this awesome space to work in. We have great mentors. We get one-on-one time and also are able to call on those mentors if we need help.”

“I think the Roux really pushed us to go to market,” DeBlois adds. “I think as educators, we’re very cautious and kind of humble by nature and the Roux kind of fired us up.”

ReMo manages and organizes information on books available to students, helps educators keep track of the reading materials and maintains information about students’ reading progress.

Deb Mills-Scofield, a Roux mentor who worked with DeBlois, says the Roux program offers a tremendous boost to ReMo and other startups.

“I have seen a lot of accelerator and incubator programs, and a lot through universities, and I’m really, really impressed with the Roux’s Founder Residency program,” Mills-Scofield says. “They really provide them with support with the network [and] the fundraising that they have enabled these companies to raise.”

The 2023 Founder Residency cohort includes:

Chargely –– A mobile-first application solving electric vehicle charging anxiety by offering routing and EV charging recommendations powered by community-driven data.

EzOut –– An AI-powered, low-cost smart shopping cart that not only increases grocers’ profit margins but also personalizes the shopping experience at brick-and-mortar stores.

P3RD –– A material science research and development company commercializing microfibrillated cellulose (MFC) tree-plastic packaging.

ReachMyTeach –– A digital platform that connects families, students and teachers by translating messages and PDFs into over 130 languages, supporting on-demand video interpreters, scheduling conferences, providing attendance management and translating districtwide alerts for large communications like snow days.

Small Wins Dashboard –– A web-based app designed to fill a gap in schools’ evidence base and generate the insights, growth and belief teams need to reach their goals. It converts individual team members’ small win reflections into team-wide evidence of progress.

Sotira –– A service that helps direct-to-consumers brands and stores optimize the highest returns on excess inventory, unsold inventory and overstock.

Thola –– An app that offers compliance automation for the agricultural supply chain, accelerating auditing and global export compliance certification for farmers and their produce for climate sustainability and quality standards.

Trameter –– A travel platform that plans an entire vacation in 90 seconds or less using an algorithm that automatically finds and combines the best hotels, flights and experiences into a single travel package, all based on the traveler’s budget and preferences.

Videsk ––  A scalable, plug-and-play video contact center that helps to improve business to consumer communications in e-commerce. –– A platform that uses the latest technology in unified API providers, large language models and skill ontologies to help organizations of any size implement effective and equitable professional development for their workforce.

Like with the companies that go through the Founder Residency, Zindel says the goal with the EDA grant is also to scale the program and grow it even further. The Roux Institute increased the number of companies per cohort from five to 10.

In addition to the Founder Residency, Northeastern’s Roux Institute also recently launched a new residency program for innovative companies in healthtech, with the aim of creating a thriving ecosystem in Maine that will improve patient care for residents.

New programming has also been added to the Founder Residency to more actively address the specific challenges that underrepresented founders face.

Through all of these efforts, he hopes Northeastern and the Roux Institute can have an active hand in creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem in Maine.

“If the Roux is having a say in how we build out the startup ecosystem in Maine, it’s super important that we are intentional about how we do that and who we choose to support,” Zindel says. “This is a key consideration as we build the ecosystem. We want to change the norms of what a successful founder can look like here and of what types of companies are able to get investment and support.”

Northeastern Global News reporters Cesareo Contreras and Cody Mello-Klein, and managing editor Mark Conti contributed to this report.

Cesareo Contreras is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @cesareo_r and Threads @cesareor.