MTAF awards $25 million in bond funds to innovative growth projects

With these funds the range of broadband could expand tenfold — and 15 other projects will move forward to stimulate the economy

By Ramona du Houx

July 3rd, 2009 

Students working in composites
Students working in composites
In June the Maine Technology Asset Fund awarded the second round of bond funds totaling $25 million to new, innovative projects.

“We’ve developed a technology that will strengthen communications through broadband, tenfold,” said Andre Skalina of Dielectric Communications. “We’re working with UMaine on environmental testing. It could revolutionize the field.”

Projects are as diverse as using new underwater technologies to map the ocean floor for windmill platforms, bringing diagnostics technology to Brewer, so patients won’t have to travel to Boston for the same care, or establishing markets for breakthrough gene medicines developed by Jackson Laboratory, to name a few.

UMaine’s different departments received over $6.8 million in funds. In addition to the projects receiving funds, UMaine is a direct partner in seven other projects awarded more than $9 million. The university’s President Kennedy said, “It’s a testament to the high level and wide-ranging research being conducted at the university. We’re world renowned in many different disciplines, because of our research and development.”

“The MTAF funds have elevated Maine on the national landscape as a state that makes essential investments during a time of economic turmoil,” said the president of Maine Technology Institute (MTI), Betsy Biemann. “The awards go to 16 projects that build on our core strengths in Maine’s innovation economy — on the talents of our workforce such as in manufacturing boats and composite structures, on our research institutions like the Gulf of Maine, on our entrepreneurs, who are developing ways to harness renewable energy from the wind, tides, and sun, and on our research capacity in emerging clusters, such as biotechnology and information technology.”

MTI administers the awards. A recent evaluation by MTI found that for every dollar awarded, it leverages more than $14 in public and private funds for the innovation economy.

“The Maine Technology Asset Fund illustrates Maine’s strong commitment to stimulating the state’s innovation economy and expanding the infrastructure that supports high-tech research and development,” said Governor Baldacci. “These projects will leverage another $40 million investment directly with matching funds into Maine’s innovation economy.”

That economy sees businesses expanding like Hodgdon’s Yachts, which now has established Hodgdon Defense Composites, because of their work developing a stronger composite Navy Seal launch.

Hodgdon Defense Composites project director CEO David Packhem said, “The last four to five years we’ve been working with UMaine to build precision ships. But for the development awards from MTI and the help from UMaine, we wouldn’t be here. We are currently one of the front-runners in a highly contested U.S. Navy competition, jumping over competitors, because of the strength the technology developed in collaboration with UMaine gives our ships.”

Hodgdon is planning a 30,000-square-foot facility in Hamden that will build 40- to 100-foot vessels. They plan to hire 100 people to start.

“The new facility in Hamden was chosen for labor and the proximity to UMaine’s research facility. Phase two will be another facility, which could double that amount,” said Parker.

Another development will be the Bigelow Center for Blue Biotechnology. The center intends to bring together all the interested parities in this research under one roof.

“We live on a planet where two-thirds is covered by the ocean. Maine’s location on the ocean is an opportunity,” said Dr. William Wilson of the center. “Blue biotechnology is taking the best the ocean can offer, from developing new products from ocean organisms that have evolved for millions of years. We are working with plankton, whose genetic code is the blueprint for the evolution on the planet. We are excited about the possibilities collaborations will bring.”

MTAF funds to Bigelow are expected to attract $34 million in investment to Maine over the next five years, with product development and startup companies.

The average wage for the technology sector is $48,000 dollars, which is 37 percent higher than the average job in Maine. Last year, even though the economy was in decline, Maine’s technology companies had a 36 percent growth in revenues.

What makes Maine unique with its R&D programs is how they are carried out. Maine broadens the spectrum with collaborations to ensure the state sees an economic return on R&D investments, and that graduating students will be able to live and earn good incomes, in the state.

Businesses and industries usually partner with educational institutions conducting R&D. Collaborations often see new businesses, using technologies developed at these educational facilities, setting up shop in Maine. More often than not, these businesses are created in close proximity to the university or lab that helped them get going.

Because of relationships developed at Maine’s educational institutions between the community, landowners, businesses, industry, and the State, a unique collaborative atmosphere exists.

“We have engineers working with foresters, pulp-paper people working with wood-composite people. All these groups collaborate together. There aren’t any universities where all four groups work together,” said UMaine Professor Hermant Pendse.

This ongoing relationship has helped on a number of fronts.

• When businesses are developing new products, they have access to testing facilities.
• When educational institutions make discoveries, they can find appropriate investors to take their discoveries to market.
• Emerging innovative students have access to state-of-the-art labs to put their ideas to the test. If successful, they can patent their discoveries and hopefully find investors from the pool of businesses incubated around similar concepts already set up in the state.
• Those students also will have job opportunities in their areas of expertise from business spin-offs.
• Because of the level of R&D being conducted, world-renowned scientists are seeking positions at Maine educational facilities.
• Value-added products, developed from Maine’s natural resource, are on the rise.

This synergy is all part of what is termed “cluster development.” And it’s helping to grow Maine’s knowledge-based economy.

Two years ago a Governor’s Task Force under the direction of Karen Mills identified areas where cluster development should be enhanced. Mills is now the Administrator of the Small Business Administration. Her work for Maine culminated when voters approved bonds for cluster development.

The MTAFA awards are strategically targeted to help stimulate cluster areas of growth that are already under way in the state. When businesses, educational institutions, industry, and nonprofits, align themselves and work together because of a common bond, it has been found to grow economies. They share research, experiences, transportation costs, and sometimes advertising costs. As a united front, they have a stronger voice in the marketplace and can draw more attention to their products or services.

Jackson Laboratories hopes to continue to utilize that synergy and catapult its new discoveries to market.

“We will be getting out in commercial space the discoveries that we have made in recent years,” said Dr. Richard Woychik, CEO of Jackson Laboratory. “Drugs, in the past, have been developed upon population averages. You can now treat patients better with the knowledge of a person’s genetic makeup. Drugs will be safer and more effective because of this. We consider ourselves major partners with the State of Maine, and are excited to continue this collaboration.”

“Jackson Labs has a $168-million payroll and employs over 14,000 people. The average pay and benefits is $67,000, compared to the Maine state average of $33,000,” said the governor. “They impact, indirectly 2,000 other jobs. How Jackson Labs contributes to the economy is huge.”

That type of contribution to the state’s economy could be replicated in all these different areas of innovation that the cluster development bonds have funded.

With wind, waves, and solar technologies receiving grant funds, Maine is also moving forward in the clean-energy economy.

“Our technology that we are testing this fall will go into a grid-connected project in Alaska next summer,” said Chris Sauer, CEO of ORPC, whose company plans to build a tidal generation facility. “This is a technology that will have worldwide applications. As strange as it may sound, we are one of the leaders in the world in tidal energy. England, Ireland, and Thailand are looking to us in Eastport.”

Chris Straka, CEO of Ascendant Energy Co., said, “Solar is breaking out. We’re on a mainstream adoption of it. We’ve partnered with UMaine composites center to improve our product. We’ve already trained many solar installers in Maine with a hugely successful program. With the grant funding, we are setting up a photovoltaic manufacturing plant in Rockland.”

“Maine is on the innovation map,” said Baldacci. “We need to continue to make these in these targeted investments.”

Dr. Catherine Renault, the director of the Office of Innovation, said, “Our people, our natural resources, our know-how, our Yankee ingenuity, our entrepreneurship, and our technology-intensive companies and research institutions are our strengths. These awards help to stimulate Maine’s innovative economy by investing in these strengths.”

The first set of MAFA awards, $30-million worth, was handed out in August of last year.

This year’s list of award recipients and their projects follow. For more information on the award recipients and their projects, please visit Maine Technology Institute’s Web site, www.mainetechnology.org

• University of Maine, Process Development Center Infrastructure Improvement, Orono, $1,083,197.
• Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health, Maine Regional Flow Cytometry Collaborative, Brewer, $1,247,875.
• Hodgdon Defense Composites, a world-class composite materials shipyard & manufacturing complex, Portland, $3,874,719.
• University of Maine, Maine Innovative Industries Initiative, Orono, $3,690,000.
• University of Maine, Maine Center for Autonomous Marine Survey, Orono, $1,283,822.
• ORPC Maine, OCGen Turbine Generator Unit Commercialization, Portland, $806,138.
• Gulf of Maine Research Institute, hydroacoustic equipment for herring surveys in the Gulf of Maine, Portland, $543,750.
• Dielectric Communications, a new design for universal rural wireless connectivity to fixed and mobile users, Raymond, $2,200,000.
• University of New England, animal facilities to enhance translational neuroscience & pharmacology research, $1,533,929.
• Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, improvements to Maine’s aquaculture business incubation infrastructure, Orono, $213,900.
• Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Center for Blue Biotechnology, West Boothbay Harbor, $4,453,971.
• Ascendant Energy Company, a solar center for excellence: advanced photovoltaic production facility, Rockland, $575,408.
• The Jackson Laboratory, solidifying The Jackson Laboratory’s position in the emerging biomedical market, Bar Harbor, $2,137,429.
• University of Maine, strengthening biotechnology & supporting the STEM education initiative in Maine, $883,160.