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Research in Maine Helps Fuel Innovation Economy

Univeristy research at the University of New England and the Univesity of Maine are helping to drive innonvation in the state.

By Gary Wollenhaupt on January 2, 2014

At the University of Maine, research is big science and big business, with UMaine filing 150 patents since 2005 and launching 10 tech-based startup companies.

“We are the leading research and economic development institution in the state, with key strengths in engineering, natural sciences, renewable energy, forestry and agriculture,” says Paul Ferguson, University of Maine president. “We recently surpassed $100 million in research expenditures, which is a huge accomplishment for an institution of our size.”

The university operates the Foster Center for Student Innovation, which encourages students to become entrepreneurs at an early stage of their development. Its on-campus Center for Undergraduate Research sponsors 180 to 200 students to work with Maine’s corporate employers on research efforts.

“We specifically look to strengthen Maine’s economy by conducting research that works hand in hand with industry,” says Jake Ward, UMaine vice president for innovation and economic development. “For example, forestry is big in our state, so we’re conducting research on how forestry biomasses can be turned back into pulp or paper. Students at UMaine learn about innovation as well as the business side, such as commercialization of products, marketing and communications.”

The university partners on several research projects with federal agencies including the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture along with private companies such as Hewlett Packard, DuPont, Texas Instruments, General Electric and Bath Iron Works.

“We offer a minor in innovation engineering with about 250 students each year in that program, and UMaine interns are currently working at hundreds of companies throughout the region,” Ferguson says. “It’s smart these days for a student to enroll in our innovation engineering curriculum because they will become more hirable. For instance, maybe you’re a political science major who might minor in innovation engineering. You will graduate that much more valuable to an employer.”

UNE Research Passes $15.5M

Another high-caliber research school is the University of New England, with campuses in Biddeford and Portland.

“We are focused primarily on biotech and biomedical research, with aquaculture and marine sciences also developing,” says Edward Bilsky, a professor of pharmacology and vice president for research and scholarship. “UNE has partnered with companies such as IDEXX, Corning, and The Baker Co., plus we go outside of Maine to work with companies like Eli Lilly, Biogen Idec and Abbott to bring more business to the state and create jobs here.”

Bilsky says when he arrived at the private UNE in 2001, research funding was under $1 million for all university projects. In 2012, that number climbed to $11.6 million, and the 2013 fiscal year will see research funding surpass $15.5 million.

“One of our current initiatives involves studying the neurobiology of pain, because the Institute of Medicine reports that chronic pain has become this nation’s No. 1 health/social/economic problem,” he says. “UNE studies how acute pain develops into chronic pain, and we’re developing new therapies as we gain more solid understanding of the affliction.”

Colleges Rank High

Three of the most highly regarded liberal arts colleges in the country are in Maine. Bowdoin College ranked No. 6 on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Liberal Arts Colleges national listing in 2013 – a list that also included Colby College and Bates College in the top 25. In addition, a network of seven community colleges in the Maine Community College System provides degree and career programs in more than 300 areas as well as continuing education and customized training for business and industry.

One company that has further prospered thanks to Maine’s education system is Cianbro Corp., a Pittsfield-based commercial building and construction management giant that sponsors a job fair and welding skills competition each November at the Augusta Civic Center. Cianbro works with a number of Maine workforce investment boards, job corps, and colleges and universities to recruit and train people for good careers in skilled trades such as pipe fitting, pipe welding, millwright, electrical, equipment operation, rigging and iron work.

“We partner with Kennebec Valley Community College to train students to construct transmission power lines, and at Scowhegan Area High School we sponsor a welding curriculum,” says Mike Bennett, Cianbro vice president of health, safety, environmental and human resources. “Tech-based careers can be high-paying, with pipe welders, for example, starting at more than $20 an hour. With tech workforces getting older and Cianbro growing, we are seeking and training more top talent here in Maine.”

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