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Maine Technology Sector Closely Eyeing Fate of R&D Bond
05/29/2012   Reported By: Tom Porter

The $20 million R&D bond proposal that was vetoed by the Gov. Paul LePage would seek voter approval of funding for the so-called Maine Technology Asset Fund, or M-TAF. It was established five years ago with an initial $50 million in bond money. Since then, the fund has taken in about $3 million. Betsy Biemann is president of the Maine Technology Institute, which administers the fund. She says Maine research entities can apply for grants on a competitive basis.

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Originally Aired: 5/29/2012 5:30 PM

Betsy Biemann: "This can be in some of traditional industries, like forestry and agriculture or it can be some of our emerging industries like biotechnology or information technology."

Tom Porter: "When you're deciding how to disburse this money, who gets it, what are you looking for?"

Betsy Biemann: "Well I don't decide, it would be nice if I could! But no, we draw on business and technology experts, some from in the state of Maine and some from outside of the state of Maine, to review every request that we get. We've only approved one out of approximately every four requests that we've received, so it is highly competitive. And each project is evaluated on the excellence of its science; on the economic impact potential for the project; on the quality of the team and the institutional commitment to the project; the level of collaborations--is that resource being shared among several Maine organizations that will be able to multiply the impact of the funding rather than just add it? And finally the relevance of the organization to Maine's innovation economy--is it building on our strengths and in ways that will again multiply the impact?"
Biemann says among the companies receiving money from the fund are Ocean Renewable Power Company, which is building North America's first grid-connected tidal power system of the coast of Eastport; Biovation, which is developing advance wound-care materials; and FHC in Bowdoin, which develops neuroscience instruments.

Companies like these, along with research-based organizations like Jackson Lab, the Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences (pictured right), and the University of Maine System, have received nearly $53 million from the Maine Technology Asset Fund. This has led to an additional $82 million being leveraged in private and federal funds. In all, 35 awards have been handed out to 17 organizations by M-TAF.

Gov. Paul LePage is unsettled by the amount of bond money that goes towards non-profit institutions. In his veto message, he says, "Taxpayer dollars should go towards R&D only when we can demonstrate a specific return on that investment. That return must be measured in taxes and jobs. Both of those rightly come in the private sector."

However, MTI president Betsy Behman says jobs are being created. According to economic impact data released by MTI, the money awarded by M-TAF had, as of last June, directly created 289 new jobs and preserved an additional 300 or so. On top of this, an estimated 1,700-plus jobs are said to be have either been created or preserved in the sector as a result of the program.

She says that's because MTI cannot oversee the award of any grant money until that money is available. "The folks to ask that question of are organizations around the state that might be considering applying or carrying out this kind of work."

Photo courtesy of the Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences.


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