In the town of Boothbay, a startup manufacturer turns plastic fibers made from plants into food packaging and medical supplies.

In South Portland, a new manufacturing plant recently opened to serve a worldwide market of horticulturalists seeking increased efficiency in their greenhouses.

In Old Town, a struggling pulp mill has new life, thanks to cutting-edge technology that converts wood chips into sugars, which are nature’s chemical building blocks.

The common thread? These innovators have all leveraged government research and development funding, and the investments are paying off.

The companies are putting Maine people to work, with the potential to employ many more in the future. They are bright spots in what has been a long, dark economic downturn.

In order to compete in the new global economy, Maine needs to continue to invest in its science and technology sectors.

The Maine Legislature has an opportunity to do that this year, by approving the bond package recently negotiated by legislative leaders and the Appropriations Committee.

The proposal includes investments in roads and bridges, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure and higher education.

One key piece is a $20 million investment in R&D projects. Those funds would be distributed by the Maine Technology Institute through a competitive, science-based process.

The proposal has strong bipartisan support, and it should be sent to Maine’s voters this fall.

“I think we have struck a reasonable balance between the unquestioned investment needs we face and our ability to afford more borrowing,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, told reporters. “These targeted bonds will hopefully give us the most job creation bang for the buck.”

The Maine Technology Institute has a track record of results. It administers the $53 million of bonds invested since 2007 under a program called the Maine Technology Asset Fund.

Maine’s public strategy has supported R&D for almost 15 years, and these investments are evaluated annually. The data show that recipient firms pay higher wages and have faster job growth than other firms.

It also shows that for every $1 invested by the state, there’s a $10 return to Maine’s economy.

Much of the investment in R&D in Maine has been devoted to physical infrastructure — the buildings and equipment that represent the backbone of industry and public research. This has allowed Maine entrepreneurs and research institutes to go out and secure other funding, including federal grants and investments from the private sector.

Rynel, a medical products maker in Wiscasset, scored a federal Small Business Innovation and Research grant to develop non-woven fibers from plant-based plastic. Two spin-off companies are now taking this technology to market internationally.

Grow-Tech just opened a new plant in South Portland to make rigid growing media.

Biovation, the Boothbay startup, received the 2011 Rising Star Innovation Award from the Small Business Association of New England — the first Maine winner since 1994.

Next month, the University of Maine will open its Bioproducts Technology Research Center, funded by the last state R&D bond. Technology developed at the university helped Old Town Fuel & Fiber land a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to produce sugars from wood as a feedstock for bio-based fuels, plastics and chemicals.

Old Town Fuel & Fiber could be the first company in the world to market sugars from wood, and their bolt-on technology could be used to salvage other distressed pulp mills.

Maine has made strides in the growth of our science and technology sectors. In 1997, the state ranked 49th in R&D as a percentage of gross state product. By 2008, we had improved our ranking to 40th. This ranking has a direct correlation with Maine’s ability to attract businesses and create jobs.

According to Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, “the importance of innovation in driving Maine’s future economic growth cannot be overstated.”

The Legislature reconvenes today. We urge lawmakers to approve the bond package and send it to the public for approval.

Our choice is simple. We can make modest investments in the employers of the future, through an R&D bonding process with a proven track record. Or we can do nothing, opt out of the global technology competition, and watch the rest of the world leave us behind.

— Special to the Press Herald