BRUNSWICK — In 1981, Icelanders were catching 400,000 tons of cod annually. Twenty years later, although the annual catch had fallen to 180,00 tons, revenue adjusted for inflation more than doubled.
How did that happen?
Icelanders figured out that they could make more money by selling almost all parts of the fish rather than just fillets, explained Thor Sigfusson, president of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, a privately owned business incubator focused on ocean-related industries.
That meant using the enzymes from fish intestines to make expensive cosmetics, fish oil for hand creams, fish eggs for caviar, and fish skin for medical bandages, Sigfusson told a gathering of 85 business people Friday at a Brunswick forum.
“You need to move up the value chain,” he said.
The Maine Technology Institute and Maine International Trade Center invited Sigfusson to speak because they see the Iceland Ocean Cluster as a potential model for fostering innovation in Maine’s fishing, processing and aquaculture industries.
Sigfusson, 49, said the Ocean Cluster is about bringing together people from very different kinds of companies and industries so they can exchange ideas and collaborate on money-generating projects. The company charges fees for joining the group, and Sigfusson sets them up with other businesses to develop projects. He also makes investments in promising projects in exchange for shares in the companies.
He described his company as a dating service for the island nation’s fishing industry.
Sigfusson is the sole owner of the business, which grew out of his doctoral research at the University of Iceland and was initially affiliated with the school.
Nearly 40 companies in the group have offices in the Ocean Cluster House, a building in Reykjavik the company built in 2012.
Dana Eidsness, who runs the newly established Maine North Atlantic Development Office, invited Sigfusson to come to Maine after she visited the Ocean Cluster House in January. Eidsness is working with the Maine International Trade Center to prepare for a trade mission to Iceland in June. Gov. Paul LePage will be on that mission.
Business leaders who attended Sigfusson’s presentation were surprised to learn that the Iceland Ocean Cluster is a private company that receives relatively little government funding. Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president and state director of the International Trade Center, said it would be difficult in Maine to find one person with enough capital to create a similar business. She said a public-private partnership that uses both private investment and grant funding might work better in Maine.
Scott Burnett, director of marketing and analytics for the Maine Technology Institute, said Maine is well-suited to develop its own version of the Iceland Ocean Cluster because it has a wide variety of ocean-related businesses and some top research institutions, such as the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, the University of Maine in Orono and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay.
“We have all the ingredients, and we just have to mix the batch and cook it,” he said.
Patrick Arnold, director of operations and business development at the Maine Port Authority, said he likes the idea of a privately funded incubator because research fueled by grant money often does not lead to business creation.
“It’s innovation for innovation’s sake and not for commercializing,” he said.
In 2012, representatives from Norway, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark and Newfoundland gathered in Copenhagen to create an alliance of ocean clusters in the North Atlantic.
Sigfusson said he would like to see Maine develop an ocean cluster and join the North Atlantic alliance.
Ragnheidur Elin Arnadottir, Iceland’s minister of industry and commerce, who attended Friday’s forum, said businesses in Maine and Iceland are developing relationships now that Portland has become the only U.S. port of call for Eimskip, an Icelandic steamship line.
“Maybe we aren’t neighbors,” she said. “But when you look at a world map and see where we are, Maine is as close a neighbor as Iceland can have.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: