Idexx Laboratories opened for business in 1983 with five employees working out of an office in Portland’s Old Port. Earlier this year, the company opened a $35 million expansion to its worldwide headquarters in Westbrook, where 2,100 employees go to work each day. Idexx, a world leader in veterinary testing and diagnostic products and services, now has about 6,000 employees around the globe, and annual revenues north of $1 billion.
Despite the negativism that typically accompanies the state’s economy, Maine has more than a few success stories just like Idexx’s. And paving the way for more – by touting the successes, focusing on certain sectors and building the workforce – is the state’s best chance to improve its economy.
When people think of Maine, they too often think of it as isolated, rural, aging – an expensive place to do business.
Instead, they should think of it as the home of businesses like Idexx, or Wex Inc., a growing international leader in payment processing based in South Portland, or Fluid Imaging Technologies, a Scarborough-based company that originated out of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay.
Each of the companies has gone about it in a different way, but they’ve all grown to be successful in Maine, despite the challenges typically associated with the state. Entrepreneurs and innovators have to know that it is possible here.
They also have to know they’ll be supported here, now and in the future.
Earlier this year, the Maine Real Estate & Development Association invited an angel investor from Utah to speak about that state’s top spot in the Forbes business-friendly rankings.
Utah’s geographic and demographic characteristics are much different from Maine’s. Much of what is being done in Utah cannot be translated here.
But one thing that did resonate was the presence in Utah of a long-term economic development strategy that survives changes in leadership. That is much the same idea that worked in revitalizing the economy in Ireland, which set its sights on building up its most high-performing sectors, attracting talent and investment to the country.
In Maine, the direction seemingly changes with every election. Business parks and business incubators are built, touted, then forgotten. First the state’s focus is on small business and the creative economy. Then it’s on tourism. And then it’s on attracting the one big employer that will solve all our problems.
Maine needs the focus and predictability that come from a solid plan carried out over decades, not a few years. That plan should center on a few technology-based industries, and include ties to state universities in order to drive research and development and educate the workforce.
The idea of clusters is, of course, not new – it has worked in Silicon Valley, in the Route 128 corridor in Massachusetts and in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. It is working in Maine, too, at a smaller level. And the benefits are obvious.
Wex, with 600 employees, is the center of a growing group of Portland-area companies in the growing field of payment processing. It has played a key role in building the business, and nurturing the talent, that led to other, smaller startups. The cluster creates a dynamic environment where innovation and new ideas lead to rising profits and a demand for more workers.
Maine has seen success in other industries, such as biotechnology and wood composites. The state also has many public and private organizations working to promote startup businesses.
But Maine cannot take a shotgun approach to economic development. Resources have to focused more tightly on areas that have the best chance to succeed, and that can be supported in the long haul, so that entrepreneurs and innovators can turn ideas into small companies, and small companies into big ones.