Representatives from two Maine universities pledged their support Friday of an initiative expected to produce jobs and research opportunities in marine industries.
On the bridge of an Icelandic freighter, the presidents of both the University of Southern Maine and the University of New England signed agreements to join an effort to create a business incubator for marine-related businesses. The new incubator will combine research and development with commercial operations planned on the Maine State Pier.
The bridge of the MV Selfoss, one of the ships belonging to Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that planted its flag in Portland two years ago, was a symbolic setting to launch the New England Ocean Cluster House. It was Eimskip’s arrival that jump-started Portland’s increased involvement in the North Atlantic economic region.
Gov. Paul LePage visited Iceland last year, including a stop at the Iceland Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, on which the New England Ocean Cluster is modeled after.
USM and UNE expect the partnership with the Portland incubator will present opportunities for student internships and to work collaboratively on research and development geared toward advanced ocean technologies.
“We are deeply committed to providing our students with experience solving real world problems through programs and partnerships that also benefit the community,” UNE President Danielle Ripich said Friday on the Selfoss’ bridge. “We understand the impact collaborative thinking can have on our students and on the state. Now, through this new partnership, we have the opportunity to venture into truly international waters and to help create for Maine a dynamic marine business incubator that will use local resources to drive economic growth.”
The university’s marine and bioscience labs in Biddeford and in its pharmaceutical labs in Portland are expected to be the focus of the partnership.
Likewise Glenn Cummings, new president of USM, said its sponsorship of the Ocean Cluster House will create opportunities for international experiences for its students, as well as collaboration with the university’s school of business, the Muskie School of Public Policy, the Cutler Institute for Research and Lewiston Auburn College. Additionally, the university will offer its expertise in regulatory compliance within its Maine Regulatory Training and Ethics Center.
USM students will have opportunities for internships in advanced applied ocean technologies and to work with companies already operating in those fields.
“The New England Ocean Cluster House partnership will lead to direct economic growth not only for the Portland region but for the entire state of Maine,” said Cummings.
The university has already started to build relationships with Iceland directly. In the spring, USM hosted a reception for 45 students from the MBA program at Reykjavik University. Next month, Cummings expects to visit the country along with a group of USM colleagues to attend an Arctic conference and strengthen bonds with Icelandic universities.
USM has pledged $60,000 a year to sponsor Portland’s marine incubator.
The incubator is modeled after a similar operation in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. The incubator is home to several businesses and benefited from collaborations. For instance, one company has collaborated with an educational institution to develop technology applying fish skin to chronic wound care.
Backing the proposal is a coalition of business and education interests that is bidding on a $7 million jobs bond to help finance the transformation of an old city transit shed on the pier into the New England Ocean Cluster House. Bids must be submitted by Dec. 3 and a decision is expected by the end of the year, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources website.
The coalition includes UNE, the New England Ocean Cluster House, Southern Maine Community College and two Washington County organizations.
The majority owner in the Ocean Cluster House is Patrick Arnold, owner of Soli DG Inc., a management and consulting firm in South Portland that manages the Portland Marine Terminal on behalf of the Maine Port Authority. Arnold is partnering with Icelandic businessman Thor Sigfusson, who owns the Iceland Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik.
Arnold says the startup is prepared to invest several million dollars to rehab the transit shed if it wins the bid. But if the city and company are unable to agree on a long-term lease for the 30,000-square-foot space, the $2.5 million could be spent to prepare another site on the city’s waterfront, he said.
Both Ripich and Cummings said their support for the incubator was also a reflection of their respective universities’ missions to support the broader community.
UNE recently adopted the tag line, “Innovation for a healthier planet,” and Ripich said supporting these sort of ventures is furthering that mission.
“We believe this project helps us move in that direction and we’re happy to be a part of it,” she said Friday on the bridge of the Selfoss.