July 18, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Real Maine ingenuity lost in the din of fireworks

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

We in the media get press releases all the time. But two that landed in newsroom inboxes recently are worth noting -- for entirely different reasons.

The first, put out late last week by Sen. Susan Collins, carried the headline, "Senator Collins Applauds Approval of UMaine's Bridge-in-a-Backpack Technology."

The senator has good reason to cheer, as does all of Maine: Last week, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials gave its stamp of approval to the University of Maine's home-grown, cutting-edge technology by which composite arch bridges can be built faster, lighter and stronger than conventional concrete or steel bridges.

That's huge -- at least for the public- and private-sector entrepreneurs here in Maine who see last week's endorsement as the gateway to a global market with jobs (better yet, quality Maine jobs) written all over it.

Now for the second press release, issued around the same time by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Its headline: "No Dud: Legalization of Fireworks is Economic 'Boom' for Maine."

"Dozens of Maine people are back to work and millions of dollars in new revenue have been generated thanks to the legalization of fireworks," it announced.

The release went on to quote Gov. Paul LePage, who said all those dazzling explosives are responsible for "opening up a new market, creating jobs and sustaining economic growth in Maine."

Now I ask you, fellow Mainers, what's wrong with this picture?

What do fireworks have that advanced technology doesn't?

Why does the return of the Roman candle to Maine rate a press release and a visit by the governor earlier this month to a fireworks shop in Scarborough, while Maine ingenuity at its finest gets nary a photo opportunity?

While you ponder that one (or not), here's a little more about last week's truly good news for Maine's flagging economy:

The Maine Bridge-in-a-Backpack program was created 12 years ago at the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Under the direction of professor Habib Dagher and Project Manager Keenan Goslin, the initiative led to the development of a composite bridge design featuring materials that are easily transported and environmentally friendly, and need none of the heavy equipment and intensive labor required to build traditional concrete and steel bridges.

Even better, the composite bridge goes up quicker, requires no painting, neither rusts nor cracks, and will last, according to the center's testing data, for 75 years or more.

The center ultimately licensed the technology to Advanced Technology Infrastructure, an Orono-based startup that employs eight people and is now poised to hire a whole lot more.

"This is a huge accomplishment for the state of Maine," said Brit Svoboda, the company's president, while traveling out of state Tuesday. "This approval and recognition by (the transportation officials association) is a big step in adding credibility to put us on par with the steel and concrete manufacturers."

Svoboda said his company, which contracts with Kenway Corp. in Augusta for help with product fabrication, has sold 10 bridges in four states -- Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Michigan. It's exploring additional sales in eight other states and several foreign countries, including Russia and South Africa.

Meaning last week's approval by a national accrediting organization with representation from all 50 states couldn't have come at a better time. Essentially, it elevates the Bridge-in-a-Backpack to building-code status, meaning project designers far and wide now can use federal funds to buy it just like any older technology.

"This is not necessarily going to open the floodgates," Svoboda said. "But it creates awareness and access out there in the marketplace. It adds credibility and acceptance."

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