The University of New England is teaming up with Southern Maine Community College and a Portland startup on a proposal to develop marine-related products and bring them to market.

The coalition, which also includes two Washington County organizations, is preparing to bid on a $7 million state bond earmarked for creating marine-related jobs. At the center of the group’s proposal is a plan to establish a privately run business incubator to work with Maine companies, marine scientists, college students and laboratories to develop new products and bring them to market.

Talks are underway with Portland officials to transform the vacant second floor of the transit shed on the city-owned Maine State Pier into office space for as many as 36 marine-related businesses.

The startup, called the New England Ocean Cluster House, aims to be an incubator for marine-related businesses and researchers – a concept modeled after a similar project on the waterfront in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. There, companies and college researchers have collaborated on projects such as creating a technology to use fish skin to treat chronic wounds.

UNE sees the proposal as an opportunity to use its marine labs and pharmaceutical research to develop commercial products.

“The marine economy is one of the most promising sectors in Maine, and we want to be a part of that,” said Bill Chance, the school’s vice president of advancement. He said students would benefit from real-world experiences and internships with marine-related companies developing new products.

WINNING TEAM TO SHARE BOND MONEY

The state is expected to release a request for proposals for the marine jobs bond within the next two weeks. Other groups are likely to apply, but the UNE group is the first to make its intentions and its team public.

The program requires applicants to include a representative from each of the following areas: a marine-based research program at a private or public university, a commercial fishing or aquaculture interest, a community-based organization and a private-sector business. The bond, approved by voters last November, will be issued as a single award and must be matched by at least $7 million in private investment. The state hasn’t said when it will release the bond money, which will be shared by the winning team’s partners.

Also on the UNE team are the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education, and the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott.

If successful, UNE intends to use its portion of the bond money to build a pier on the Saco River and expand its marine laboratories so it can work with industry partners. The university lobbied the Legislature to pass the bond and funded a ballot campaign for it last year.

The New England Ocean Cluster House wants to use $2.5 million from the bond to fix some of the Maine State Pier’s structural problems to provide a suitable space for the incubator.

Majority owner Patrick Arnold said the startup is prepared to invest several million dollars to rehab the transit shed. 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.

City Manager Jon Jennings, who met with Arnold on Monday, said city officials “absolutely” support the ocean cluster house, but want to make sure the lease terms for the state pier make financial sense for taxpayers. The City Council would have to approve a lease.

Arnold said the construction costs at the pier are too high without some government funding, such as from the bond or federal grants. He said 20 companies have expressed interest in the incubator space, but declined to identify any of them.

INTERNATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES

Some of the Icelandic companies that participate in the Reykjavik incubator are interested in setting up shop in Portland, too. That potential collaboration would expose college students to growing opportunities as the state develops business ties with the island nation and other countries around the North Atlantic, said Ross Hickey, an assistant provost at the University of Southern Maine.

Although USM is not part of the UNE team, it has reached a separate agreement with the New England Ocean Cluster House to be a sponsor. It intends to provide legal and financial support to educate incubator businesses about overcoming regulatory hurdles as they bring new products to market.

“For Portland’s future and the growth of the state, it seems like the North Atlantic is a place we should seriously be connecting to,” Hickey said.

To foster those connections, USM intends to send a delegation of 10 people to Iceland in October for an international Arctic conference. Also in October, city officials from Reykjavik plan to visit Maine to build relationships with Portland officials and business leaders.

Arnold said collaborations with private business will allow local college students and staff to become more involved in product development, a process that higher education institutions often struggle to teach because they lack access to private, innovative companies.

“Commercial development is the single biggest metric of success when illustrating the return and social effect that research should have,” he said. “On the R&D side, our focus is the ‘D.’ We are development.”

If the team is successful in winning the bond, UNE would use its science labs at the Maine Science Center in Biddeford and its College of Pharmacy in Portland to help the businesses research their products. Southern Maine Community College, which offers an associate degree in marine science, has yet to develop a plan for its involvement in the cluster house.

FOLLOWING ICELAND’S LEAD

The New England Ocean Cluster House is modeled after Iceland Ocean Cluster House, which was established on the Reykjavik waterfront in 2012. Today, the two-story building, which is designed to foster interaction among companies, is occupied by more than 50 marine-focused businesses.

Icelandic entrepreneur Thor Sigfusson, who is Arnold’s partner in the Portland project, is the sole owner of the Reykjavík business, which grew out of his doctoral research at the University of Iceland. The company charges fees for joining the group, and Sigfusson sets businesses up with other businesses to develop projects. He also makes investments in promising projects in exchange for shares in the companies.

Business and cultural ties between Maine and Iceland have flourished since the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip moved its North American headquarters from Virgina to Portland in March 2013.