Gov. Mills’ call to re-establish an Office of Innovation was exciting and bold. An office to coordinate all of the state’s investments in technology makes perfect sense if only for one single point: We are swimming in an abundance of innovation. Millions of taxpayer dollars and decades of research have yielded major advances in the understanding of our own natural resources. What we need now is a coordinated effort to help translate our wealth of innovation into actual industries and jobs that create real value. What we need is the commercialization to finally realize the benefit of our investments as Maine takes its place as a critical trading partner in the high North Atlantic.

In the last decade, Maine has invested over $354 million in research and development. We’ve developed innovative ways to grow and process kelp, oysters, potatoes and blueberries. We’ve learned about invasive green crabs’ migratory patterns and modeled what will happen as the Gulf of Maine acidifies and warms. We’ve discovered new uses for wood and carbon fiber.

Investing in R&D is certainly not unique to Maine. Governments along the new trading routes established by Eimskip’s introduction to Portland have invested in it for decades. Iceland has harnessed the creative energy of its universities and industry to extract over $3,500 of value for each landed cod, compared to $12 for just the fillet. Scotland has established a world-class ocean power platform to test wave and current power generation technology. Along with aquaculture, Norway has developed technology to extract useful organic compounds from what we in the U.S. would consider compost.

Maine’s new global position compounds the availability of existing technological solutions to our economic challenges. So why are we not yet rich? Investment in research alone does not automatically translate into new products, companies, industries and jobs.

Our economic development programs have produced remarkable companies and products. But each project requires a person or company willing to invest their own resources, sometimes at great personal expense. This system harnesses the power of the free market, but often valuable technology gets overlooked. A recent report generated for state economic development officials summarized the opportunity:

“Institutions (universities and nonprofits) and enterprises (such as R&D companies) supporting innovation, research and development noted that while there is a growing desire to be more aggressive in support of Maine innovation, the state still does not have the embedded relationships between research, business and finance inherent in innovation clusters-hubs like the Route 128 Corridor in Massachusetts, the Research Triangle of North Carolina and Silicon Valley in California.”

Unlike our current system, commercialization focuses on the whole catalog of research and looks for ways to facilitate connections between that research and the market looking for answers. Successful commercialization creates positive feedback loops. As institutions commercialize technology, both the institution and the researchers are rewarded for their discoveries. This produces more revenue for the institutions and makes it easier for the institution to recruit more talent. That talent conducts further research, which generates more revenue, and so on. We work so hard to attract entrepreneurs to Maine – commercialization builds the ecosystem to foster their growth.

Imagine Portland’s Forest Avenue filled with companies marketing technology developed at the University of Southern Maine. We can see the Pepperell Mill building in Biddeford and Morrills Corner in Portland bustling as inventors and investors discuss the latest in medical technology developed at the University of New England, and an Orono pub’s parking lot filled with Teslas while inside, entrepreneurs review engineering schematics over a pint.

We can do it right here. Commercialization requires resources beyond the reach of many individual Maine institutions. But all Maine institutions combined produce more than enough innovation to keep a single commercialization effort busy. The backlog of technological advances alone could keep Gov. Mills’ proposed “Office of Innovation” generating benefits for the Maine economy for years to come.

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