A high-tech homecoming

Posted April 17, 2009, at 7:37 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:14 p.m.

GUILFORD, Maine — In his youth, Dale C. Flanders couldn’t wait to leave Maine to obtain his postsecondary education and make his fortune.

The Guilford native, who holds a doctorate and formed his own successful high-tech firm with plants in California and Boston, later concluded that Maine wasn’t so bad after all.

“I had absolutely no appreciation for Maine whatsoever,” Flanders, 57, recalled during a recent interview. “All the time I was growing up and in high school, I just dreamt of packing up and heading to California.”

Although he wanted to attend the California Institute of Technology, he earned his master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I figured that was it. I was leaving the East Coast behind and I got there and it turned out not to be at all what I had imagined,” Flanders said. “It was sort of one of those biblical things or something — the veil fell from my eyes and I really realized what I had missed and didn’t appreciate about Maine and New England.”

Today, the Piscataquis Community High School graduate is president of Axsun Technology Division, a subsidiary of Volcano Corp., a public company based in San Diego, Calif. Axsun Technology, a company Flanders and two others formed in 1998, was sold to the California firm on Christmas Eve.

Axsun began as a telecommunications company that made high-performance optical components for long-distance communications, according to Flanders. Production later expanded to include lasers for medical imaging, and systems to monitor the manufacture of industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

“It’s been very interesting. We’ve gone from the same technology as for telecommunications to manufacturing and now medical imaging,” Flanders said. “You can think of it as kind of like ultrasound, except it’s much higher-resolution. You get much sharper pictures.” Equally satisfying are the 85 high-tech jobs provided at the Boston plant, he said. The California plant later was consolidated with the Boston plant.

His learned appreciation of Maine has drawn Flanders back to his native hometown. A few weekends each month, he works beside the high school teacher who fostered his interest in science and technology. That teacher, Richard Millett of Guilford, built Flanders’ timber-framed Sebec Lake cottage years earlier, and now is helping him build a blacksmith shop and apartment on Wharf Road in Guilford.

Flanders, the son of Linwood Flanders of Guilford and the late Dorothy Flanders, also is doing what he can to foster entrepreneurship by working with the University of Maine’s student innovation center and serving as an adviser for the electrical engineering department. He hopes to become involved with the Mitchell Center for the Environment.

“I’m very, very interested in finding ways to help economic development [in Maine] the right way,” Flanders said. He noted that many states have suffered because development has destroyed the environment and hasn’t produced a lifestyle that’s very satisfying to people.

Maine has an unusual combination, according to Flanders. It has a tremendous amount of resources and it is near large population centers in the Northeast. Flanders said that if one takes a look at the Earth at night on Internet sites, Maine is a dark spot surrounded by lights. There are millions of people close by, yet Maine is this unusual place that hasn’t undergone the development, he added. Flanders sees this as a tremendous opportunity for the state.

“Just think of the tiny fraction of people that you would have to find in the world who would love the [Piscataquis County] area who could come and contribute to it,” he said.

Having traveled the globe, Flanders said he found that Maine, in particular the Guilford and Dover-Foxcroft area, is one of the few places in the country that still maintains a sense of community. Elsewhere, the community has been pretty much destroyed by the ruthlessness of society, he said.

“I think there is a tremendous hunger amongst people for community,” he said.

Flanders does see a polarity in the state: There are those people who are enthusiastic and doing well and there are those who are struggling. It seems to be a divided state with no middle, he said, although he suggested that much can be done to improve that division.

“The doom and gloom surrounding the economy is pervasive, but it can provide the impetus to make changes that can be very positive,” Flanders said.

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