UMaine group helps to guide stressed businesses

Posted Oct. 07, 2010, at 11:47 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

HANCOCK, Maine — On a narrow dirt road within sight of Route 1, a small biotechnology company is working to develop a new natural-based treatment for Type I diabetes.

In downtown Southwest Harbor, an engineer is working to convert high-pressure space suits for medical applications including the treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

Both are relatively new companies that are working to make the transition from the world of research to the world of industry, and both are relying on the Knowledge Transfer Alliance to make their fledgling businesses a success.

KTA is an initiative at the University of Maine that relies on a number of disciplines along with community and business leaders to provide assistance to struggling and emerging businesses in Maine.

“We were set up to work with mature companies that were stressed,” Hugh Stevens of UMaine’s School of Economics said Thursday while on a tour of the two companies with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. “We’ve gone on to work with a lot of innovative businesses like these.”

At Mitokine Bioscience in Hancock, president and CEO Dr. Brooke Lignon is conducting two studies — one on mice, the other on dogs — testing their response to a new, natural-based treatment for diabetes that she developed and produces at their small laboratory.

Lignon and her husband, Steve Sjoborg, Mitokine’s operations manager, moved to Maine from Massachusetts to start the business in 2006 and have drawn on several of the state’s economic development programs.

“It’s been fantastic,” Lignon said. “In Massachusetts, we would have been too small to be noticed. We wouldn’t have been getting the support we’re getting here in Maine.”

They currently produce small quantities of the naturally occurring amino acid used in their treatment and hope to obtain FDA approvals that would allow them to set up a manufacturing facility in the area to produce the treatment for human trials and eventually for the market place.

That could mean as many as 100 jobs for the region, Lignon said.

In Southwest Harbor, Peter Homer started his Flagsuit business in 2007. Homer initially designed a flexible glove for use in space and is now working to expand that work to a full, high-pressure body suit.

High-pressure treatment has been shown to be effective in a number of medical situations, he said, and recent research has shown it can help treat traumatic brain injuries, the type that have become the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Homer said he is ready to develop a prototype for initial testing to obtain FDA approval to begin human testing. Depending on funding, he said, he could have a prototype ready for testing in six to eight months.

Both businesses are relying on KTA and its members to help shepherd them through the process. KTA has provided both businesses with contacts in Maine who have experience in navigating the different aspects — business, legal and governmental — that are part of the process of putting their ideas and research into commercial production.

“I’m an engineer, not a doctor,” Homer said. “This [project] crosses many disciplines, and I need their skills in order to deal with them.”

Michaud said it’s the kind of approach that is needed to boost small, developing businesses. Michaud, who serves on the House Small Business Committee, helped to secure funding for the KTA initiative and said Thursday that the alliance is doing just what he envisioned.

“In Maine and all around the country, what keeps our economy going is small businesses like these,” Michaud said. “KTA is providing support for these small businesses that are doing important work. It’s money well spent.”

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