CONTRIBUTORS

Maine inventors have a natural advantage

Posted May 31, 2014, at 7:20 a.m.
David Kappos is a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York.
Courtesy photo
David Kappos is a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York.

Maine is perhaps the most singular state in our union — occupying the far northern corner of the country, larger than all other New England states combined but very sparsely populated, with stunning beauty and plentiful resources. I grew up in California, having an impression of Maine as an exotic destination with beautiful harbors and scenic lighthouses.

In the more than a decade that I have had a home in Maine and spent substantial time in the state, I have come to understand a simple truth: In many respects, Maine punches far above its weight. Maine has natural innovation advantages and can turn them into marketplace outcomes that suit Maine’s culture and style.

Maine innovators

Maine is no stranger to innovation. It was John Ruggles — a Skowhegan- and Thomaston-area lawyer, Supreme Judicial Court justice and senator — who framed the bill that fundamentally restructured the U.S. patent system and the U.S. Patent Office in 1836.

Maine’s unforgiving environment and geographically dispersed population combined to make innovation not a luxury but a necessity. Indeed it was necessity — the mother of invention — that produced the Maine inventor and statesman remembered as the “father of the U.S. Patent Office.”

The first patent issued under the 1836 regime (U.S. Patent No. 1) on an improved locomotive steam-engine designed to combat “the evil effects of frost, ice, snows and mud” and traverse the “obstacles met within ascending inclined planes” was granted to none other than Ruggles himself.

The patent office contains ample evidence of enterprising interactions between Maine’s people and its environment. Silas Taber, a Houlton blacksmith, set out at the dawn of the 20th century to solve a problem presented by the topography of Aroostook County: a low platform for wagons was ideal for loading potatoes but large wheels were necessary to traverse the uneven terrain.

In 1903, Taber was granted U.S. Patent No. 719531 for his drop-axle wagon, which solved the problem and became a popular item on New England farms for as long as horse-drawn wagons remained in use.

Chester Greenwood, the son of a Farmington bridge builder, was still a teenager when, in 1877, he was granted U.S. Patent No. 188292 for his “improvement in ear-mufflers.” By 1936, the year prior to his death, Greenwood’s Farmington-based company was producing and shipping 400,000 earmuffs annually.

Two of the most prolific Maine-born inventors at the turn of the 20th century were women. Margaret Knight of York and Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland combined to obtain at least 50 patents that fueled advances in the textile, paper and other manufacturing industries. From the fields to the mills, the men and women of Maine met their challenges with a remarkable penchant for invention.

Natural advantages

I find myself regularly impressed by modern expressions of Maine’s unique innovative spirit. Not long ago I met a Mainer who created a new portable power generator for use in remote areas. This remarkable invention uses a power generation/storage unit connected by a flexible shaft to a propeller. The entire device is placed in a stream and can generate electricity in water of just a few inches depth. This is invention in its purest form — encountering a problem firsthand and working out a solution, largely through trial and error.

Maine’s future as a player in the 21st century innovation landscape relies on leveraging its natural strengths. Ironically, the elements that discouraged heavy settlement centuries ago are responsible for Maine’s attractiveness today; Maine’s remarkably unspoiled country makes it a place where many people want to be.

The people Maine attracts and retains represent the state’s greatest natural resource in fostering innovation. Among those who choose to spend significant time in Maine are large numbers of industry leaders who have built successful careers in Maine or elsewhere and are drawn to the state for its idyllic surroundings. These are senior people in their fields with rich and varied business experience. People who have been there and done that, and have the gray hair to show for it.

Both globally and in America in particular, the innovative spirit is alive and well. But the single greatest challenge facing innovators isn’t generating great ideas; it’s turning those great ideas into successful marketplace outcomes. And the No. 1 reason great ideas fail to reach the marketplace is not a lack of drive to move them forward or a lack of capital; it is, in fact, a lack of access to mentorship.

In every corner of the world, I have found a near vacuum of senior stewards available to guide the next generation of smart, energetic innovators with tomorrow’s big ideas. The result: frustration and failure, as inventors unguided repeat the mistakes of the past, expending energy and talent in wasted effort.

Maine enjoys an abundance of the missing ingredient most other communities lack: potential mentors. Its special attractiveness to successful industry leaders is the key ingredient to a thriving innovation ecosystem. To these leaders, Maine is more than Vacationland — it is an environment where leisure and peace of mind can be complemented by opportunities to serve as mentors for future innovators.

When connected to the next generation of talent, this reservoir of experience unleashes our one inexhaustible resource — innovation — at a level of efficiency few other communities can match. For Maine’s innovation scene, in other words, gray is a good look.

Big data

As was true for Maine innovation in centuries past, the state’s distinctive natural environment will likely shape Maine’s innovation future. Its circumstances are unique — trying to duplicate in Maine the successful patterns of innovation in other states or regions would be misguided.

In identifying a more fitting model, Maine would be wise to think Nordic. The Nordic countries, with their densely forested terrain, ready access to renewable resources, predominantly rural populations, rich maritime culture and cold climate punctuated by pleasant summers, in many ways have more in common with Maine than even the state’s New England neighbors.

Northern European countries (specifically Sweden, Finland and Norway) have successfully leveraged their geographically distinctive features to become serious players in the rapidly ascending data server industry.

The explosion of goods and services marketed over the Internet and vast increases in bandwidth available over the Internet have led to increased demand for the storage, analysis and movement of data. So-called server farms are increasingly used to fulfill the ever-increasing needs of big data. The enhanced capabilities of server farms, however, are accompanied by major cooling costs.

Server farms use tremendous amounts of power and generate concomitant heat — anathema to computers, which are particularly vulnerable to overheating. Thus the growth of server farms is slowed by the high cost of cooling.

Maine’s proximity to the Arctic Circle makes it a viable North American surrogate for the role the Nordic countries play in Europe. Its cold climate makes Maine an excellent sanctuary for computer servers.

Furthermore, as was true during the Industrial Revolution, Maine’s proximity to the ocean adds value in this new wave of digital industrialization, especially through Maine’s leadership in renewable wind technology.

Add to these strengths the security benefit offered by low population density — with its related low levels of anonymity — and Maine is a natural candidate for hosting North American server farms.

Maine has already demonstrated its commitment to building data transfer infrastructure with the completion of its 1,100-mile Three Ring Binder fiber-optic network. Policymakers must build upon the state’s success in this area and explore ways to create incentives for Web service providers to make Maine not just one, but the server farm provider of choice for U.S. Web traffic.

Industry innovation

Advanced manufacturing technologies are having a profound equalizing effect on the process of turning ideas into products. Maine’s relative lack of access to large-scale manufacturing — a longstanding impediment to innovation success — is offset by the advent of micro-manufacturing.

A pronounced decrease in tooling costs greatly reduces the necessity of major manufacturing facilities. And while in its infancy, additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) promises even greater opportunity for highly adaptive manufacturing in the future.

Democracy in manufacturing is a boon to a state that already counts among its assets a population of doers, scenery that acts as a magnet to mentors and proximity to renewable energy resources. The world, in my estimation, has caught up to Maine’s advantages.

Continued promulgation of fabrication labs is crucial to Maine’s ascent in innovation. The University of Maine has wisely made bold investments in such facilities. In addition to large-scale projects that promote industry partnerships, Maine would benefit from an increased number of smaller-scale “maker spaces” — shop floors equipped with the tools needed for Maine’s innovators to test their inventions.

Localizing access to manufacturing will allow Maine’s natural-born doers to build prototypes and turn their ideas into marketplace outcomes.

The future

Maine is well positioned to play a significant role in American innovation in the 21st century. Its historical “disadvantages” inspired inventiveness and instilled a work ethic that is crucial to its future role as an innovator state. Those former disadvantages are sources of distinct competitive advantage today.

Maine’s pristine beauty provides leverage to attract mentors aplenty that are in such short supply elsewhere, and its cold climate can be leveraged to attract one of the hottest sectors in the world today: big data.

Maine has much to celebrate in its history of innovation and — more importantly — much to look forward to, provided it plays thoughtfully the high hand it has been dealt.

David Kappos is a partner at Cravath, Swaine and Moore LLP in New York. He served as under secretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2009 to 2013. He has a home in St. George. A longer version of this column first appeared in Maine Policy Review, published by the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the Margaret Chase Smith Foundation, and can be found at digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/mpr.

 

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