BRUNSWICK, Maine — Robert Martin has been removed from his position as president of the Maine Technology Institute by Gov. Paul LePage.
In a statement forwarded Thursday afternoon, LePage’s administration confirmed the “leadership change.”
“The departure of Robert Martin from the Maine Technology Institute is a personnel matter,” LePage said in the statement, forwarded from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. “I remain fully committed to MTI and its mission, and the interim absence of a president will not impair the critical work of the organization. The Department of Economic and Community Development will work with MTI’s exceptional staff to ensure a smooth and seamless transition.”
Martin said in a Thursday email that he “sought to challenge the status quo, remain apolitical, and fiercely defended the independent status of the organization and the rules for its investments.”
“While [LePage] is certainly free to pick someone he likes, I am extremely proud of all that I accomplished at MTI,” Martin said, adding that during his tenure, the Maine Technology Institute “became a national model for best practices in technology-based economic development.”
Martin’s departure comes less than a week after Ascendant Energy of Owls Head, which had received Maine Technology Institute grants and loans, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing $327,948 in debt to the Maine Technology Institute in its bankruptcy court filing.
No one from the Department of Economic and Community Development or the governor’s office would comment on any connection between the two. In fact, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett on Thursday declined any additional comment, and a phone call to Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais was not returned.
But Peggy Schaffer, a small business advocate for the secretary of state’s office and formerly of the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Maine Office of Innovation, said Thursday afternoon that Ascendant Energy is just one of a number of businesses funded by the Maine Technology Institute that has filed for bankruptcy.
“I don’t know why Bob Martin got fired or whether this company had anything to do with it,” she said. “It could just be poor timing for the poor company in [Owls Head]”
Maine business leaders who worked with Martin praised him as an innovator who demanded strong business plans from funding applicants. They also expressed concern about the institute’s direction and future.
Jeff Marks, executive director of E2Tech, a trade association of companies in the energy and environmental technology sector, said Thursday that Martin “was always able to raise the level of discussion at MTI that sound business planning was a necessary component of any new proposals that came before MTI.”
“I can’t speculate on the reasons for Bob’s departure, and I’m not sure those are public at this time,” Marks said. “But I will say he has been supportive of our organization … Maine has a pretty strong energy and environmental and clean technology sector, and MTI has been instrumental in propping that sector up and helping it move forward.”
Kerem Durdag, CEO of the Boothbay-based high-tech manufacturer Biovation, said he was surprised by the news. He had attended an Envision Maine meeting Wednesday with Martin. He said that his company is in Maine because of the Maine Technology Institute, from which his company has received hundreds of thousands in grants or loans.
“It’s one of the crown jewels of economic development in Maine,” Durdag said.
Durdag also said he was curious to know what led to the decision and what the next steps for the Maine Technology Institute will be.
Alan Caron, president of Envision Maine, said Thursday afternoon that he was shocked to learn of Martin’s departure, and he is eager to hear why Martin was removed as president of the Maine Technology Institute. He said entrepreneurs and those in Maine’s “innovation economy” should watch closely as a new president is put forward.
“MTI is one of the most successful technical financing organizations in the country,” Caron said. “It’s been regularly highlighted as a success story by everyone from the Brookings Institute to Inc. Magazine. Why anyone would want to replace the director of one of the most successful organizations in the state is an important question.”
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, a member of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, said Thursday that he had just heard of Martin’s ouster and did not know what prompted it.
“When they did come in to report [to the committee], it sounded like there were some good things going on,” Cushing said. “I’m pleased with the purview of what MTI does, and I think it provides a valuable resource. From my experience with Bob, he was a very visionary individual, but there are many times when the goals of an organization and the goals of the leader don’t always mesh and you have to make some changes.”
After LePage nominated Martin to serve as president of the Maine Technology Institute, he was confirmed by the Legislature in September 2012.
He replaced Betsy Biemann, who resigned suddenly in June 2012 after seven years leading the organization.
The Legislature created the Maine Technology Institute in 1999, in part as a way to boost what was perceived as the state’s lagging research-and-development efforts. Since 2000, the institute has funded 1,295 technology projects in Maine, “a financial commitment of $106 million that has leveraged over $173 million in additional funding for a total of $280 million,” according to its website.
Martin previously worked as managing partner at Strategic Equity Partners LLC and has held senior executive positions at The Washington Post, The Hartford Courant and the Reichhold and Earthrise subsidiaries of Dai Nippon Ink & Chemicals, according to the Maine Technology Institute website.
He serves on the Foreign Direct Investment Board of the Maine International Trade Center, the Advisory Boards for the Schools of Engineering and Business at the University of Southern Maine, is a director for the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, and he leads the executive team for the Blackstone Accelerates Growth initiative.
BDN business and economy writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report.