PORTLAND, Maine — City officials plan to renovate the Maine State Pier to accommodate a shared workspace for early-stage companies developing products from marine resources and with connections to Maine’s seafood industry.
Greg Mitchell, Portland’s economic development director, said Tuesday that city officials and leaders of the New England Ocean Cluster House project are “putting a framework” around the public-private partnership that would involve structural improvements to the pier and a 30,000-square foot space for the project.
“I’m bullish about the use, and I’m bullish about the location,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to make it work; we’ll find a way.”
Patrick Arnold, CEO of the logistics company Soli DG and leader of the waterfront effort in Maine, said as the plan is still in development, the project costs remain in flux.
“That’s a moving target right now,” he said, noting the work to renovate the pier would require more than upgrading the space the ocean cluster plans to occupy. “That’s why we’re going toward the public-private approach rather than as a tenant with a lease.”
For the New England Ocean Cluster’s part, Arnold said the effort has secured some private investment, is working on other financing, and has interest from 18 companies in locating at the site.
One potential company is the Waldoboro-based North American Kelp. Robert Morse, who founded the company in 1971, said he sees innovations in Maine seafood processing as a path to creating opportunities for young people to find jobs in Maine and stay here.
The only company Arnold said he could name Tuesday was a venture in which he is involved, called Ocean Solutions, which has started to research new uses for crushed lobster shells with a company in Iceland.
The Portland project has direct connections with the island country in the North Atlantic, which brought dignitaries from Iceland for the update on Arnold’s project, the latest focus of Iceland’s business ties with Maine. Robert Barber, U.S. ambassador to Iceland and Geir Haarde, Iceland’s ambassador to the U.S., both lauded the ocean cluster effort during a presentation at the U.S. Custom House near Portland’s waterfront.
That connection got a kickstart when the shipping company Eimskip moved its port of call from Norfolk, Virginia, to Portland in 2013.
Thor Sigfusson, who founded the Iceland Ocean Cluster House in the country’s capital of Reykjavik, is a partner in the Portland project and has spoken in other countries about that business model as well.
Sigfusson said the projects in Iceland and in Maine start with the premise that they can find profitable new uses for parts of plants and animals harvested from the ocean that are typically considered waste.
“If you look at clusters around the world, they all rely on finding low-hanging fruit,” Sigfusson said.
Arnold said Iceland’s marine products business incubator, which has about 40 member companies, provides a ready model for the Portland effort to emulate.
“We don’t have to reinvent the model,” Arnold said. “This is part of why I’m so excited about working with Thor to follow his lead and figure out how we can replicate that success right here in Maine.”
From Portland’s perspective, Mitchell said that the project offers other similarities from which city officials and involved businesses can learn.
“[The Iceland Ocean Cluster House] is in a municipally owned facility on Reykjavik’s waterfront and it’s situated very similarly to ours, in terms of its proximity to an area like the Old Port ” Mitchell said. “That’s what makes it powerful — it’s not just the use of the waterfront, but the connection to the community.”
He said the project would a boon for Portland and for companies dealing with ocean products throughout Maine and New England.
The model would involve tenants paying a lease and possibly an annual fee to be part of the cluster. Announcing the project in October, Arnold said the upside for companies locating there are connections not only to possible financing for a new company but to others in the industry with similar goals.
One of the challenges for the project in a technology-heavy industry is working out intellectual property agreements between the companies, especially in the case of the collaborations the business incubator intends to foster.
“We’re trying to create an open culture where we have trustworthy business collaborations going on while still having referees on the intellectual property side setting the rules of engagement,” Arnold said. “Both things need to be considered, in terms of someone’s protected intellectual property and fostering that culture of openness that leads to things worth protecting.”
The next step for the project is meeting on March 25 with the city’s Housing and Development Committee. Arnold said that he hopes construction on the New England Ocean Cluster can start at the Maine State Pier as early as August.