MAINE FOCUS

What does innovation in Maine look like? Share your ideas.

Posted July 01, 2017, at 8:19 a.m.
Last modified July 03, 2017, at 1:15 p.m.

Asa Marsh-Sachs returned from Iceland at 12:30 a.m. last Tuesday. By 7 a.m he was scurrying around the brewery of Orono Brewing Company — adding grains to large metal vats, jotting down recipes in a weathered metal binder, and foraging for spices in the back room.

Marsh-Sachs, Orono Brewing Company’s brewmaster, had spent the previous week learning about Icelandic beer with some 75 other Maine brewers as part of a festival to promote Maine craft beer in the Nordic nation.

“It was the largest beer festival in Icelandic history,” he said, smiling. Iceland’s population is 330,823 — a quarter of Maine’s.

I’d come to talk to Marsh-Sachs about innovation. Experts like Evan Richert, who directed the Maine State Planning Office, say the best way to develop the Bangor region is to foster a “culture of entrepreneurship.” Innovation, says Richert, will bring new investment and jobs into the area’s stagnant economy.

The Bangor region — essentially a 40-mile radius around the city of Bangor — is an economic anchor of central, northern and eastern Maine. There are valid reasons for concern about the area’s future. Bangor’s population is shrinking, the region’s economic output per person has been falling relative to the Portland area and to the nation, and Maine’s overall economic activity has declined since the 1980s compared with New England and the rest of the country.

If innovation is the key to developing the region’s economy, how can it be encouraged, and by whom? And what does innovation even mean?  How can this region support people who may have great entrepreneurial ideas but who don’t know how to produce or market them? The Bangor area will never be Silicon Valley — but can it become a smaller-scale hub for Maine-inspired inventions?

I thought Marsh-Sachs might have some ideas, since making beer is inherently an innovative process — it literally involves making new things. Maine craft beer is also growing rapidly, with the number of craft breweries tripling tripled in the last decade, expanding into every county but Piscatiquis.

Instead, Marsh-Sachs looked to me for answers.

“So what’s the definition of ‘innovation?’” he asked when I first arrived. “I don’t really know.”

The man who invents new beverages for a living wasn’t sure what innovation meant. And therein lies the challenge. Being an innovator can mean anything — from tinkering with metal in your garage, to developing a new technology in a university lab, to coming up with an idea for a new product within an existing company.

Whatever it is, we’re interested in learning more. We’re looking for people with inspired new ideas, whether they are fully developed or not. We’re particularly interested in hearing from people in central, northern and eastern Maine who have ideas for original products and services that could be sold outside of the region. But we’re open to anyone who’s up for sharing with us.

We won’t publish your business idea without your permission — we’re more interested in learning about the innovators out there, the challenges of starting a new business in a largely rural place, and what kinds of support local entrepreneurs would need to sell their products or services to people outside of the region.

Will you share with us? Learn how to do so here:

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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