May 22, 2019
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Maine researchers want voters to OK borrowing $50 million to fund their work

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Rylan Norris removes a broken 2-by-6 board while testing Norway spruce lumber at the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono, Dec. 18, 2015.

PORTLAND, Maine — Voters in dribs and drabs will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether the state should borrow $50 million, mostly to replenish a fund that’s bought research equipment for the University of Maine system and Maine technology companies.

[Wait, there’s an election? Find out where to vote Tuesday]

During the June 13, the $50 million bond question is the only item on the state ballot, and it’s a relatively uncontroversial one.

No parties have lined up to campaign for or against the question, though the University of Maine and a range of businesses pushed for lawmakers to send the borrowing appeal to voters.

[History tells us that Maine voters will pass a $50 million bond in June]

The bulk of the $50 million would go to replenish the Maine Technology Asset Fund, which supports investments for equipment used to research, develop or commercialize products in seven different technology sectors. The fund has distributed awards to businesses and other institutions since 2008, according to the Maine Technology Institute, and requires matching funds from federal or other sources.

The fund, like the Maine Technology Institute, focuses its funding on businesses in biotechnology, composites and advanced materials, environmental technologies, forest products and agriculture, information technology, marine technology and aquaculture and precision manufacturing.

From the previous $53 million in that fund, the University of Maine was the largest beneficiary, followed by The Jackson Laboratory and the University of New England and the private school’s College of Pharmacy, opened in 2009.

Some of the equipment purchased with those awards also is available to other businesses or research institutions, some with special licensing conditions. The available equipment ranges from mass spectrometers to biomass drying ovens.

The new funds drew support in the Legislature from Maine’s major research laboratories and agriculture researchers, including the University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology. In 2015, state Board of Agriculture Chairman David Bell told lawmakers that the building housing the university’s agriculture program, Murray Hall, is high on the list for renovations.

A separate bond that would have provided specific funds to renovate that building and its laboratories died in the Legislature in April 2016.

LuAnn Ballesteros, director of government relations for The Jackson Laboratory, told lawmakers in 2015 that three grants worth $8 million helped Jackson attract $11 million in matching investments from the private sector, helping to set up a gene sequencing service at its Bar Harbor campus.

The investments helped increase employment and revenue coming into Maine from out of state, Ballesteros wrote.

As is typical of investing in early-stage or startup businesses, not all of the investments ultimately panned out. The fund gave its smallest award — $125,000 — to the Boothbay startup Biovation in 2010, for a lab facility for its wound care products. The company shut its doors in 2016.

The bond program also put about $1.3 million toward the commercialization of Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co.’s tidal generation unit, a pioneering technology that met with delays after the generator it used leaked and became waterlogged.

The contractor that built the generator then went bankrupt, leading to continued delays and an estimate of mid-2019 before its generator gets back in the water.

The bond would would allocate $5 million of the $50 million total to the Maine Venture Fund, administered by the Finance Authority of Maine, which uses the money to entice venture capital funds to invest in Maine startups. The Maine Venture Fund is a “revolving” fund, meaning it returns investment proceeds to use again for investments in other companies.

The state treasurer estimates the bond will cost the state $63,750,000 over its lifetime, assuming interest on the bond at 5 percent over 10 years.

 



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