MDI Biological Laboratory

Yes on Question 1: A Needed Investment in Research and Innovation in Maine

  • June 8, 2017

This editorial in the Bangor Daily News quotes MDI Biological Laboratory research assistant Jesse Rochester on the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in Maine in making the case in favor of a June 13 ballot referendum for a $50 million bond to support innovative R&D companies in Maine. Photo caption: The MDI Biological Laboratory’s under-30 staff. Jesse Rochester is second from the left in the second row. 

In 2007, Maine voters approved a $50 million bond to create the Maine Technology Asset Fund to provide financial support to grow the state’s research and development capacity. Those funds, plus a $3 million bond in 2010, supported 35 projects at private companies, laboratories and universities around the state. This funding was matched by $83 million in funding from other sources with nearly 800 new jobs created and more than 1,000 jobs retained.

A decade later, the asset fund needs to be replenished.

There is one statewide question on the June 13 ballot. It asks voters whether they support $50 million in state borrowing with $45 million going to the technology asset fund. The other $5 million would replenish the Small Enterprise Growth Fund at the Finance Authority of Maine, which uses the money to entice venture capital funds to invest in Maine startups.

Voters should support this bond to continue the growth of innovative research and development companies in Maine.

Funding is competitive and focuses on seven sectors of the Maine economy: biotechnology, composites and advanced materials, environmental technologies, forest products and agriculture, information technology, marine technology and aquaculture, and precision manufacturing.

The funds are used for facilities construction and upgrades, as well as equipment. Resources from other sources, primarily the federal government, are earmarked for research and staffing.

The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, for example, secured $4.5 million in funding from the fund in 2009 to partially pay for construction of a new building in East Boothbay. One hundred researchers and staff work in the new facility where marine organisms are studied for their potential use as fuels, medical treatments and other beneficial uses. The new facility will allow the laboratory to speed up the commercialization of techniques and products that are developed there.

The University of Maine is the largest recipient of funds from the asset fund. This money has been used to expand laboratory and pilot manufacturing space for its Advanced Structures and Composites Center, Forest Bioproducts Research Technology Center, Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research and others. The number of science majors and Ph.D. students at the university has increased substantially after state investments in R&D there. Many of these students stay in Maine, many to work at companies that have received state support to develop and commercialize new products. Jesse Rochester was considering a job in Idaho when he graduated from the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Then, he learned of a position at MDI Biological Laboratory, which would allow him to remain closer to his family.

“Maine’s educational institutions are generating well-trained students, but job creation isn’t keeping pace. The development of a vibrant science and technology sector is critical to creating long-term growth and prosperity for Maine, as well as opportunities for Maine’s STEM graduates,” he wrote in a recent letter to the editor.

Companies in the sectors identified as R&D priorities by the state pay salaries that are substantially higher than the state average. The average salary in the biosciences sector in 2014 was $25,708 higher than salaries in Maine’s private sector overall, according to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

At the The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, for example, salaries overall are 30 percent higher than the state average. The lab, another large recipient of MTAF funds, pays more than $100 million a year in salary and benefits to its Maine employees (who come from 10 of the state’s 16 counties) and buys goods and services from more than 600 Maine companies, for an annual economic impact of nearly $580 million in Maine. In 2015, the lab secured more than $1.7 million from the asset fund to convert a former big box store in Ellsworth into a mouse production facility, where more than 200 people will eventually be employed. This and other construction projects funded by the bond will result in hundreds of jobs for contractors, tradesmen and equipment operators.

Maine has woefully underfunded research and development for decades, lagging most other states, and lawmakers have failed to make this spending an ongoing priority.

Question 1 is an important step in getting Maine back on track. Voters should support it.