February 23, 2017 | President’s blog

While many of us continue to bask in the glow of the historic come-from-behind 5th Super Bowl championship by the New England Patriots earlier this month, Mainers are also witnessing a comeback, due to innovation, of our natural resource-based and traditional Maine industries. In some cases, things are still in the game planning phase and, in other cases, companies are working diligently to hone their blocking and tackling techniques to help position them to emerge successfully in the later quarters.

Maine has certainly sustained its share of defeats in the forest products industry in recent years with the closure of a half-dozen pulp and paper mills, as well as the shuttering of saw mills and biomass plants.  Over the past couple of years, more than 5,000 jobs have been lost in the industry.  By its sheer magnitude, a comeback for the forest products industry almost seems as insurmountable as a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl but, as legendary football coach and namesake of the Super Bowl trophy, Vince Lombardi, once aptly observed, “it’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”  And, fortunately, the players in the forest products industry have gotten up off the turf, dusted themselves off, and made halftime adjustments exploiting innovation to set the stage for an extraordinary comeback.

In recent months, we have witnessed increased collaboration and partnerships within and among the industry that are helping the forest products sector mount its comeback.  Clearly, nobody is throwing in the towel as forest landowners, paper and pulp mills, logging contractors, biomass plants, transportation companies, woodlot owners, trade associations, the University of Maine, and state and federal officials are all working together as a team to advance the ball down the field.

From a forest products roadmap that the Maine Technology Institute is helping to fund that will “identify our state’s forest market capabilities and competitiveness and quantify Maine’s wood supply,” to recent investments designed to restart several biomass plants and create energy parks, to a new partnership between UMaine and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to “advance additive manufacturing, composite materials development and manufacturing, as well as bio-refineries, bioenergy, and biofuels,” to extraordinary investments by Sappi Paper in Skowhegan and the Woodland Pulp Mill in Baileyville, the comeback is well underway.

In addition to the forest products industry, Maine is also experiencing a resurgence of sorts in other natural resource-based and legacy industries.  MTI, through its funding, coaching and support, is playing a beneficial role in this effort and is assisting startup businesses like Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon to use innovation to improve a centuries old craft of turning grains into malt for the craft brew and spirits industry.  We are seeing similar vitality around a couple of Aroostook County-based entities at Aroostook Hops in Westfield and Maine Malt House in Mapleton. On the topic of grains, the Maine Grain Alliance of Skowhegan received funding from MTI to inventory existing grain drying and storage infrastructure along convenient trade routes, and research technologies and financing options to improve this infrastructure and foster continued growth in this sector.

MTI has also played a role in the growth of other agriculture-related business including, to name only a few, Cold River Vodka in Freeport, whose super-premium vodka is made with Maine potatoes.  Forager, of Portland, which has developed a digital business-to-business technology platform that is helping to accelerate the local food movement by connecting restaurants and business with locally sourced food. And, Raptor Maps of Van Buren is using drone technology and analytics to monitor potato growth in Maine fields to increase potato yields.

Saco River Dyehouse in Saco is helping to lead a comeback in the textile industry in Maine through its innovative yarn dyeing processes.  Tasman Leather in Hartland is utilizing MTI funding to explore innovations in leather tanning.  Maine Sole of Dexter is looking to leverage the skilled labor in its region to help revive the shoe making industry in the area and Cobbler Technology of Bangor is looking to take shoe making to the next level by utilizing 3-D printers to produce sneakers.

In the marine and aquaculture sectors, Maine is experiencing continued success resulting from MTI investments and the good vision and judgment demonstrated by lawmakers and Maine voters in approving a $7 million marine research bond to facilitate the growth of marine businesses and commercial enterprises that create jobs and improve the sustainability of the State’s marine economy.

Undeniably, the comeback of Maine’s natural resource-based and traditional industries is underway.  We need to continue to invest in innovation across these sectors and businesses to avoid dropping the ball.  Together, like our Super Bowl champion Patriots, we need to continue to work together to do . . . our . . . jobs to not only secure a comeback for these industries but to generate new ideas, devices and methods that have the potential to grow and diversify Maine’s economy and increase the number of quality jobs throughout our state.


Brian Whitney