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Plugging R&D into Maine's Economic Development Formula

Photo by Michael York

Plugging R&D into Maine's Economic Development Formula

About the Photo: Jake Ward is instrumental in linking higher education with Maine business and industry.

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If Maine's economy was a single company, Jake Ward would be its chief of research and development. He would be identifying industrial research needs, seeking investment in new product ideas and promoting the development of business opportunities.

In his real-life role as director of The University of Maine Department of Industrial Cooperation (DIC), Ward performs many of these duties for UMaine and the University of Maine System. He is a chief liaison between higher education and the state's business community.

"How The University of Maine interacts with business and industry is critical to Maine's current and future economy," he says. "We have the intellectual and laboratory resources at UMaine to solve problems and evaluate ideas. We work hand in glove with the private sector to apply the knowledge that faculty have gained through their research.

"Ultimately, we want to help existing companies grow and new companies become competitive," Ward says. "The bottom line is a strong economy with jobs for the graduates of our technical colleges and universities."

Ward meets frequently with Maine private business owners, public and non-profit agency officials, and investors. He stays tuned to what companies need and envisions what entrepreneurs require to develop tomorrow's products and services.

Among the recent collaborations in Maine, the University has worked with Kenway Corp., Augusta; Applied Thermal Sciences, Sanford; and Houlton Photonics.

Last year, DIC administered about 150 UMaine projects with $1.8 million in contracts in areas ranging from pulp and paper manufacturing and damage detection in the composite hull of a NASA spacecraft to evaluation of voice-activated software benefitting the wood products industry.

Through these and other efforts, DIC helps to solve the day-to-day problems of the companies that drive the state's economy. Companies contract with DIC, which then hires the faculty and students, and leases the facility to do the project.

To avoid competing with businesses, Ward makes sure a company's needs cannot be met in the private sector. If they can, he seeks to apply University resources to fill any gaps. In all cases, businesses pay for UMaine support.

While Ward focuses on serving today's businesses, he also is laying the foundations for new enterprises that may help to guarantee Maine's economic future. He is quick to point out that the path from the laboratory to the marketplace is long and uncertain, but it is a road that the state must travel if it is to remain competitive in the global economy.

There are plenty of potential potholes. Financial commitments are required. Collaboration must be arranged between scientists and businesses. Patents must be secured, and innovative ideas must be developed for economic success. Technical skill on the one hand must be matched by entrepreneurial commitment on the other.

Maine's R&D strategy focuses on so-called incubators, facilities that bring businesses and scientists together under one roof. Ward has been instrumental in marshaling support for two new incubators the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin and the Target Development Center in Orono. In addition, he has supported other incubators for composite materials, biotechnology and environmental technology.

"These facilities bring researchers together with business people to refine technology and the business practices that are necessary to translate that technology into a commercially viable product. The goal is for the enterprise to outgrow the incubator and move into the commercial sector on its own," Ward says.

by Nick Houtman
February-March, 2002

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UMaine Today Magazine
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