Capitalizing on Research
Development of engineered construction materials at UMaine leads to
For scientists, seeing an idea move
from the lab to the marketplace can be as exciting as sending your child
out into the world to start a new life. For entrepreneurs, it can mean
taking a risk and making an investment in the future. The resulting
marriage of public university research and private investment can
benefit the state and beyond.
That's what happened in states like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
And now that's what's happening in Maine, according to those involved in
turning University of Maine wood engineering into a new commercial
production facility Engineered Materials of Maine (EMM).
"This is recognition that state investment in R&D leads to federal
investment in university research, which creates a pipeline of ideas
leading from basic research to new concepts to new technologies to
patents to spin-offs and business incubation to venture capital
investment to successful firms with solid bottom lines and plenty of
well-paying jobs to a region with a sound economy," says University of
Maine President Peter Hoff.
"Without this formula, states like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas
would still be reliant on agriculture and natural resources, and their
economies would be nowhere near what they are."
Bangor, Maine-based EMM is a start-up company that obtained a license
from UMaine to manufacture Advanced Engineered Lumber (AEL) a new beam
and column composite product developed and patented by the university's
Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center (AEWC). Production of AEL for
residential and light commercial building is due to begin this winter.
It is the result of two years of federally funded research by AEWC
faculty and students, an emphasis on business development and the vision
of a private investor. "We spent the past five years designing and
building the AEWC lab and assembling a world-class team," says Habib
Dagher, AEWC director.
"This is an economic development investment," says entrepreneur Chip
Hutchins, pictured right with EMM President Jon Fiutak.
Now the economic benefits are starting
"This is an economic development investment," says Chip Hutchins, the
Bangor investor behind EMM. "I'm frustrated when I look on the
television screen at (a graphic of) the state showing jobs lost. I say
do something about it.' This is my way."
Initially, EMM will result in 15 new jobs and $1.6 million in tax
revenue. By the end of 2004, the company could employ up to 75 full-time
workers with a $4.7 million payroll.
The city of Bangor also was instrumental in making the economic
development success for Maine's forest products industry a reality.
Bangor spent $1.3 million to purchase and renovate the building where
EMM is located. EMM is leasing the facility from the city.
"Other parts of the country are enjoying a rise in engineered wood.
There's no reason for Maine to be left out," says EMM President Jon
Fiutak, who worked in the forest products industry in Oregon before
working on economic development at UMaine. "We are not the world's first
engineered materials company. But with Habib's lab, my experience from
the West Coast and Chip's investment, we have an equation that works for
AEL is one of several products developed at the AEWC Center, a
33,000-square-foot facility on campus, providing Maine with a
state-of-the-art research and learning center dedicated to growing the
state's economy through the development and commercialization of
composite materials. The center, which opened its doors in June 2000, is
a recognized world leader in composites research, attracting more than
$20 million in research funding. It employs more than 20 professional
staff and over 100 UMaine student researchers annually.
The center itself is a business that attracts $4 million a year in R&D
funding. In addition to EMM, the center has worked with more than 100
Maine companies to help them develop new products, conduct joint R&D, or
simply answer technical questions.
Fiutak spent 18 months working closely with AEWC to explore
commercialization opportunities for engineered construction materials
primarily made of underutilized species such as red maple. The advanced
engineered lumber made by EMM will be a unique product beams made from
layers of solid, low-grade sawn hardwood up to 1.5 inches thick. Because
of their defects, such low-grade by-products from sawmills traditionally
have been used in pallets.
According to Dagher, the new technology developed at UMaine "uses a new
way of spatially dispersing and randomizing defects in the wood
structure," making the laminated beam significantly stronger than one
sawn directly from a log, and stronger than other wood composites on the
market. Student researchers tested a dozen beam designs. When one design
produced test results that far exceeded expectations, they thought the
test equipment was faulty, says Dagher. Further research confirmed the
findings, and the result, he says, is no less than a revolution in the
glue-laminated wood industry.
One UMaine patent is now pending, in addition to others that have
resulted from AEWC research, including one for a formula for
fiber-reinforced polymers (FRP), high-strength plastics used to
reinforce wood composites. UMaine also patented a process of bonding the
polymers to wood. The technology reduces the cost and increases the
strength of building materials made with wood.
The engineered lumber manufactured by EMM is ideal for home building
useful from roof to floor, says Fiutak. Like all engineered wood, it is
strong, dry and uniform. It also has the potential to be more
cost-effective than concrete and steel. Just as important, it serves a
state's economy by adding value to low-grade wood and wood by-products
that are underutilized, if not totally discarded.
"We're not replacing solid sawn lumber but we can save on-site assembly
costs with spans that are longer and can carry heavy loads," Fiutak
says. Manufacturing engineered lumber in Maine means there will be a
local supply of the building materials.
EMM also is keeping in state one of Maine's most valuable resources
college graduates like Shane MacDougall, EMM's technical director. The
Maine native graduated from the university in 2001 with a bachelor's
degree in civil engineering and is now completing his master's degree in
civil/structural engineering at the AEWC Center. MacDougall's research,
funded by the Federal Highway Administration, focused on development of
a composite railroad tie using low-grade Maine hardwoods. The project
evolved with Fiutak's input and resulted in AEL.
Another UMaine graduate, Tyler Riggs, is EMM's production supervisor. A
Vermont native, Riggs has degrees in forestry from Paul Smith's College
in New York and in wood science from UMaine. As a student, he worked in
the AEWC Center. After graduation, he worked with students at the center
to produce advanced engineered lumber for national building code
approval. A major challenge was to obtain code approval for AEL to be
sold throughout the U.S. This required manufacturing and testing more
than 300 AEL beams at the AEWC lab. Ten graduate and undergraduate
students were involved in the project for 18 months.
It's such local talent, combined with University of Maine R&D and the
interest of an investor, that form the circle of technology transfer,
says Hutchins. "Complete success will be financial, keeping our kids
here with jobs, and adding to the tax base," he says.
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.