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January / February 2003

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Capitalizing on Research

Capitalizing on Research
Development of engineered construction materials at UMaine leads to commercial enterprise

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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.

Chip Hutchins, pictured right with EMM President Jon Fiutak.
"This is an economic development investment," says entrepreneur Chip Hutchins, pictured right with EMM President Jon Fiutak.

Now the economic benefits are starting to show.

"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 Maine."

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
January-February, 2003

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