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January / February 2003

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Technology incubation and research center sets sights on growing companies


Breaking into the mass (spectrometer) market
Brian and Barbara Frederick of Stillwater Scientific Instruments, Inc., one of the companies now located in the Target Center, discuss their business's progress.


Inside the incubator
An employee of the Target Technology Incubator describes the influence incubator services have upon businesses.

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Larry Thompson is a research engineer with Applied Thermal Sciences Inc., (ATS) of Sanford, Maine, but his office is more than 150 miles away at the Target Technology Center near the University of Maine. Here, he and his university colleagues work with Maine's newest supercomputer — a Ferrari of high-end technology composed of 208 dual-processor PCs linked by more than three miles of fiber-optic cable. They are applying the latest computer modeling techniques to engineering problems as diverse as missile defense and engine performance.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring office in the technology center, partners in Stillwater Scientific Instruments Inc., are designing circuitry, applying for patents and getting accounting advice. UMaine scientists created the company last winter to take advantage of technology developed by one of their colleagues, UMaine chemist Brian Frederick. Using Frederick's ideas, they are building a device that significantly increases the speed of mass spectrometers, machines commonly used in chemical laboratories around the world.

Down the hall, a group of researchers is talking about forming a company. If their technology works as planned, they may be selling a new product best described as a digital travel aid. Christopher Frank, a graduate student from Colchester, Vt., is working on the device with Max Egenhofer, director of the UMaine National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA). Although still on the drawing board, their invention could be the first of a family of products based on "smart maps" research at the university.

Being located at Target places ATS, Stillwater Scientific and UMaine engineers at the heart of a badly needed statewide effort to develop businesses and create jobs. The Target Center is one of seven state-supported economic development facilities known as business incubators. These facilities are designed to put scientists and engineers face to face with business development specialists, patent attorneys and owners of existing businesses. Located in communities from Limestone to Sanford, the incubators are focusing on technology sectors such as aquaculture, precision manufacturing and composite materials.

Target specializes in information technology. Owned by the nonprofit Bangor Target Development Corp., the 20,000-square-foot facility has rental space for existing businesses, new start-up companies and university researchers. It is located in the Maine Business Park, off Interstate 95 in Orono.

With an incubator approach to economic development, Maine is in good company. Governments around the world use incubators to stimulate business. Within their protective walls, they nurture new ventures with a supportive mix of legal, financial and entrepreneurial services. In Maine, the university has active affiliations with most of the incubators and operates the Target facility through its Department of Industrial Cooperation, part of the Office of Research and Economic Development, or ORED.

Christopher Frank and Debbie Neuman
Graduate student Christopher Frank and Debbie Neuman, director of Target Technology Incubator, examine a prototype of a device based on "smart maps" research at UMaine.

The success of business incubators is evident in their history. In 1980, there were 12 incubators in the U.S. Today, there are more than 900. A 1997 study published by the National Business Incubator Association concluded that 87 percent of the companies developed in incubators were still operating. And most of them strayed little from their entrepreneurial nurseries, locating within 10 miles of the incubator facility.

In her 2002 research on U.S. incubators, Candan Unver, a graduate student in the UMaine Business School, has found that being in an incubator environment increases a new company's chance of success. These specialized facilities are only one part of Maine's efforts to lay the groundwork for a knowledge-based economy. The state is increasing investments in university-based research, stimulating new technology through the Maine Technology Institute, and evaluating progress through the Maine Science and Technology Foundation.

Debbie Neuman, director of Target Technology Incubator, is banking that a new economy can grow out of the initiatives under way in Orono. On a daily basis, she works with scientists and inventors who want to create products and jobs out of technological insight. Offices and conference rooms at Target are abuzz with talk of financial and legal matters or possible solutions to technology problems. Experts in patent law, accounting and marketing provide assistance to Target tenants on a regular basis. And Neuman works hard at matching business and financial assistance with the needs of scientists and engineers whose ideas may hold commercial promise.

Assistance also can come from people who are already running a successful business through what Jake Ward, executive director of ORED, calls "around the coffeepot interaction." In addition to ATS, three existing firms have offices at the center: Four Directions Development Corp., of Bangor; MapTech Inc., of Amesbury, Mass.; and SGC Engineering of Westbrook, Maine. By putting emerging business neophytes like Chris Frank together with veterans, Target creates "networking opportunities and a critical mass in the way people think," says Ward. "Young entrepreneurs have an environment that they haven't had before. Face-to-face time is the critical element."

Rounding out the mix of technical and business expertise at Target are UMaine students and faculty in business, electrical and computer engineering, new media, spatial information sciences and computer science. Moreover, businesses that are not ready to commit to renting space in the facility can participate in a Target Affiliate Program. The benefits include participation in weekly workshops and the use of offices to meet with potential clients, development specialists and colleagues.

Making the jump from technical development in a lab to running a business is not easy, says Neuman, a former small business owner and Eastern Maine Development Corporation (EMDC) consultant.

"People may think they have the latest, greatest technology, but commercial success requires that they get it to market and keep it there," she says. Creating a business requires the right attitude, and a commitment and willingness to learn about markets, finances, government regulation, production, transportation and taxes.

It's enough to make scientists throw up their hands and go back to the lab. Or wonder if, in the midst of it all, making the jump is even possible.

That thought has already occurred to Brian and Barbara Frederick, president and treasurer, respectively, of Stillwater Scientific Instruments Inc., Target's first incubator business tenant. An incubator environment is exactly what they and four other scientists needed after creating their company in 2002 on the basis of research done in Europe and at UMaine.

While each of the partners has strong scientific credentials, they have little or no business background.

"We have had to decide whether our technology can actually displace existing technology in the marketplace," says Brian Frederick, who is an assistant professor of chemistry and on the staff at the Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology at UMaine.

"We want to create well-paying, high-tech jobs for Maine. We plan to make our instruments in the Target Center for a few years. Eventually, we will move to another location in the Orono area," he says.

Like scientific research, business is a collaborative enterprise, says Neuman. "One person doesn't have all the answers. We're fortunate in Maine that we have a vast array of resources and experts.

"As a small company, you don't have the time or knowledge to figure out what you need," Neuman says. "You're trying to run your company day to day, and you may not know that you could benefit from working with the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership on your manufacturing process, or that the Maine International Trade Center exists and could help you develop opportunities internationally."

Jack Smith, vice president of ATS, sees Target as a huge benefit for his company, UMaine and the state. "We believe it is important to have this access near the university so that we can know what's going on there," he says.

"It's critical to have this cross talk (with scientists and engineers), particularly when we're walking at the edge of technology. To create new products and technologies, this is where it happens."

To date, Smith and ATS have been instrumental in helping UMaine secure nearly $4 million in funding from the Department of Defense to build the supercomputer housed at Target. The supercomputer has been ranked as one of the 500 fastest in the world by a high-tech Web site, This spring, an upgrade will double its size. With its blazing speed, the machine can run programs in a few days that might take months on the fastest PCs.

ATS's Larry Thompson, who was the first UMaine student to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and his colleagues are simulating missile flights for the U.S. Army, operations that would cost millions of dollars if done the old fashioned way — by designing, building and flying the missiles.

High-speed computer modeling saves a lot of money and provides critically important information, says Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Bruce Segee, who serves as the technical director for the facility. "You don't want to spend millions of dollars designing something on paper, building and flying it, and then find out that it doesn't operate the way you expected it to and you can't control where it's going.

"A tremendous number of things fall into that category. It really just makes good economic sense to spend a small amount of time verifying the model without committing to the expensive risk of making the model. It doesn't have to be supersonic aircraft. It could be ship design."

In fact, a Maine marine design software company has already taken a crack at applying the supercomputer to the needs of that industry. Last summer, Aerohydro Inc., of Southwest Harbor, participated in a trial run of software that would dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to create a high-performance hull. That company may be the pioneer in a supercomputing collaborative, an effort by the university to make the supercomputer accessible to all businesses in the state.

Not every business needs high-speed computing. But for those that do, Target could pro-vide a competitive edge. Biotechnology companies, including Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, could use the facility to rapidly generate information from massive gene sequence databases.

At ATS, high-speed computing helps engineers study one of the toughest problems in missile defense. At speeds approaching 15 times the speed of sound, the missiles generate such friction in the atmosphere that their carbon fiber skins catch fire. Although the missile develops a charred layer that prevents further damage, the resulting pressures caused by combustion can affect the missile's flight path. ATS researchers are using the supercomputer to calculate those pressures across the missile's skin.

As a place where technology development walks arm in arm with business, Target is helping to lay the foundation for Maine's future economy. No one demonstrates that potential better than Chris Frank, the NCGIA graduate student who would like to turn smart maps research into a practical aid for travelers.

His idea could appeal to tourists who want easy access to information without lugging bulky travel guides. And it could help travelers discover new places by linking their exact whereabouts to information, such as maps, historic and cultural facts, and locations of hotels, restaurants and services. The device combines wireless communication technology, sensors, global positioning system receivers and online databases.

"This could ease the ‘way-finding' process for travelers," says Frank. "It can identify objects and display maps based on a geographic location. The project falls under what we call intelligent spatial technologies."

In two to three years, the hope is to manufacture a product that will be the first in a family of products, says Egenhofer.

"Working at the Target Center has enabled Chris to take advantage of the legal and financial expertise there while he also takes business classes at the university."

Egenhofer has succeeded in attracting about $3 million in federal research funds to develop the underlying theory and practical applications of intelligent spatial technologies.

Investigations also continue into the use of chemical and biological sensors, the creation of information filters to allow users to specify the details they need, and the thorny issues of privacy and legal standards. The research team includes all of the NCGIA faculty and 10 graduate students.

Basing economic growth on UMaine research can provide a solid basis for creating jobs, says Renee Kelly, business and economic development liaison with UMaine's ORED.

"There's an emphasis on thinking about how existing businesses in Maine can apply new technology. We're not going to attract many other MBNAs to the state, so we need to grow our own," she says.

by Nick Houtman
January-February, 2003

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