A new bipartisan bill has been introduced in Augusta that would expand the Maine Technology Institute’s role within the state’s innovation ecosystem.
The bill—LD 1324, An Act to Support Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Maine’s Economic Future—would explicitly proffer certain powers onto the organization, including the ability to administer and support business incubators, assist the University of Maine System and nonprofit research labs with technology transfer and commercialization, and create a program to replace the now-defunct Maine Patent Program.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Martin Grohman (D-Biddeford), co-authored it with Catherine Renault, a consultant and former director of the Maine Office of Innovation. Two Republicans—Sen. Garrett Mason, the Senate Majority Leader from Lisbon Falls, and Rep. Matthew Pouliot (R-Augusta)—are co-sponsors on the bill.
“The objective of the bill is to clarify MTI’s role in the innovation ecosystem,” Renault told Maine Startups Insider. “MTI’s mission as currently written in statute is somewhat vague, and so has been subject to interpretation by its board over time, often narrowly reading the mission.”
Though vague, MTI’s enabling legislation grants the organization a broad mandate, so whether the new bill is actually necessary for MTI to pursue the initiatives in question is a topic of discussion.
The bill was referred on Tuesday to the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development committee. A public hearing is scheduled for Wed., April 19, at 1 p.m.
A program to support incubators and accelerators
MTI’s role in the state’s innovation ecosystem was recently thrust into the center of a debate after Gov. Paul LePage in January proposed eliminating funding for the state’s Applied Technology Development Center system, which funnels state money to business incubators like the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development. At the time, the governor’s spokesperson told Maine Startups Insider that MTI had the capacity to fill the resulting budget holes and provide the necessary funding to the incubators. Sen. Amy Volk, Republican co-chair of the LCRED committee, reiterated that stance in late March when she voted in favor of the governor’s proposal. (The committee, however, voted 7-6 along party lines to opposed the cuts, with Democrats voting to retain the ATDC funding.)
The bill was written in December, a month before the governor released his proposed biennial budget, “but does provide a simple way to explicitly transfer the responsibility to MTI,” according to Renault.
Specifically, the bill would grant MTI the power to “establish a program to promote and encourage the establishment, maintenance and operation of incubators and accelerators in the entrepreneurial support system by awarding grants and other forms of financial assistance to companies, nonprofit entities, economic development agencies, educational institutions, government agencies or other entities for programs that promote an entrepreneurial business environment or train or educate entrepreneurs.”
Tech transfer and commercialization
In writing the bill, Rep. Grohman said he wanted to “strongly” encourage MTI to pursue creation of a program to help the University of Maine commercialize the most promising research and intellectual property its researchers and students have developed.
“I think some great technology that could create a lot of positive economic impact is on the shelf there,” Grohman said.
That also applies to the state’s nonprofit research labs that don’t have the resources to spin off IP into commercial products, Renault said.
“This has been a hole in our innovation ecosystem for a long time,” she said.
As written, LD 1324 would give MTI the ability to “establish a program…to support the technology transfer activities of the University of Maine System, other postsecondary educational institutions in the State and nonprofit research institutes eligible for funding under an asset technology fund established and administered by the institute, to increase the level of patenting at the University of Maine System, other postsecondary institutions in the State and nonprofit research institutes and to promote the licensing of the patents, especially to new and existing companies with operations in the State.”
A new patent program
One goal of the new bill that Grohman believes is extremely important is to fill a hole in the ecosystem created when the Maine Patent Program was shut down in 2014.
An entrepreneur himself, Grohman benefited from the Maine Patent Program when his company, CorrectDeck, was faced with a patent-related lawsuit. He thought it a mistake when the Maine Patent Program was shut down and wants MTI to spearhead the creation of a successor.
“We were a young company and pretty scared,” Grohman said. “The Maine Patent Program, while they couldn’t provide legal advice, really saved us by doing a search of the prior art that saved us huge legal fees. So the bill re-initiates that discussion.”
Specifically, LD 1324 would give MTI the power to “establish a program in collaboration with the University of Maine School of Law to support the commercialization and manufacturing of innovations in the State by providing education and assistance with the patent process of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to companies, inventors and entrepreneurs in the State.”
But is it necessary?
Brian Whitney, MTI’s president, is not opposed to the bill, but said it’s likely unnecessary since he believes current law already provides the organization with the abilities the new bill is trying to explicitly proffer.
“Representative Grohman’s proposal is thoughtful and, frankly, represents program discussions the MTI board has had in the recent past,” Whitney said in a statement. “I am confident that MTI already possesses the ability to create the types of programs that his bill contemplates, but I am not necessarily opposed to his efforts to codify them in statute as currently drafted.”
MTI’s enabling law does provide the organization with a broad mandate that likely could be interpreted to allow the powers the bill is attempting to systematize. For example, current law says that MTI’s “fiscal duties include the disbursement of funds through grants to private companies, targeted technology incubators and nonprofit research laboratories.” It goes on to say: “The institute may fund necessary precursors to commercialization of products and services, including the development of new technologies and processes, the development of product concepts and the manufacture of prototypes.”
Current law also states that MTI should cooperate with the Department of Economic and Community Development, the University of Maine System and other organizations “to ensure that a complementary system of support services, including, as needed and appropriate, incubators, business assistance, technology transfer, market research, patent research and similar services, is in place and available to companies and research laboratories receiving funds from the institute.”
Grohman admits the law grants a broad mandate, but he said that’s not always a good thing for state agencies, which are often cautious about trying to interpret legislative intent. In this case, being more explicit in MTI’s mandate would remove that potential hesitancy and allow MTI’s board to move ahead with some of these initiatives without needing to worry about whether it’s outside its legal scope.
“If we can be more clear and offer more direction, that’s always good,” Grohman said.