Friday, February 1, 2002

Don't let the name fool you; MTI supports much more than just high-tech companies

Published in Interface Business News

GARDINER, Maine—Working to meet a need among Maine businesses for research and development funding, the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) issues grants to support creation and marketing of new products and services.

“MTI’s mandate is from the legislature to help the small inventor/entrepreneur do business development to bring a product to commercialization,” said MTI grant recipient Jim White of pest-repellent start-up Holy Terra in Cape Elizabeth.

MTI also helps more established companies explore new technologies to improve their businesses, and sees “technology” as broadly defined, according to MTI director Janet Yancey-Wrona.

“Maine Technology Institute doesn’t just mean high technology. It’s also a walk-behind blueberry harvester,” Yancey-Wrona said.

With $6.4 million annually in funds available to Maine businesses, MTI is fast becoming a major force in development of new products for production in Maine. This year things are a little tighter, Yancey-Wrona said: The state is asking for $1 million to help make up the budget shortfall.

But the agency is still granting money, hosting networking functions to get businesspeople together, and running grant-writing workshops.

Successful MTI grantees are at various stages of business and project development. White, a research biologist who came up with a pest-repellent formula, needed to form a company, protect his intellectual property and start federal approval processes for possible agricultural use.

“The first grant that we received allowed us to do all the legal end of this,” White said. “There’s so many of us that just need $10,000, $15,000 to get the ball rolling.”

MTI requires grantees to match funds, which can be done with cash, other grants, or “sweat equity,” like the work done by Joan Gordon at Maine Molecular Quality Controls in Scarborough.

“We’re two scientists. How do you run a business?” said Gordon, president of the two-person company. MMQC spun out of Maine Medical Center’s research department in 2001 with a goal of improving the reliability of genetic testing.

“There are no kits,” she said. “We needed to develop other types of technology.”

Federal grants under the Small Business Research Innovation program are hard to get, and Gordon would have been competing against companies as large as 500 employees, with whole departments dedicated to writing grants, she said.

With MTI, the pool of applicants is smaller, and assistance is more available. “They’re local. You can talk to them,” Gordon said.

MTI has helped Gordon with more than just writing grants, recommending a bookkeeper when Gordon decided to outsource that service. “It’s practical support as opposed to purely research support,” Gordon said.

Chris Sieracki, of Fluid Imaging Technologies in East Boothbay, was further along in his project than MMQC was in theirs. But after developing an instrument to constantly monitor water quality, he wanted to be able to put it into water, rather than siphoning fluid out for examination.

“We saw there being a good market for a submersible version of this instrument,” Sieracki said.

He got an MTI grant to develop it and has already sold three to major research institutions, at $70,000 each. He expects to hire a marketing director in the next few months, and is now working with Kady International of Scarborough to develop equipment for monitoring ballast water in ships.

“We need (MTI grantees) to be pulling in federal R&D money,” Janet Yancey-Wrona said. “We also want to see that Maine as a whole is coming up in terms of federal R&D funding.”

There is some risk, though, and Yancey-Wrona accepts that. “If everyone’s successful then we’re not doing what we say we’re doing,” she said. “There’s a lot that you learn from a failed project.”

And MTI even helps venerable businesses that are already successful, if they have new projects they want to work on. MTI is funding a partnership between the University of Maine and Sappi Limited, a multinational with a big presence in Maine, that is doing research on new methods of retaining fibers during the papermaking process.

MTI really makes a difference. Just ask Joan Gordon. “Without MTI we probably would be out of business by now,” she said.