PORTLAND, Maine – There's nothing obviously wrong with Maine's largest city. The shops are buzzing in the summer with well-dressed tourists. Zillow considers the real estate market “very hot.” David Geffen's yacht docks in port from time to time. The food scene is fantastic. In November, unemployment was just under 2.2 per cent.
However, some troubles Portland. Productivity growth is low. Business formation is anemic. And there is a sense that in a time of technology-driven economic winners, Portland's 66,000 residents are left behind.
Hoping to enter the high-tech field, Portland is about to become a trial. On Monday, officials including government Janet Mills and Mayor Kate Snyder will gather at Portland's waterfront for the unveiling of a research institute meant to run the local economy.
If the effort succeeds, it can provide a template for the many American cities struggling to share in the nation's prosperity.
It has protectors David Roux, who grew up in nearby Lewiston and graduated from Harvard before building a fortune as a Silicon Valley investor. Mr. Roux, one of the founders of private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, gave $ 20 million to Northeastern University to establish a research school and research center in Portland.
The center, to be called the Roux Institute, will award certificates, master's degrees and doctorates in artificial intelligence and machine learning – specifically aimed at life sciences.
"What can be the most catalytic for transforming and supporting an economy that does not fully participate in the modern, technology-led innovation economy?" Asked Roux. His answer is "bringing innovative technology features here to Maine and Northern New England. "
The goal is to harness the power of knowledge-based prosperity to a small number of megacities. Ten cities, home to less than a quarter of the population, generate nearly half of the nation's patents and one-third of economic output, according to recent research.
It is the most advanced and complex industry – such as biotechnology and semiconductors – that is the most concentrated, and the geography of the invention gets narrower every year. A report found that Boston, Seattle, San Diego , San Francisco and Silicon Valley captured nine out of ten jobs created from 2005 to 2017 in the nation's most research-intensive industries.
Innovators do so ostensibly best when around other innovators. Those and companies hoping to hire them are flowing to the same handful of places. So Roux's initiative is moving toward a powerful tide.
And yet it makes sense. Producing highly educated technologists may not be enough to create an innovation ecosystem, but an educated workforce is an indispensable ingredient.
"I don't think it's a crazy idea," said Timothy J. Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Universities have been found to encourage growth through a number of levers of : they provide demand to local communities, but they also add innovators. The professors can generate patents, consult for local companies or start companies. Companies can team up with university laboratories on research projects. The existence of a technically oriented doctoral center can lead to more students choosing technology-related fields. Graduates will improve the pool of work for local businesses and perhaps attract technology companies to the city.
A study involving universities in 78 countries between 1950 and 2010 found a direct link to economic growth, driven in part by their impact on education and their contribution to innovation. Another concluded that increasing funding for public universities led to several companies establishing a presence near campus.
Yet another looked at colleges established in the United States from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Counties where colleges originated generated 32 percent more patents than missed places. This effect was mainly driven by migration: College cities attracted innovative people.
But research shows that the impact depends on both the quality of the school and the attributes of the place. In general, I think that a bigger impact for a smaller city is likely to be if it is already an activity that is already building on, and if there is any reason to believe that the area might otherwise be attractive, "Bartik said.
Rate San Diego. One of the nation's leading innovation centers, it built much of its wealth at the University of California, San Diego. In 2011, the university produced 80 master's and doctoral degrees. degrees in fields related to wireless technology, quadrupled from 1991. Between 1985 and 2001, alumni were founders of 16 telecommunications companies in the area, including Franklin Antonio, one of the founders of Qualcomm, the city's most valuable company and the world's leading smartphone chip maker.
However, Mr. Bartik said, "Putting a high-tech institute in the middle of rural Idaho can't have multiplier effects if there is nothing to build upon." Mr. Roux insisted that Portland offer the right kind of environment, with a few technology companies already established and with Boston, a technology-rich megacity, just two hours away.
However, universities do not just pop out. Just over two years ago, Mr. Roux and a small team of advisers were hunting from Massachusetts to California to Georgia to New York, in search of a research university that might prove to be a good fit.
In December, they reached an agreement with Northeastern, a private university headquartered in Boston. It will add Portland to a network that includes Seattle's campus; Silicon Valley; Charlotte, N.C.; Toronto; and London.
The Roux Institute opens in May – in temporary quarters – and offers a smattering of non-accredited courses to please local employers and their workers. The first year of about 100 degree-seeking students starts this fall. The student body is expected to grow to around 2,600 in ten years.
"Elsewhere, there was already an ecosystem of technology and digital and life sciences," said Joseph E. Aoun, president of the Northeast, about enlargement efforts. In Portland, "our opportunity is to launch this ecosystem and shape it," he said. "That's why it's going to be transformative."
It is also a heavier lift. The challenge is not just manning up. The university and Mr. Roux's team are recruiting other philanthropists from across the state as donors. (There will be tuition revenue and expected federal research grants.) Organizers are also asking companies – locally and from other parts of the country – to commit to enrolling their new school staff and paying tuition, offering internships and other opportunities for learning at work and participating in the center in research projects.
There are other universities in Maine, including prestigious liberal arts colleges like Colby and Bowdoin. But few offer doctoral programs in the sciences, and no one has Northeastern's track record in digital sciences and technologies, or the experience of partnering with business and opening new studios.
"It's not enough to start a university because you need to have the players at the table," Aoun said. The players, he said, are companies that can specify the type of talent they are seeking and the problems they need to solve.  So far, 10 have been hired. They include local employers like Tilson, which builds fiber and mobile networks, and Idexx, a veterinary diagnostics company, as well as Boston-based industrial automation company PTC.
"I want employees who want experience from the graduate school to be able to do this, "said Joshua Broder, Tilson's CEO. "Many people go to graduate school, and there is a good chance that people will end up working in the place they are attending grad school."
Mr. Mayor Jennings believes the Roux Institute is "potentially the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century for Portland and Maine" – a chance to fill the gap left by the declining role of forestry and fishing, which provided middle-class jobs decades ago.
Mr. Roux described the project as "an opportunity machine disguised as an educational institution and research center." It will have succeeded, he said, if it makes existing local companies better, attracts companies from elsewhere and provides seed for dynamic new businesses.  "If it works, then what I'm sure is going to happen in all other markets around the world," he added, "is someone who looks over from Central Florida and says: & # 39; I'd like to have one of those. & # 39; "
That, and maybe a few more charities like Mr. Roux, might help solve America's regional differences.
" If you had 30 more 40 billionaires who decided to do this in 30 to 40 places that had some technical activity, "Bartik said," would be sufficient successes to justify it even if only half were successful. "