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Home / US Business / A $ 100 million effort to make Vacationland a technical hub, too

A $ 100 million effort to make Vacationland a technical hub, too

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.

"It looks like we're doing well," said Jon Jennings, Portland's mayor. "But just below real estate development, there is the uncertainty about what will actually drive the economy in the future." Lobstering and tourism will not be enough.

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.

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. [19659006] 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. [19659006] "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. "

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