Portland hopes to become a leader in technology-driven jobs following an announcement Monday by Northeastern University.
With a $100 million donation from tech entrepreneur David Roux and his wife Barbara, the Boston university will launch a graduate education and research campus in Portland to focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning applied to digital and life sciences.
The narrow research focus of the institute on AI and machine learning, Roux said, represents the leading edge of technology, and is the most important growth engine in the economy.
The digital technology curriculum will include applied analytics, computer science, data science, data visualization, and machine learning, according to a press release. The advanced life sciences curriculum will include bioinformatics, biotechnology, genomics, health data analytics, and precision medicine.
“We have this incredibly dynamic innovation economy growing up around us,” Roux said Monday at an event celebrating the announcement, “but we’re really not as a state participating fully in the most dynamic, fastest growing sector of that economy.”
The event at Ocean Gateway drew approximately 300 people, including state and city officials and business leaders.
Roux grew up in Lewiston and started his career as co-founder and chief executive of the first company to produce CD-ROMs and moved on to hold senior executive positions at software giants Lotus and Oracle.
He said his hope is that by increasing the pool of workers with sought-after specialized tech skills in Maine, innovative businesses would choose to locate in the state. For that to happen, he said, Maine must become known as an innovation hub and part of the tech corridor that now stretches from Washington, D.C, to Boston.
Gov. Janet Mills on Monday called the Roux Family Foundation’s investment “a shot in the arm that will help us stabilize our economy over the long term.”
She said the Institute would extend Maine’s reach and help to fulfill a goal of her economic development 10-year plan released last month: to attract 75,000 more workers to the state.
Joshua Broder, CEO of Portland-based telecom and information technology company Tilson Technology, said the institute could help alleviate problems tech companies in Maine face in recruiting and retaining talent. Not only must they recruit from out of state, he said, they also lose employees who must go to institutions out of state any time they want the specific training necessary to advance in their careers.
“Our problem has been that when they transition to a graduate school in another place, they will often find work in that other place,” Tilson said.
Roux said he and his wife interviewed officials from more than a dozen leading research universities looking for the right fit for their vision. He said they chose Northeastern University for several reasons:
It has a highly entrepreneurial leadership team that moves forward with new ideas quickly; successful experience running regional campuses in the US, Europe and Canada; is committed to providing affordable and accessible high quality education, and has demonstrated its ability to collaborate with businesses through its cooperative education experiential learning program and through joint research projects and curriculum development with businesses.
Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun admitted Maine is not an obvious place for the university to open a campus. In the past the institution has expanded to areas that already had strong ecosystems in place for technology and research: Silicon Valley, Seattle and London.
But over the past eight months since Roux approached the school, Aoun said, he has come to realize this is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” This campus, he said, will focus on applied research to help the economy through an experiential model based on partnerships with businesses.
“From Day 1 we are going to work together to establish what is needed in terms of talent and to create curriculum and programs to meet those needs in conjunction with other institutions, too,” Aoun said.
He said conversations are taking place with University of Maine officials about agreements that would allow its students to attend the Roux Institute, and vice versa, and potential faculty research collaborations. Faculty at the two schools, he said, have already begun working on joint federal research grant applications.
Besides Tilson Technology, founding business partners are Jackson Laboratory; payment processing and information technology company WEX; L.L. Bean; employee benefits provider Unum; Bangor Savings Bank; veterinary services provider IDEXX Laboratories; computer software company PTC; structural engineering company Thornton Tomasetti, and MaineHealth.
Roux said that in addition to co-designing curricula, these businesses will send employees to study at the institute, sponsor internships, undertake joint research projects, hire graduates and potentially create operations near the campus.
The institute will begin enrolling students this summer, starting with employees of its business partners. It will initially operate in temporary space, but plans to open an urban campus in about three years. The campus location has not been selected.