December 13, 2011 | last updated December 15, 2011 10:43 am

GMRI attracts global marine firms

Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Tollef Olson and Paul Dobbins of Ocean Approved, a tenant at GMRI's headquarters, hold up some kelp spores they use to cultivate edible seaweed
Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Dana Hutchins, founder of Image Works, holds up a new interactive application he's working on for GMRI's education center

When the Gulf of Maine Research Institute moved to its new spacious headquarters on the waterfront, its vision was to open its doors to fellow marine-based companies and create a hub for science, technology and education.

After a bit of a bumpy start, the institute today is near capacity, sharing space with international and local tenants involved in a number of cutting-edge pursuits. The newest occupant, Ocean Approved, which is developing kelp farms off the coast of Maine, moved in this October, leaving 7% of the building vacant.

"We had an image of being the town hall of the Gulf of Maine," says Don Perkins, GMRI's president. GMRI engages in fisheries research and marine science education. With 56 employees, the nonprofit is the largest occupant at 350 Commercial St.

"We provide tenants with traditional space they'll be comfortable in," Perkins says, including dry and wet labs. He adds that the building's physical layout was designed to foster a collegial environment for for-profits, nonprofits and educational institutes by creating communal meeting and kitchen areas.

When GMRI opened its new $17.8 million building in 2005, it originally was joined by the University of Southern Maine's marine aquatics division, which has since moved back to its campus, and the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, which merged with GMRI in 2009 when it ran into financial troubles. (To pay for the building, GMRI received $5 million in state R&D bonds, $2.8 million in federal funding and $6 million in individual donations. It also borrowed $4 million through the New Markets Tax Credit Program.)

Today, the building houses Fish Vet Group, a global aquaculture consulting firm, which moved in last May; SgurrEnergy, a renewable-energy consultancy that came July 2010; Image Works, a locally grown media company that arrived November 2010; and Ocean Approved, which had a lab at GMRI in 2010, left briefly and returned this fall.

While only Fish Vet and Ocean Approved are focused exclusively on ocean industries, SgurrEnergy works on offshore wind projects, and Image Works is GMRI's go-to company for media and tech services.

The building now houses approximately 80 people, and Perkins says the 5.68-acre plot provides even more room to grow. "As we fill it up and burst at the seams, we have the capacity to build seven to 10 times more space behind the building," he says, gesturing to the broad lawn behind the building that borders the Fore River. "It could be a campus, with five, six buildings, for a mix of eclectic marine-science tech."

The tenants:

Fish Vet Group is a 16-year-old global aquaculture consultancy based in Scotland that recently has expanded globally, opening new locations in North America and Norway. It opened its Portland office in May. Fish Vet -- part of Benchmark Holdings Ltd., an investment firm for animal, fish and crop production -- offers pharmaceutical products for fish farms, including a pesticide for sea lice that prey on Atlantic salmon. The company also provides veterinary and diagnostic services, as well as offers environmental analyses to improve fish habitats at aquaculture sites. "The core mission of Fish Vet is the welfare of the fish and healthy farms," says Hernan Pizarro, the company's technical services director in Portland. Fish Vet employs four in Maine, and Pizarro says being in North America should help the company expand into new fish aquaculture industries, including catfish and tilapia. He says being located at GMRI has introduced the company to researchers in many disciplines, helping foster new ideas.

SgurrEnergy consults on commercial and industrial renewable energy projects around the world. SgurrEnergy was founded in 2002 in Glasgow, Scotland, and opened its North American headquarters in Portland in 2009. A year later it was acquired by Wood Group, whose 2010 revenues were about $5 billion. SgurrEnergy chose Portland as its U.S. location for its competitive costs, according to Jim Tolan, head of Sgurr's U.S. operations. "We compete globally, and we want to make sure we're competitive. Plus, clients love to visit Portland," he adds. "The professional feel to the place is top-notch. It gives us more credibility -- we're not in a closet somewhere. We're not working in our own house." And Maine, he says, is a hot spot for wind power, biomass and tidal energy. SgurrEnergy employs five at its Portland office and 125 globally. As the company becomes more widely known in the U.S. marketplace, Tolan says the Portland office could grow to between 10 and 15 employees in the next couple of years.

Ocean Approved calls itself the first and only kelp farm in the United States. The company sells edible kelp, describing it as a nutritious green vegetable. Since 2006, with a mixture of Maine Technology Institute and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding, Ocean Approved's business partners, Tollef Olson and Paul Dobbins, have learned how to propagate and harvest one of Maine's native kelp varieties, Saccharina latissma or sugar kelp, which they sell at 70 outlets. They also sell two other kelp products they harvest in the wild and are experimenting with cultivation, according to Dobbins. While they're in the business's early phase -- which means introducing a relatively unfamiliar product to the market (they won't disclose sales numbers) -- the two men envision that farmed seaweed could eventually be an important part of Maine's economy. "Part of our mission is to publish our research," Dobbins says, "to create a new industry on the coast of Maine." Olson says the rented space at GMRI has been helpful to their research. "This is a fabulous facility," he says. "There's easy access to the water; folks are interested in what we're doing; and there's a lot of expertise in the building."

Image Works, founded by Dana Hutchins in Portland in 1977, began collaborating with GMRI in the late 1990s. More recently, Image Works designed GMRI's Cohen Center for Interactive Learning on the ground floor of the new building. This project, Hutchins says, broadened Image Works' reputation, and since completing the center, the company, which employs eight people, has done exhibits for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Orlando Science Center, among others. Hutchins says roughly 30% to 40% of Image Works' business comes from such exhibits, and the rest is made up of commercial website development for clients like Idexx and Hannaford Bros. Co. Hutchins says the work his company does with GMRI often leads to commercial opportunities. "Their educational projects allow us to explore innovative technologies that don't have an immediate business application," he says.


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