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April 7, 2020

Cerahelix founder leaves to manage UMaine’s 3D printer program

COURTESY / SUSAN MACKAY Susan MacKay, co-founder of Cerahelix Inc. in Orono, resigned from the company to become senior research and development program manager with the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono.

Susan MacKay, the co-founder and CEO of Cerahelix Inc., has resigned from the company to take the position of senior research and development program manager with the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono.

Alex Crowell, a Cerahelix board member and investor, has taken over as interim CEO at the Orono-based company, Maine Startups Insider reported on Monday.

At UMaine, MacKay will turn her attention to managing the Advanced Structures and Composites Center's large-scale biobased additive manufacturing program, working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She will help research, develop and commercialize products that use the developing technology, also known as 3D printing.

“With her wealth of entrepreneurial experience, leadership in scientific innovation, and creativity, Susan will have a major impact at the center,” Habib Dagher, the center’s executive director, told Mainebiz. “Her experience as an entrepreneur in residence will be invaluable for students and staff learning how to spin off new businesses and help existing businesses grow.”

He added, “As a center leader, Susan will help shape our research direction focusing on developing recyclable bio-based materials in infrastructure applications. This is the right time and place for Susan to pour her vast expertise and knowledge into growing more technologies and more businesses.”

Biotech innovator

MacKay comes from a background in product development and materials research and development, including roles at 3M and Physical Electronics Inc. In 2006, she co-founded Zeomatrix, a company in Orono that made filtration materials. While at Zeomatrix, she was named a Mainebiz Woman to Watch

In 2011, she co-founded and headed Cerahelix, an Orono-based innovator of filtration products using DNA biotechnology combined with ceramic materials, for a range of industries including mining, food and beverage and pharmaceuticals.

In 2018, Cerahelix secured $2 million in financing to expand its sales and marketing efforts, and help pay for scaled-up manufacturing, product development and current operations.

In January, Cerahelix accelerated its global marketing with the addition of a chief operating officer.

Biobased products

The composites center unveiled a giant new 3D printer last October.

The acquisition was  part of a $20 million collaboration between the center and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop new wood-based cellulose materials and biobased resins to print very large products at very high speed, Dagher explained.

The University of Maine’s new 3D printer is the largest in the world.

The 3D printer is 60 feet long by 22 feet wide by 10 feet high and prints 150 pounds per hour.

MacKay stepped down from Cerahelix in mid-February. The official start date in her new position was April 1. 

“But I’d been working with them several weeks before then, getting up to speed,” she told Mainebiz. 

She explained, “Habib and I have known each other almost 20 years. In February, I talked with him about my background and about the work I was doing already at the state and local levels around economic development and working with entrepreneurs. He told me about the vision for the center. He’s very industry-focused. So it was a perfect fit.”

The center has expanded considerably over the past 20 years, she said.

“It’s really scaling,” she said. “In the last 18 months, he’s been hiring a lot of senior level people because they’re managing a lot of projects.”


MacKay will be responsible for coordinating and managing multi-year projects between the UMaine team and the Oak Ridge team, and for deploying funds toward Maine-based economic development initiatives expected to spin out of the projects, such as commercialization and licensing. 

One area of focus is Maine’s boatbuilding industry

“We’re looking at how additive manufacturing can help existing companies and industries and what new companies and industries can be developed around additive manufacturing and biobased products in general, to create new companies and jobs and to grow the economy,” she said.

The new position, she noted, leverages her multi-faceted background in materials science, product development, manufacturing and entrepreneurship.

“The skills I learned while starting and running my own business translates well into this new role,” she said. 

Her departure from Cerahelix came at a good time, MacKay added.

“The company is in really good shape,” she said. “I had onboarded a chief operating officer and had a chief commercial officer, so I had built out the senior management team in the 18 months before I left. We had reached the level I had always envisioned: We had the manufacturing up and running, a core R&D group and a sales and marketing group fully operational. We had grown from eight to 18 employees in the last year I was there. This was an inflection point in the company’s life.”

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