The idea came to life in the form of the Life Sciences Impact Forum, a day-long event held at Northeastern University’s Roux Institute campus in Portland, ME. The event was sponsored by a generous grant from FocusMaine, an organization that creates economic opportunity in Maine by fostering the creation of jobs, expanding exports, and developing a skilled workforce.
For Leo Waterston, the program director at FocusMaine, the decision to fund the meetup made perfect sense. “We’ve partnered with the Roux Institute for a number of years around our shared goal of supporting the growth of Maine’s bioeconomy,” Waterston said. “This forum fit well within that shared goal and our strategy to help build Maine’s bioscience ecosystem, particularly in terms of strengthening academic-industry partnerships and cross-sector collaboration and innovation.”
The event drew over 80 life science professionals and stakeholders from 36 different organizations from across the state. The purpose of the event, said Aileen Huang-Saad, the director of life sciences and engineering at the Roux Institute, was to “push ourselves to engage in a way we haven’t done before. How can we as a community grow the life sciences economy, as well as retain those who are already here?”
“The only way we’re going to be able to build a life science economy and accelerate it in the state of Maine is in partnership with all of you,” said Roux Senior Vice Provost and Academic Lead Mike Pollastri, addressing the attendees.
Witnessing the passion and commitment of participants in brainstorming solutions was truly inspiring. With collective efforts, I believe we can make [the life sciences ecosystem] more robust, accessible, sustainable, and ultimately position Maine as an attractive destination for the science community.”
Life Sciences Forum Participant
The event was facilitated by Giant Innovation, a consulting firm that leads organizations in workshops that are specifically meant to drive innovation and growth. The facilitators split the participants into 14 different teams and had them brainstorming ideas that addressed the event’s formal challenge statement: How might we strengthen, deepen, and expand the life sciences network to advance the economy in Maine?
The teams first discussed the obstacles and trends facing the life sciences in Maine, which included topics like the state’s aging population, lack of opportunity for young professionals, housing shortages, and a disparity between cost of living and salaries. Groups then brainstormed on the opportunities they could capitalize on in the state, like Maine’s climate adaptivity, its quality of life, and an ideal population size for making significant changes at a state level.
From there, groups began conceptualizing, revising, and iterating on ideas, which they pitched to the larger group at the end of the day. Teams presented concepts like mandatory internship programs for life science undergraduate and graduate students in Maine; creating a community coordinator and advisory board for the life sciences in the state; developing a digital tool that would help industry, academia, and government connect and collaborate to solve challenges; establishing Maine’s first veterinary school; and more.
Laura Brown, a scientist who grew up in central Maine and has spent the last 16 years actively engaged in biotech manufacturing within the state, was a participant of the event. She recently received her master’s degree from the Roux Institute in biotechnology, and says she is passionate about leveraging her academic and professional background to contribute to solving some of the issues the life sciences economy faces. She sees major opportunities in talent development, attracting life sciences professionals to Maine, and retaining that talent.
“Witnessing the passion and commitment of participants in brainstorming solutions was truly inspiring,” Brown said of the event. “With collective efforts, I believe we can make [the life sciences ecosystem] more robust, accessible, sustainable, and ultimately position Maine as an attractive destination for the science community.”
Waterston had a similar reaction to participating in the event. “I was really impressed with the level of engagement and collaboration from all participants throughout the day,” he said. “There was a palpable excitement in the room, and I’m looking forward to seeing the project proposals that come out of the Forum.”
While the event is over, the full outcome and impact from the forum is still forthcoming. Freshly inspired by the ideas presented at the forum, participants now have the opportunity to collaborate with each other in their own time to create final idea proposals. The Maine Life Sciences Network will then choose one or more of the ideas to advance ecosystem development with follow-on funding from FocusMaine.
“Maine is at a critical point in advancing its role in the life sciences industry,” Huang-Saad says. “As of 2022, the life science jobs in Maine grew by 42% over the previous 5 years, which far outpaced total job growth in Maine, and the community is coming together to take things to the next level. This year’s forum is just the beginning as, the Maine community builds off its solid foundation and seeks to define itself as a major player and innovator in life sciences.”