A City on the Cutting Edge
A Partnership between Ellsworth and the Jackson Laboratory breeds a culture of innovation in Maine’s fastest growing city
In an unassuming single-story building next to the Union River in Ellsworth, Christine Soto squints into a microscope. A research scientist working on isolating antibodies called monoclonals for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, Soto was looking for an affordable, supportive environment in which to grow her fledgling biotech business when she discovered the Union River Center for Innovation. Having established her lab, Soto relocated her family from just outside Philadelphia to Maine last June. Monoclonals, Inc., is now one of four technology tenants in residence at the Ellsworth center, which opened in May of 2016 and also offers coworking space, a business incubator program in partnership with the University of Maine, business coaching, and educational workshops.
While just a handful of entrepreneurs work in the building, the center plays a key role in a new era for Ellsworth. Long known as the gateway to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, the city of 8,000 residents is also the retail and service hub for the region. However, many of the 36,000 visitors who stream through on a summer’s day, perhaps stopping to stock up on groceries or pick up camping supplies at Cadillac Mountain Sports, may be unaware that the city has positioned itself to attract entrepreneurs in the life sciences. They also may not know that, as they continue on Route 3 toward Mount Desert Island, near the auto dealerships and big-box stores, they pass by a state-of-the-art facility vital to biomedical research around the globe: the Charles E. Hewett Center, a 134,900-square-foot vivarium for mice production opened in August by the Jackson Laboratory (JAX).
The creation of the Union River Center for Innovation is one of the most visible examples of the symbiotic relationship between Ellsworth and JAX, headquartered 20 miles away in Bar Harbor. Ellsworth’s progressive approach to development encouraged JAX to locate its new facility there, and inversely, the proximity of a celebrated scientific community has broadened opportunities in Ellsworth and bolstered an already thriving economy. The fastest-growing city in Maine in the decade before the last census, in 2010, Ellsworth has seen a steady increase in new housing construction, with 140 apartment units built in the past two years, says David Cole, Ellsworth’s city manager. Even before the opening of the Hewett Center, JAX was the area’s largest employer, with 460 Ellsworth-area residents working at its Bar Harbor campus.
Cole delights in the fact that Ellsworth has higher total retail sales than retail centers such as Freeport and Kittery. Hired as an interim city manager in 2015 after serving as commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation under Governor John Baldacci and president and CEO of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, Cole saw Ellsworth’s potential and decided to stay on. “Economic development is all about location,” Cole says. “Other companies in the life sciences know there’s already an intellectual infrastructure around JAX. Can you imagine a better calling card for us than being associated with one of the most prominent biomedical facilities in the world?”
A world-renowned, nonprofit biomedical research institution founded in 1929, JAX is focused on genomic solutions to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, diabetes, and other diseases. Its scientists pioneered the use of lab mice, which have been critical to the development of the polio vaccine and treatments for leukemia and breast cancer, among many other medical breakthroughs. Work by JAX researchers is associated with 26 Nobel Prizes, and the institute now has facilities in Sacramento, California, and Farmington, Connecticut, in addition to Ellsworth. In November JAX announced the establishment of a quarantine facility for the importation of its mice into Beijing, China. The institution’s biggest economic impact, however, may be in its home state. LuAnn Ballesteros, JAX’s vice president for external and government affairs, sees a new opportunity for the institute to impact health policy. “Historically, Maine hasn’t focused its collective research and development assets on a health policy issue—Alzheimer’s and dementia, for example—that has a significant impact on Maine,” she says. A Venn diagram on the white board in Ballesteros’s office maps out connections between various institutions involved in Alzheimer’s work, including the University of Maine Center on Aging, the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, and U.S. Senator Susan Collins’s proposed BOLD (Building Our Largest Dementia) Infrastructure Act. “The act would advance Alzheimer’s from a federal policy perspective to the place where it is considered a public health issue, like cancer or AIDS have been,” Ballesteros says. “If she is successful and we all work together, we could actually have a national center for Alzheimer’s in Maine.”
In addition to the groundbreaking work done by JAX’s researchers, JAX’s investment in the area creates economic opportunities across a broad spectrum and puts Ellsworth on an even larger map, says Cole. “We were already a major service hub for Hancock County and the downeast region, but part of what’s so significant about the JAX expansion is that now the city will have a very prominent export role as well.” JAX not only produces genetically defined lab mice for its own research, but it also distributes more than 11,000 mouse strains to 25,000 labs in 75 countries from its facilities in Maine and Connecticut. Most of that production and distribution will now be done from the Hewett Center, which, depending on demand, is estimated to create $544 million of economic activity, and 350 high-quality, full-time jobs by 2026. “Precision medicine is a huge, booming research area,” says the building ’s namesake, Chuck Hewett, who retired as JAX’s executive vice president and chief operating officer last July after a 15 year-career at the institute. “As JAX creates jobs for not only people who are skilled at managing and handling mice, but also people who are skilled at handling heavily automated equipment, it will draw a sophisticated workforce there.” A Lewiston native, avid skier, and outdoors-man whose resume includes stints as director of Maine Audubon and chief operating officer of the state’s executive branch under Governor Angus King, Hewett was responsible for a number of significant development and infrastructure initiatives during his tenure at JAX. These range from spearheading the creation of the largest wood-pellet-fueled energy plant in the Western Hemisphere (on JAX’s Bar Harbor campus) to the establishment of JAXfit, an award-winning wellness program for employees—part of Hewett’s effort to attract and retain top-level staff. Signs posted along the labyrinthine hallways in the Bar Harbor laboratory’s main building promote ultimate Frisbee games, choral groups, and other activities, giving it the feel of a small college campus. “I describe Bar Harbor as a magnet,” says Hewett. “For the right person it will pull them in.”
While Maine itself no doubt helps to attract staff from elsewhere (33 percent of 200 new hires in 2017 came from outside the state), the primary draw for JAX employees is its mission, says S. Catherine Longley, executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We all have family members, friends, that can relate to many of the diseases we study,” says Longley, who came to JAX in 2016 after serving as the chief financial and business officer at Bowdoin College in Brunswick following previous posts in finance, public policy, and law. “In addition, we pay very good wages, especially in Hancock County. And now, being in Ellsworth, we’ll be able to cast the net farther in terms of attracting people from eastern Maine to work for JAX.” The institute offers its employees opportunities to complete or further their education with classes toward associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees offered on the Bar Harbor campus. “Our employees don’t come for a job, they come for a career,” says Longley. “They might start as a production worker making $15 an hour and end up becoming a manager.”
Or, as in the case of Kat Taylor, they might end up becoming that owner of a biotech company. One of four cofounders of GenoTyping Center of America, a six-year-old genomic testing business that does research and development at the Union River Center for Innovation, Taylor spent 16 years at JAX, working in colony management, customer support, and sales. Her three partners are alumni as well. “I learned a great deal there about science and business,” she says. In 2014, two years after her company launched in Bangor, Taylor was introduced to Micki Sumpter, the economic development director for Ellsworth, who was in the process of creating the Union River Center, a project of the Ellsworth Business Development Corporation (EBDC). “We had multiple groups and cities say, ‘Hey, can you move here?’ but the EBDC was the first who wanted to know about our customer journey,” says Taylor. The center’s personal pitch inspired her and her partners not only to move their company to the new facility but also to help set up the center.
GenoTyping Center of America became the anchor tenant for the center, and Taylor worked with Sumpter to create a collaborative space that now includes the research and development arm of Katadyn, makers of the SteriPEN, a portable device developed in Blue Hill that uses ultraviolet light to make drinking water safe; Monoclonals, Inc.; and Prototype This 3D, a 3D printing service. Gel Hydration Technologies, creators of alternatives to water for working and service dogs, and a New York–based aquaculture start-up that is planning to relocate to Ellsworth are affiliate members of the center. “The other thing we liked is that we’re all in this together,” says Taylor. “It’s a community vibe, where everybody is trying to help each other.” Taylor’s business recently expanded to Waterville and has attracted attention from investors, but it will still maintain a presence at the Union River Center. “We helped them survive, they helped us get started, and now they’re really making a difference,” says Sumpter.
The energetic and enthusiastic former director of the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce, Sumpter plans to retire this summer but leaves a powerful legacy in Ellsworth. She was instrumental in bringing broad-band internet access to the city, necessary not only for the Union River Center but also for other future development, and she had the vision to realize that Ellsworth could be more than a retail hub. Soon after the launch of the EBDC, an independent nonprofit created by the Ellsworth City Council, she met with Hewett, the organization’s board chair, who advised her to “start small and move up,” she says. “You can’t just create something because you think it’s good. You have to have the bones, and we didn’t have the bones until Jackson Lab moved here.”
Cole also cites “slow, steady growth” as his goal for Ellsworth. “We’re not necessarily looking to recruit another JAX, but we’re looking for companies that will employ five to ten people—get the popcorn popping,” he says. “We also want to attract the lone eagles, people like Christine Soto, who can work from anywhere and bring their skills with them.” Cole is committed to making sure that any new development doesn’t overshadow what already makes Ellsworth a special place to live, work, and visit: the classic feel of Main Street lined with shops such as Rooster Brother, where Julia Child, a summer resident of Mount Desert Island, once shopped for kitchenware, and John Edwards Market, the area’s oldest natural food store. There are newer small businesses, too, including Provender Kitchen and Bar, owned by a husband-and-wife team who moved to Ellsworth from southern Maine, and Fogtown Brewing Company. Both opened in late 2017. From beer to biotech, small companies to global institutions, Ellsworth is offering a roadmap forward for Maine.