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UMaine-led project gets $500,000 in Build Back Better Regional Challenge

The project focuses on using Maine forest products and innovative technology to expand the use of wood throughout the state.

MAINE, Maine — A project led by the University of Maine's Forest Bioproducts Research Insitute won $500,000 federal dollars for a proposal to help boost Maine's economy. 

The money came from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Partners to the project include the Forest Opportunity Roadmap (FOR/Maine), the Maine Development Foundation, private lumber companies, Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, the Maine Forest Products Council, and the state's Department of Economic Development.

The UMaine-led project is one of 60 finalists chosen for the national BBB challenge. The project, Accelerating the Northern Forest Bioeconomy: Through Innovation, Commercialization, Workforce and Community Redevelopment," was chosen from a pool of more than 500 applicants in the country. 

The goal of the challenge is to provide transformative investments to develop and strengthen strong industries across the U.S.

The money received will further develop their proposed projects that are due on March 15, 2022, for a second eliminatory, where only half of the 60 finalists can get up to $75 to $100 million.

Jake Ward is the vice president of Innovation and Economic Development at UMaine. He said the money is going to help this coalition of partners create more bio-based products.

"Using these assets, and expanding on these assets, will find hundreds and dozens of new uses for wood fiber that haven't even been thought of before. And that really expands the opportunity to take the wood and forest product sector into the future," Ward said.

"The forest industry is the biggest industry in the state of Maine. We are an $8.5 billion dollar industry, and we are trying to grow it to a $12 billion industry by 2025," Jim Robbins, founder of Robbins Lumber Company in Searsmont, said. He's worked in the industry for decades

Robbins said UMaine and other partners are developing new uses for wood, to help boost the state's economy.

"Part of this movement is to create jobs in rural Maine, and especially in those towns that have lost the paper mills and other industries. So we want to get that built back," Robbins said.

"The whole project is really about using heritage industry, the Maine forest products sector, and bringing new innovation, new opportunities, a new market, to grow, and expand beyond the current uses of the forest," Ward said. "Undergraduate and graduate students are really fundamental to the research development and commercialization. They learn how to work in the real world. They learn to work on real products."

"There was such a desire for them to participate in a career that is sustainable!" Colleen Walker, director of the Process Development Center at UMaine, said.

Walker said the hope is for these students to strengthen the business and help create new bio-based products upon graduation.

"So we will be able to expand our capabilities here, hopefully, to have a paperboard machine so we can apply some of the cellulose and fiber technology to paperboard to make replacements for plastics," Walker said.

The effort is also working on developing biomaterials for packaging and building materials made out of pulp.

"Really it's an opportunity to supply the rest of the country with biomaterials to replace petroleum and other kinds of chemicals that people don't want anymore," Ward said.

The university and its partners will now advance to phase 2 of the challenge, to hopefully win up to $100 Million to help change Maine's economy with this wood bio-based project. Only half of the 60 finalists will receive funding in the next round.

U.S Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo announced the finalists on Monday.

“The Build Back Better Regional Challenge aims to supercharge local economies and increase American competitiveness around the globe,” Raimondo said. “The outpouring of interest in this program shows the demand for the Build Back Better agenda and the desire to not only create good-paying jobs but also strengthen our country’s economic resiliency for years down the road.”

All of the finalist projects represent industry sectors that are unique to each region, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defense, agriculture and natural resources, biotechnology and biomanufacturing, energy and resilience, health care and digital health, information technology, transportation, construction, logistics, and more. In Maine, the cluster sector is natural resources.

Here is the link to the proposal submitted to the EDA. Also, at this link is the original five-page proposal submitted to the EDA.

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