Boston’s Northeastern University is announcing a new tech-focused graduate center in Portland. Its backers say the $100 million facility will lay the groundwork to secure Maine’s economy in the 21st century.
Lewiston native David Roux, who is donating the $100 million to Northeastern to launch the Roux Institute, says it will give Maine a chance to take part in the innovation economy that has exploded in hubs like Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
He says to forgo this opportunity would be tantamount to ignoring Maine’s vast natural resources.
“Like living on the beautiful seacoast and not doing any boating, not swimming, not sailing, not fishing. Lovely vista, but you’re not really actively participating in and benefiting from where you are,” Roux says.
Roux, a tech entrepreneur who co-founded the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, says the graduate program and research center will work with Maine-based companies and provide certificates, master’s degrees, and Ph.D.s in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said the project was first presented to him two years ago. And it wasn't a hard sell, he said, given its potential to grow a new sector of the state's economy.
"Recognizing this as the critical component needed to launch ourselves into the innovation economy, I was fully on board with the concept," he said. Jennings said Portland has not been asked to make any financial or location-based commitments to support the project.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District, who was on hand in Portland on Monday for the announcement, says the program has the potential to bolster Maine’s economy in the 21st century.
“It’s the No. 1 thing we hear about: How do we build our workforce? How do we have people trained and ready and educated for the jobs that are to come?” she says.
Supporters say by partnering with local businesses to support their staffing needs, the institute will keep these skilled workers in the state. Josh Broder says that’s what attracted him to the project. Broder is CEO of Tilson, which provides network construction including fiber optic engineering and smart grid maintenance, and is one of the businesses aligned with the new institute.
Broder says his company lost a talented data science employee to educational opportunities and a career outside the state.
“That vision meant that he needed a top-shelf computer science degree somewhere else, and so he moved to Maryland to seek that degree,” he says.
Northeastern officials say they will work with businesses, including MaineHealth, WEX and the Jackson Laboratory, to design a curriculum that produces workers suited their needs. And they say the program will also aim to attract innovators from out of state.
While Roux and his wife, Barbara, chose Northeastern in Boston to launch the program, University of Maine System officials are publicly applauding its mission.
University of Southern Maine Provost Jeannine Uzzi says it could support the state’s plan for enhanced graduate education.
“As the University of Maine System is developing the graduate and professional center, with its focus on entrepreneurship, and law and public policy, I think that can be a great complement to what we’re talking about in the Roux Center,” she says.
The institute will face certain challenges in achieving these goals. It will have to get buy-in from Maine employers and compete with other established innovation hubs for talented students.
But Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun says there’s a partnership in place that is up to the challenge.
“No one can succeed on his own or her own. We are here because from Day One, everyone, every constituency said, ‘Come here and we will work together and we will make it happen,’” he says.
The Roux Institute is expected to open in a temporary location this May, offering unaccredited courses. A permanent location has yet to be finalized. The first class of about 100 students is expected to arrive in Portland this fall.
Updated Jan. 28, 2020 at 8:17 a.m. ET.