Can the Roux Institute Turn Portland Into a Tech Hub?

A conversation with the CAO of the ambitious, mission-driven new learning and research center.

Can the Roux Institute Turn Portland Into a Tech Hub?
By Will Grunewald

As Portland’s Roux Institute welcomed its first students last summer, the coronavirus pandemic was exposing the tenuousness of a local economy heavily reliant on hospitality and retail. But the institute — a graduate-studies and research center focused on artificial intelligence, life sciences, computer and data sciences, and digital engineering — aims to push Portland in a new, high-tech direction. Lewiston-raised tech investor David Roux and his wife, Barbara, donated $100 million to Boston-based Northeastern University to seed the institute, and the Harold Alfond Foundation has since given another $100 million in support. The New York Times called the fledgling project “a template for the many American cities struggling to share in the nation’s prosperity.”

Now, the Roux Institute has moved into an Old Port campus it shares with WEX, the financial-tech firm, and started partnering on research and student work experiences with companies ranging from small startups to L.L.Bean. We talked with chief administrative officer Chris Mallett about how the institute could shape Portland’s prospects of becoming a mini–Silicon Valley.

How has this first year gone?

Our mission here is to help put Portland on a different trajectory economically — not just Portland but the whole state — and that’s obviously a long-term play. It takes a lot of time, resources, and strategy to make that kind of impact. That said, we’ve set an ambitious schedule, and we’re right where we expected to be at the end of year one. We’ve enrolled almost 200 graduate students and served approximately 200 employees of our corporate partners through different types of course experience. We started with 10 corporate partners, and today we’re working with more than 30. The focus is to work together with those partners to find ways to help Maine.

How big will the institute grow?

We’ll take it year by year, but the Alfond Foundation is funding 7,400 scholarships over 10 years, and our intention is to scale at least at that pace. At the moment, all of our students have the opportunity to be supported through the Alfond Scholars Initiative, to make this affordable for Mainers and also to attract new talent to the region. The vision that Barbara and Dave Roux had is that future economic impact worldwide is going to be driven by technology and life sciences. Cities and states that don’t have a core base of talent in those fields are at risk of being left behind. The way Dave likes to say it is that companies will do whatever they have to do to get access to talent, including moving divisions or whole companies to a place like Portland.

One of our goals is to make sure Maine students don’t have to leave in the first place.

But how do you start competing for brainpower against bigger, established tech hubs?

We’re allowing people to choose to work as part of a comprehensive research university on a critically important mission with the resources to do it and a mandate to do it. It’s exciting. It’s meaningful. That’s what talented people want to be associated with, so we’ve been really successful in attracting leadership among our research and teaching faculty. Usama Fayyad, for example, is leading our experiential AI initiatives, and he was highly accomplished in a variety of ways: Microsoft Research, chief data officer at Yahoo and Barclays Bank. And this spring, although it’s not ready for a full public announcement yet, one of the world’s leading researchers in computational medicine will be joining our staff.

What about attracting students to a brand-new institute?

Our commitment to experiential learning really seals the deal for most students. That’s what Northeastern is known for. They want to study in future-focused fields and apply that in the context of real work through our co-op program and other opportunities. They’re very entrepreneurial and creative in the way they think about their education. We want people like that from around the world to choose to do their graduate education here. But one of our goals is also to make sure Maine students don’t have to leave in the first place. You can graduate from a Maine college or university, and we can create a work and learning opportunity at the graduate level to keep you here. There’s a Colby grad from St. Louis in our data-science program, and he said to me that because of the Roux Institute he had a reason to stay in Maine and sort of bet on his Maine future.

So with schools like Colby and Bowdoin and UMaine, you have something of a built-in feeder system.

Yes, but we’re also trying to make those relationships reciprocal and win-win. With Bates right now, we’re providing a program that helps people who don’t have a STEM background develop the fundamental skills necessary to do a graduate degree in computer science. The win-win is Bates didn’t have a computer-science offering, and for them to ramp it up would take a couple years and significant investment. So we’re helping by providing programming and faculty, and our colleagues at Bates are helping us meet the right types of students who could be interested in our graduate program.

Is there enough of an established tech base here to provide your first cohorts of students with experiential learning?

Every company today is a tech company, so I think there is. The companies we’re working with already employ thousands of Mainers. These are world leaders in their fields — companies like WEX and IDEXX. New England Marine Monitoring is a small company but another great example. They’re mapping fisheries, but in order to do it, they need machine learning and natural language processing and the ability to make rapid decisions using data science. What we’ve learned in our first year is that our partner companies are eager for and, in some cases, urgently in need of the talent we’re developing.

There’s the reality that cities like Boston, at this moment, are places that at least some people are thinking about moving away from, for different quality-of-life opportunities.

Apart from working with companies that already exist, will Roux’s presence hopefully lead to startups?

Research in higher education has always been responsible for the early ideas that become startups, and in the next five years, we’ll hire almost a hundred PhDs and graduate students to conduct research in collaboration with our corporate partners and through federal grants and corporate-funded R-and-D initiatives. As a result, we fully expect that some discoveries will turn into startups. And as far as our strategy for entrepreneurship, we also have a program to support the small businesses that are already here. We’ve just selected our first six resident startup companies to join us at the Roux Institute. They’ll collaborate with us on research and innovation that they need to grow their business. And later this year, we’ll be bringing an accelerator to the Roux Institute, to serve more mature startups and attract them to the region.

As Roux expands Portland’s tech scene, do you envision the city becoming a stand-alone hub or maybe forming a tech corridor with Boston?

We definitely see the potential to kind of connect talent with Boston, and there are other corridors, like San Francisco to San Jose, that are obvious comparisons. Also, there’s the reality that cities like Boston, at this moment, are places that at least some people are thinking about moving away from, for different quality-of-life opportunities and with the notion of distributed work allowing people to live where they want. But I think we’ll just have to see to what degree our presence can be a catalyst for that. We’ll follow the opportunities where they lead us, and if as a result we have a corridor effect take hold, that could be amazing. But I’m not sure you can engineer that as much as sort of aim for it.