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PORTLAND — The lingering question was simple for Icelandic businesswoman Erla Petursdottir.
“What do we do with fish guts?” she said Thursday Oct. 16.
In Maine, the same question is asked about lobster shells.
The answer may be found in the New England Ocean Cluster, an approach modeled on the Iceland Ocean Cluster that Petursdottir, the managing director of Codland, has belonged to for more than two years.
As announced Oct. 16 by Gov. Paul LePage, Mayor Michael Brennan, Iceland Ocean Cluster leader Thor Sigfusson, and Patrick Arnold of Soli DG, the New England Ocean Cluster in Portland is expected to be home to at least 20 entrepreneurial ventures looking to boost the regional maritime economy.
The search is now on for 30,000 square feet of waterfront space to house the cluster, which Soli said has already attracted interest from eight local, but unidentified, businesses. Sigfusson is a partner in the venture.
Petursdottir said Codland has increased the dollar value of declining cod catches off Iceland by using more of the fish.
“We changed from quantity thinking to quality thinking,” she said, describing using previously unwanted cod intestines, for example, to produce fish oils and skins for collagen in health and beauty products.
In Portland, the initial effort will focus on more uses for lobster shells, including the chitin found in the shells as a substitute for keratin found in health and beauty products.
“We are focused on waste,” said Arnold, who also oversees operations at the expanding International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street.
If lobster shells prove more marketable, the shells of green crabs found in coastal shellfish beds could also become a commodity, Arnold added.
Sigfusson said collaborations within the Iceland Ocean Cluster have increased maritime economic contributions from 8 percent of Iceland’s gross national product to 28 percent last year.
Established in 2011, the 20 original companies in the Iceland Ocean Cluster occupied about 30,000 square feet of space in the nation’s capital, Reykjavík. What occurred inside was very elemental, Sigfusson said.
“It began by people shaking hands and introducing themselves to each other,” he said.
The Iceland Ocean Cluster has now doubled in size and operates with individual businesses paying membership fees between $4,000 and $9,000 annually, while reaping the benefits proximity breeds in collaboration and communication.
“There needs to be a person-to-person physical relationship within the cluster to make it happen,” he said.
The largest concentration of cluster companies are involved in marine-related technologies, Sigfusson said, and successful enough that he foresees marine technological exports eclipsing cod fillet exports in five years.
He estimated 74 percent of a cod landed by Icelandic fishing companies gets to the marketplace as food, beauty aids or components in biotech.
LePage said landing the New England Ocean Cluster began with his trip last December with members of the North Atlantic Development Office, established within the Maine International Trade Center and directed by Dana Eidsness.
“This model is an excellent example of how private-sector investment in innovation and cluster development can result in economic growth,” LePage said.
Brennan and city staff are assisting in the site search, but Arnold said the Cluster will “focus first on private equity” for development.
The arrival of the New England Ocean Cluster marks the potential second economic boost the city announced this month.
On Oct. 8, Brennan and members of Growing Portland announced a $50,000 study on how the city can become a hub in the health informatics field that develops and distributes medical data and other information.
Noting about 45 percent of the city’s population aged 45 and younger hold some kind of degree, Brennan said the city is poised to take advantage of the skills and learning.
“We are at a tipping point in Portland with waterfront development,” he said. “We now see where the waterfront will grow.”
Health informatics may grow as a digital cluster, without a bricks-and-mortar center. Arnold, LePage, Petursdottir and Sigfusson said the New England Ocean Cluster will flourish only through direct contact.
“(We are) trying to get a whole lot of entities into a small building and dialogue with each other,” LePage said.
Thor Sigfusson, head of the Icelandic Ocean Cluster, on Oct. 16 announces his partnership with the New England Ocean Cluster, a marine-related entrepreneurial center coming to Portland.
Soli DG head Patrick Arnold said the New England Ocean Cluster will initially explore efforts to market now-discarded lobster shells as ingredients in health and beauty aids.