Artel is a Westbrook-based company with more than 60 employees, customers across the country and a growing worldwide reach. Its advanced liquid-handling equipment and services to life-science laboratories are used by customers such as crime labs looking at DNA, hospitals evaluating patient tests and pharmaceutical firms performing quality control.
The company’s development wouldn’t have been possible without state investments that help Maine small businesses jump to the next level. Through a bipartisan bond proposal developed in the Legislature, Maine has the opportunity to boost hundreds of other small, innovative businesses on the cusp of rapid growth and job creation.
The start of Artel was humble: Two partners, each with $1,000 provided by family, worked in a log structure on the grounds of a shuttered lumberyard. At the time, the business made circuit boards for tech companies in the Boston area. The company gradually added employees, opened adjacent rooms and turned on the heat for each as the stepwise growth warranted.
Since its founding in 1982, Artel evolved from making components to designing its own products to developing increasingly precise and advanced equipment and services to the labs that use its products.
Financing through the Regional Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund and the Maine Technology Institute — which, along with Finance Authority of Maine, are targeted by the proposed bond — was instrumental for each of the company’s surges forward. The latest instance enabled Artel to bring to market its most sophisticated product thus far: a $60,000 instrument that ensures the quality of the nanoliter amounts of liquid critical to the accuracy of tests and experiments in a range of life-science laboratories.
Artel succeeded not just because of great workforce and innovative ideas but also access to capital, the make-or-break ingredient for most startups. The bond proposal, which recently won strong bipartisan support in the Legislature’s Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, addresses a growing need for capital among small businesses in the state.
The success of hundreds of Maine startups depends on whether this bond is successful. FAME and REDRLP loans leverage $16 for each dollar lent. MTI and FAME programs have double-digit rates of return. Yet in all three of these astonishingly successful programs, key funding is almost completely depleted.
By providing access to capital for businesses with great ideas but only a shoestring budget, Maine can spur job creation in our innovation economy. Conventional loans are out of reach for some promising Maine businesses that have loads of innovation but not quite enough collateral. By insuring commercial loans or by providing subordinate “gap” financing that helps to close the deal, FAME and REDRLP loans help Maine small businesses succeed and grow.
Maine invests in innovation at only half the level of the nation as a whole and less than one-quarter of the level of New England. Our state is now 45th in the nation for research and development, putting in only about 1 percent of its gross domestic product into this area rather than the 3 percent recommended by the Maine Economic Growth Council.
The bond proposal puts the emphasis on the development in research and development to help propel business toward near-term job creation. It’s just what the state needs as it continues to shake off the effects of the recession.
Maine has recovered only a third of the jobs lost in the recession. Since 2011, Maine is 50th in private-sector job creation. These investments can accelerate our economic recovery, adding the high-quality, high-wage jobs the state needs now more than ever. And they can help the state take advantage of one of our most renowned “natural resources” — the development of practical solutions, and the manufacture of quality products for which our state is well known.
Artel’s team includes scientists, engineers and personnel involved directly in production. They include representatives who train and otherwise assist customers nationally and internationally, sales and marketing employees, and others engaged in the supply chain and internal quality systems, ensuring that both the incoming components the company uses as well as the finished products are up to its standards.
Maine needs more jobs like these. Targeted, smart investment by the state can create good-paying jobs in 21st century fields that will keep our bright young people here at home, enlarge the markets for what we provide, and push Maine’s economy forward.
We can either keep hoping to win the game hitting only singles, or we can help our many small business innovators to increase and accelerate their growth.
Kirby Pilcher is Artel’s president and co-founder. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, is House majority leader and House chairman of the Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future.