In a move that shocked many members of Maine’s technology sector, Robert Martin was ousted Thursday as president of the Maine Technology Institute.

Gov. Paul LePage removed Martin, who had been at the helm of the organization for two years. The Maine Technology Institute provides grants and zero-interest loans to entrepreneurs and technology companies in Maine. It is funded by the state and its president serves at the pleasure of the governor.

George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, issued a brief statement from the governor confirming Martin was fired.

“The departure of Robert Martin from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) is a personnel matter,” LePage said in the statement. “I remain fully committed to MTI and its mission and the interim absence of a President will not impair the critical work of the organization. The Department of Economic and Community Development will work with MTI’s exceptional staff to ensure a smooth and seamless transition.”

Martin said Thursday that the governor’s decision surprised him. He declined to comment when asked if there had been ongoing friction between him and the administration.

In a separate statement, Martin said he is “extremely proud” of the work he did and the national recognition the organization received during his tenure, and how he approached his job. Inc. magazine recently featured MTI in a story on state-based economic development programs.

Companies that have received MTI funding include Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co., which is developing technology to harness tidal power Down East, and CashStar, also in Portland, which produces digital gift cards for companies including Starbucks and Best Buy.

“I sought to challenge the status quo, remain apolitical, and fiercely defended the independent status of the organization, and the rules for its investments, as defined in its charter,” Martin wrote.

News of Martin’s departure shocked Alan Caron, executive director of Envision Maine, who had a meeting scheduled with Martin on Thursday morning. When he arrived at the institute’s offices in Brunswick, he was pulled aside and told Martin was no longer in charge, he said.

Caron had met with Martin on Wednesday and said there was no indication from him that it would be his last day on the job. Coincidentally, a topic of conversation was the need for economic development efforts to be insulated from politics.

Caron called the Maine Technology Institute one of the most successful economic development organizations in the country, and questioned why the governor would remove Martin.

“This is exactly why we need more insulation from politics, for these decisions can’t be made and shouldn’t be made by politicians at any level,” Caron said. “Without that, MTI just becomes a tool of the current administration or the current candidate, and that’s the worse thing that can happen to the innovation economy.”

Caron writes commentary for the Portland Press Herald.

The organization’s board learned of LePage’s decision on Wednesday, said Linda Diou, chair of the board and a consultant for Meridian Life Science.

“I don’t know any details other than a change was made,” she said. “(Martin) reports essentially to the governor and it was the governor’s decision and that’s really all I know.”

She said the board will meet Monday to discuss the change and plans for moving forward. The board can submit nominees for Martin’s successor, but names will likely not be discussed at Monday’s meeting, she said.

Diou has served on the board for roughly four years and has served as chair for less than a year. She said Martin was “very pleasurable to work with.”

The Legislature created MTI as a nonprofit in 1999 to “encourage, promote, stimulate and support research and development activity leading to the commercialization of new products and services in the state’s technology-intensive industrial sectors …”

Since 2000, MTI has invested $106 million in 1,295 technology projects in Maine, according to the organization. That amount has leveraged more than $173 million in additional funding.

Jeff Marks, executive director of the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine, or E2Tech, said he also was surprised by Martin’s departure. He said Martin was a capable leader who prioritized the commercialization of innovative technologies as an economic development strategy.

“Maine innovators offer up some unique and creative product ideas, but Bob always felt that a sound business plan, robust commercialization strategy and experienced partner network were also critical to successful proposals for MTI funding,” Marks said. “I can’t speculate on the reasons he left, but I believe he left a positive mark on MTI and the businesses they support.”

Martin said MTI “became a national model for best practices in technology-based economic development” under his tenure.

“The increased rate of venture success, expansion of our entrepreneur-in-residence team, deeper analysis of economic data to improve our strategic investments, improved marketing to share the tremendous success stories in our portfolio, and the addition of super team members, all contributed to this success,” he said. “We even celebrate the ventures that failed, because that is part of the risk we take in the exploration of innovation.”

Martin’s ouster comes two years after his predecessor, Betsy Biemann, left the job. After five years at MTI’s helm, Biemann resigned abruptly in June 2012 after clashing with LePage over his veto of a $20 million research and development bond.

There was no word on Thursday of who would replace Martin. LePage can nominate a candidate, who would face a Senate confirmation in the Legislature.

LePage nominated Martin for the MTI position in August 2012. Martin had held executive-level positions with businesses across the country, most recently as managing partner of Strategic Equity Partners LLC. At the time, LePage said Martin’s “extensive background in all facets of the private sector, including technology development and marketing, will provide MTI with new and creative strategies to help Maine entrepreneurs successfully position themselves in the global marketplace.”

Martin on Thursday said he looks forward to the future and remaining involved in Maine’s innovation community.

“I think this will be a tremendous springboard,” Martin said. “I’ve met a lot of really interesting and effective people and I plan to take advantage of those contacts.”

Staff Writer Whit Richardson can be reached at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: whit_richardson

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