Why one young woman stayed in Maine to help launch a business, an industry. Imagine 2,000 more like her

People in Maine often talk about the need to keep more young people from leaving the state. While that’s all well and good, let’s turn the issue around for a moment and recognize those young people who did — and continue to – stay. What kept them here, and can Maine capitalize on the opportunities those young people saw? In many cases, Maine’s young people are leading businesses, developing new technology and helping pave the way for industries that don’t even fully exist yet.

In Rachael Joyce’s case, she’s doing all three.

The 24-year-old who grew up in Bangor and Veazie is a master’s student at the University of Maine at Orono where she’s studying civil engineering. At the same time, she works full-time at the Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center where she is part of the team helping to create breakthrough offshore wind turbine technology that could not only improve Maine’s energy future but launch a new industry for the state.

But that’s not all. On the weekend, she helps her fiance, Christopher Bagley, 25, with their start-up company, Volition Ski Co., where they make hand-built skis with environmentally friendly materials. The company, which started under the name Yeti Skis, sells its custom skis at Ski Rack Sports in Bangor and Side Country Sports in Rockland, in addition to online, and began with a lot of hard work and creativity. (Bagley originally handbuilt his press using laminated beams.) It also got a jumpstart with a seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute.

“We like coming up with new ideas and seeing them through,” Joyce said.

No kidding.

Rachael Joyce, 24, of Veazie, stands with custom-built skis at Volition Ski Co., which she helps run with her fiance and the company’s founder, Christopher Bagley. | Photo by Christopher Bagley

Ingenuity is part of their daily lives. Joyce started working at the research and testing center at the university in 2007, when she was an undergraduate student majoring in civil and environmental engineering. The center draws students from a variety of academic backgrounds — design, economics, environmental studies — who get to apply their classroom knowledge in a laboratory.

The center developed the technology known as Bridge in a Backpack — a lightweight system using composite arch tubes that act as formwork and reinforcement for bridge construction. It also routinely tests companies’ materials for structural durability. Joyce has tested small samples, such as wood plastic decking, and large samples, such as hybrid composite shipping containers. Composites can be anything that combines multiple materials to make a new material.

“Basically the thought here is that you’re only limited by yourself. You can get as much from your experience here as you’re willing to put into it,” Joyce said.

She’s taken that theory to heart with the center’s high-profile, long-term endeavor: to develop offshore wind technology. Last June the university launched the first floating offshore wind turbine with a composite tower and concrete hub in the world. It’s competing with five other projects across the country for up to three federal awards of $46.6 million each, to bring the prototype wind turbine to scale.

In this photo from 2011, Rachael Joyce, of Veazie, fabricates 1:50th scale turbine blades at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine at Orono. | Photo by Bill Drake

Joyce managed the design for the accompanying DeepCLiDar buoy, which not only monitors ocean conditions but uses laser technology to detect wind conditions 40 to 200 meters in the air — and bird and bat activity. The equipment is based on technology developed by UMaine’s Physical Oceanography Group and is built to conduct wind resource assessments for full-scale floating offshore wind farms. Because it’s expensive to embed turbines in the seabed, the university’s team has designed them to float. So the wind-testing technology had to not only stand up to a harsh marine environment and transmit real-time data, it had to float, too.

The system was deployed last summer off Castine alongside a one-eighth scale version of the floating wind turbine. If the university wins the federal grant to continue developing the offshore wind development technology, it will be deployed again in more open waters off Monhegan, likely in the spring.

Not many people can say they’re part of an effort to form a new industry in Maine. But it’s natural and common for young people everywhere, not just in Maine, to leave their home state and experience other places. Does Joyce think about leaving? Why did she stay?

“I stay because I love the state of Maine and the people of Maine. Maine has everything you could want in a place to live. We have the ocean, the mountains, and a rich history with some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet. The primary reason I would consider leaving Maine would be for work. It is also the reason I stay,” she said.

Maine does have opportunities. Often, they stem from residents’ creativity and ingenuity. That spark — a way of seeing how to make a bridge more efficiently or how to turn wind in difficult locations into electricity — must be honed. It takes investment in research and development, connecting like-minded individuals, and supporting entrepreneurs like Joyce and her future husband. People might think that if Maine had more jobs, it could draw more young people. Others might think if Maine had more young people, they could spur more job growth. But one doesn’t have to be wholly dependent on the other, and the state likely won’t have that luxury. Maine’s going to have to retain and draw people to the state and create jobs at the same time.

How? It can recognize what it’s doing right — and who is doing it — and build from there. It’s called asset-based community development. Maine cannot lag when it comes to supporting its hardest workers — such as with a continuously funded seed capital tax credit program to reduce risk for would-be investors; a more robust, dependable research and development program; or more private venture capital foundations targeting Maine endeavors. Mainers are renowned for their ingenuity, and the state can do more to capitalize on that fact.

“My thought is that if I can put the legwork in while I’m young to have a hand in business start-ups like Volition Ski Co., and offshore wind development, including the DeepCLiDar technology, maybe someday myself and other young graduates won’t have to look outside the state for work,” Joyce said.

If Maine had, say, just 2,000 more people focused on the same goal, imagine how the economy would grow.

“My hope is that new industry flourishes as a result of the work being done at the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center,” she said. “On a smaller scale, I hope that maybe other entrepreneurs see what we are trying to do at Volition Ski Co. and be encouraged to pursue their own venture.”

Maybe that’s the other element often missing from discussions about Maine’s economy: optimism, hope. There are promising endeavors happening here. They don’t erase the state’s challenges, but they offer an idea of the way forward.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.