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Several metrics are helpful when it comes to measuring a city's startup friendliness. Net business creation and population growth are two of the big ones. Portland, Maine, ranks poorly in both.

At the moment, Portland is most concerned about shoring up its tech infrastructure credentials. On Monday, city officials announced the formation of a new research institute. Affiliated with Boston's Northeastern University, the Roux Institute--named after David Roux, the Silicon Valley investor and native Mainer who donated $100 million to finance the operation--is expected to serve as a graduate school and research center focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The goal is to turn a small tourism town--just 66,000 residents, according to U.S. Census data--into one of the country's largest tech hubs. It's a big experiment around a phenomenon that Inc. has been following for years now: successful startup ecosystems sprouting up around local colleges and universities. If you check out our Surge Cities index of best U.S. cities to start a business, you'll find many boasting nearby schools with high-powered business or entrepreneurship programs--from large cities like Boston and Atlanta to smaller ones like Boise, Idaho, and Greenville, South Carolina.

The Roux Institute--and Portland at large--will be particularly fascinating to watch. "If that works, then what I'm sure is going to happen is what happens in every other market around the world," Roux told The New York Times on Monday, "which is somebody looks over from Central Florida and says, 'I would like one of those.'"

Inc. editor-at-large Burt Helm happens to live in Portland. On Tuesday, he told me that this announcement reminded him of a story he wrote back in 2013 about the history of Boulder, Colorado's startup scene. Indeed, that ecosystem's formation was largely due to partnerships between the U.S. Department of Defense and the University of Colorado Boulder in the 1950s and 1960s. As local companies filled those DoD contracts, tech jobs skyrocketed. The city's economy and population grew. Both tech and nontech entrepreneurship blossomed, and Boulder remains a startup haven today.

"One key element I found was that when they persuaded a bunch of scientists to move out there (for Cold War reasons and then also for the university), the scientists found out how pretty and fun it was and wanted to stay," Helm said. "Here's hoping the folks who come to study machine learning and data analytics fall in love with [Portland's] rugged coastlines and top-notch New England-style IPAs!"