PORTLAND, Maine — If people arrived as pessimists at a forum Thursday morning about the future of Maine’s paper and pulp industries, most left with at least a bit more optimism.

With recent headlines focused on the closure of the East Millinocket paper mill, layoffs at Lincoln Paper and Tissue and potential pain that could result from the proposed merger of Verso Paper and NewPage, it’s no wonder people have a dim view of the pulp and paper industries in Maine.

But two speakers at Thursday’s forum, which was sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine, commonly referred to as E2Tech, countered those negative headlines with positive stories of innovation and economic vitality at their mills — one pulp, the other paper.

“Today you’re going to be wowed by a 150-year-old mill that has come back and is really very, very strong,” Donna Cassese, manager of Sappi Fine Paper’s mill in Westbrook, told the audience.

Interestingly, it’s Maine’s oldest operating paper mill that is leading the way on the innovation front.

The mill, built in 1854, produced traditional paper products for 150 years. But in 2001, the mill restructured to focus on producing release papers, a type of paper it began making in the 1940s that is used in manufacturing products that require a certain texture.

“There was no way we could complete [on commodity printing and publishing papers],” Cassese said. “My paper machine in the mill [dates to] 1905, so that is not the kind of paper machine you want to compete with against the best of the best, but it is an awesome machine to make what we make.”

As a reflection of how far innovation has taken the mill, Cassese likes to say her mill doesn’t even make paper anymore.

“We do not sell paper, we sell texture,” she said.

The mill now produces 40 percent of the world’s supply of release paper, which is used by Sappi’s customers to provide the texture on products like soccer balls, shoes and high-end clothing. The release paper begins as a basic cellulose-based paper, but in the mill a special coating is applied.

“And this is where it goes from the ridiculous to the sublime,” Cassese said in explaining the process. “So we start on this centuries-old paper machine and the way we put the coatings on and cure it is with electron beams — very, very high tech. This is not your grandfather’s paper mill.”

That type of release paper is 10 times more valuable than the printing and publishing paper the Westbrook mill used to produce, and which most Maine mills still do, Cassese said.

All of this is possible because of Sappi’s R&D capabilities. In a building across the street from the mill, 40 scientists work on developing new products and improving existing ones.

“We put our money where our mouth is,” Cassese said. “We have a goal in our company that 20 percent of revenue comes for products innovated in the last five years. So we’re very serious about how important this is for us.”

There are also innovative things going on in the pulp industry. Old Town Fuel and Fiber has successfully shown with its pilot project that it can take wood pulp and, instead of baling it and selling it to papermakers, turn it into cellulosic sugars that can be used like other sugars derived from corn or sugar cane. The mill, which is owned by New York-based private equity firm Patriarch Partners, is currently in the process of getting the necessary permits to begin construction on a demonstration project that will transform that wood pulp-derived sugar into 40,000 gallons of ethanol a day, said Darrell Waite, process manager at the mill.

The mill’s innovation was driven by a “fail-fast-forward-type mentality,” Waite said Thursday morning. “Keep trying, keep trying, keep trying until you fail, then back up, re-evaluate and keep trying, keep trying, keep trying. It’s really speed to development, speed to market.”

The pulp mill currently employs roughly 210 and Waite said at least 30 jobs will be added late next year as the demonstration project comes online.

At the same time, Old Town Fuel and Fiber is working with a number of third parties to produce even higher-value products from the fermentation of its wood pulp-derived sugar, such as jet fuel and bioplastics, Waite said. There’s no promise these future processing facilities will be based in Maine, but “it’s very likely,” as it makes the most sense to co-locate with the pulp mill facilities, Waite said.

The technology Old Town is developing to convert wood pulp into cellulosic sugars and ethanol has the potential to be licensed to other pulp mill operations in Maine and around the world, Waite said.

“There are dozens of mills across the country, across the U.S. and Canada, that are either shuttered completely, partially shuttered or have excess capacity that could use this technology, actually bolt it on to their existing process, and give them the option to be profitable,” Waite said.

An integral part of the innovations going on in Old Town is the mill’s collaboration with the University of Maine. Partnering with the university and its Forest Bioproducts Research Institute can give paper and pulp mills the opportunity to take advantage of R&D capabilities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

However, besides the innovations with conversion going on at Old Town Fuel and Fiber, Bob Rice, a UMaine professor of wood science, said there’s no silver bullet technology being developed at the university that has the potential to reinvent Maine’s pulp and paper industries.

“There are no huge ideas sitting out there that are suddenly going to pop on the market at this point in time that will gain us a huge competitive advantage in a market such as pulp and paper,” Rice said. “But over time I think we’ll see some conversions like to alcohol, and then it’s a question of what do the economics look like.”

Sappi’s Westbrook mill and Old Town Fuel and Fiber may offer reasons to be optimistic about the future of the pulp and paper industries, but not all paper mills in Maine have the capital or wherewithal to completely reinvent themselves overnight.

In the end, Cassese said, it’s all about each mill figuring out what it does well and focusing on how to leverage that for a competitive advantage. In Sappi’s Westbrook mill, that happened to be textures, Cassese said.

“That’s what I think is the most important thing for any business, whether you’re 150 years old or whatever it is: What are you really good at and how are you unique, and how can you capitalize that into a future growth strategy?” she said in an interview after the morning’s forum. “That’s what it really boils down to.”

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.