UML Pitches Life Sciences Plan

12/28/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy

BOSTON -- UMass Lowell officials are hoping an immediate infusion of cash from the state will jump-start plans to construct the new UMass Lowell Innovation Center for Life Sciences near LeLacheur Park, a project that could become a model for regional economic development.

Chancellor Marty Meehan presented his case yesterday to the Massachusetts Life Science Center, seeking $4 million in state funds to build a new East Campus facility that will house the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center at UMass Lowell.

While the proposal has drawn praise from Gov. Deval Patrick and industry leaders, one Patrick administration official yesterday seemed to want to put the breaks on immediate funding.

Without money to build a facility for the university's upstart medical-device program, Meehan said "the project is in trouble."

The new facility for UMass Lowell's "M2D2" program will be located in a vacant historic building near LeLacheur Park that has been gutted and is ready for construction.

UMass Lowell plans to contribute $1 million of its own money, raise $1 million from the private sector, and use $1 million in equipment from the federal government.

M2D2 is a collaborative effort between UMass Lowell and the UMass Medical School In Worcester, designed to help small life-science companies research and develop innovative products that can be designed and commercialized.

Through this public-private partnership, Meehan said the university can be successful in generating jobs and revenue for the state by helping life science start-ups develop marketable, medical devices at a time when venture capital appears to be drying up.

The M2D2 Center has already worked with companies like Kazak in Woburn, Vista Scientific in Andover and VasoTech in Worcester to help develop a "portable" jaws of life, an antibiotic contact lens that treats glaucoma, and a biodegradable drug eluding stent.

Meehan and center co-director Stephen McCarthy, a professor of plastics engineering, said if the money was approved today the center would be up and running by June. Both anticipate the M2D2 center could help bring at least 11 new products to market a year.

Both Gov. Deval Patrick and Secretary of Economic Development Dan O'Connell have expressed enthusiasm for the project.

But Undersecretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez said $4 million for UMass Lowell's M2D2 center would all but clean out the Life Science Center's $25 million budget.

He suggested looking for other sources of funding while waiting for the legislature to take up the governor's $1 billion life-science initiative early next year.

Gonzalez said it might be smarter to wait to see if the legislature approves the governor's proposal, which could include $25 million a year for 10 years to fund research and new facilities.

Meehan doesn't want to wait that long.

The chancellor told the Life Science Center board that he sees the UMass M2D2 program as a potential model in the state for regional economic development. Because the university is ready to have the new center up and running almost immediately, Meehan said the UMass Lowell center can be pointed to as an example of success to sway legislative support for the governor's life science initiative.

"We think it will help move the legislature because the fact is this will create revenue and jobs throughout the state," Meehan said.

The M2D2 Center received a $500,000 grant last week from the John Adams Innovation Institute. The UMass Lowell center has also taken in $1.3 million grants from the National Institutes of Health.

While the money from the Life Science Center could be appropriated immediately, waiting for the legislature to act could take many more months. The board could vote as soon as its next meeting in January on the M2D2 project.