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Nanotech center a step toward growing jobs

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online.

By Ethan Forman
Staff Writer

HAVERHILL -- The creation of a nanotechnology manufacturing center in the Merrimack Valley will be a plus for the region, said William H. Guenther, founder and president of Mass Insight Corp.

The trick will be in how to leverage the center's research and development into real-world products and jobs.

"This is the next wave of stuff," said Guenther about plans for The Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The project is a cross-state collaboration among the University of New Hampshire, Northeastern University and UMass Lowell, which has expertise in materials and plastics research.

Through it, UMass Lowell would bring products developed in the lab to the factory for mass production. The center is being paid for by a $12.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation announced earlier this month.

But, Guenther noted, nanotechnology refers to the minuscule scale on which products are made, not to a discipline like biotechnology or electronics. Nanotechnology research needs to be focused, he said, in order to create products whose manufacturing will lead to jobs.

"The problem is no one knows where nanotechnology is going," he said.

Guenther's comments came Friday at the quarterly meeting of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, attended by 40 business leaders and officials from across the region.

Guenther's group spearheads debate, research and action on economic-development issues facing Massachusetts. The group favors collaboration between businesses and universities, both public and private.

Mass Insight's science and technology initiative focuses on maintaining the state's leadership in high tech, with the goal of expanding the role of universities and teaching hospitals as a driver of the Bay State economy.

In July, Guenther's group published a report, "Choosing to Lead: The Race for National R&D Leadership and New Economy Jobs."

Guenther warned Massachusetts must maintain its edge in high technology, or see its dominant position overtaken by other states like North Carolina or countries like India or China.

"We have a great game here in Massachusetts," Guenther said. "But others have learned how to play it."

The state's population is not growing as fast as others and it is losing young workers to other regions. The state also is slowly hemorrhaging research and development dollars, while at the same time it attracted $2 billion in research and development in defense, more than it did for scientific research.

Much of that money headed to Hanscom Air Force Base and Natick Labs.

"They are not bases," Guenther said, noting that their research mission overshadows their pure military one. "They are key research facilities."

Still, the state lacks a strategy to bring together high technology and higher education, he said. And, the state needs to spend more on higher education. The average per-pupil expenditure at UMass Amherst is $9,907, he said, while at the University of California Berkeley, it's $16,242 a student.

But the state has taken some positive steps. He praised the $100 million economic stimulus package passed earlier this year, a measure that provides technology matching grants to companies.

"We should give a great deal of credit to the governor and the Legislature for passing the economic stimulus bill, but we should remember it's one-time money," he said.

Those attending the meeting included its co-chairmen, Eagle-Tribune Publisher Irving E. "Chip" Rogers III and Lowell Sun Publisher Kendall M. Wallace.