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Big boost for small stuff

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online.

By Ethan Forman
Staff Writer

LOWELL -- The University of Massachusetts Lowell nanotechnology manufacturing center yesterday won $5 million in a first-of-its-kind award under the state's economic stimulus package and the John Adams Innovation Institute.

The center is seen as a test kitchen for nanotechnology manufacturers that might serve to take small-scale breakthroughs at a billionth of a meter from the lab to the factory.

The award goes toward the creation of a statewide Center of Excellence at the Nanomanufacturing Center.

The university, a leader in plastics and materials research, is creating a center that will concentrate on how to make things in bulk at a level a thousand times smaller than the width of human hair.

The idea is to take materials, or minuscule electronics, that might take days to synthesize on a small scale in the lab, and ramp up production so that they can be commercially produced and shipped by the boat, truck or tanker load.

The manufacturing process must be precise, since materials behave differently near the molecular level. Ultimately, the university hopes to tap the skilled, high-tech work force of the Merrimack Valley and Greater Massachusetts so that new, small-scale products will lead to new jobs.

"Our focus is going to be on the scale up from the laboratories," said UMass Lowell Chancellor William C. Hogan, who said the center would leverage nanotechnology expertise to create new products and jobs at nearby companies.

While the word "nanotechnology" has become "overworked," Hogan stressed the economic potential for it, which stretches across scientific disciplines.

The creation of a bricks-and-mortar center could cost $30 million, Hogan said, but yesterday's money will go toward nanomanufacturing research.

The money will not go toward a new building or fundamental research, but toward ways to create the reliable processes that might one day allow the companies to commercialize materials, electronics and biopharmaceutical drugs.

UMass Lowell Nanomanufacturing Center Director Julie Chen said the goal is to bridge the "valley of death" between a successful outcome in the lab and the manufacturing of a product.

"What we are looking for is not just for the cover of 'Science,'", Chen said. The center would be a place where companies could come to perfect nanomanufacturing processes.

Nanotechnology is "the biggest little word in history," said state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, who was present in the Trustees Room at Cumnock Hall when Massachusetts Technology Collaborative Executive Director Mitchell Adams delivered the $5 million check to Hogan.

Lowell officials, including Mayor Armand Mercier, took part in the ceremony. Also on hand was Robert J. Halpin, president and CEO of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council.

"Every manufacturer across the region right now has their eye on this technology," he said.

The award yesterday comes from the economic stimulus package, which created the $20 million University Investment Fund managed by the John Adams Innovation Institute, a division of the quasi-public economic development agency the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. The grant requires the university to match the money.

State Rep. Thomas A. Golden Jr. said the center will help the entire Merrimack Valley, not just Lowell. Large corporations and start-ups will benefit, he said.

John Adams Innovation Institute Director Patrick Larkin arrived just after the check passing photo opportunity due to yesterday's snowstorm. After joking about that, he said UMass Lowell's nanotechnology center is exactly the type of thing the institute was looking to fund.

"We would really like to see it as a prototype in the state," he said.

Panagiotakos joked about a conversation he had with state Rep. David A. Nangle, D-Lowell, when he said nanotechnology sounds like "something from the 'Mork and Mindy' show."

Money to build an actual nanomanufacturing center is tied up in the higher education bond bill, Panagiotakos said. But the Lowell campus gets about $5 million a year for all its capital projects, not enough to sock away for the center.

Panagiotakos said the idea would be to move the money to another pocket, under the bond cap of Administration and Finance for economic development.

Gov. Mitt Romney supported spending $19.5 million for the center in a supplemental budget earlier this year, but the Legislature failed to fund the proposal, according to a press release.

Already, the university's work on nanotechnology has paid off with the spin-off of a company called Konarka Technologies, which uses technology developed at the university to create flexible photovoltaic solar cells to generate power from sunlight.

Researchers at UMass Lowell, according to the university's Web site, have also been looking at ways to create "smart" bandages that can store human growth factor proteins to speed up the healing of wounds.

They have created polymer nanospheres, tiny balls that can pass through the skin and deliver medications like insulin without a needle. The promise extends to toxic cancer drugs, which do not dissolve in water, allowing for smaller doses that might be more effective.

The center is also part of a collaborative effort with Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire that received $12.4 million from the National Science Foundation earlier this year. This money will create the Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing among the three schools.

"This is the model," said Adams. "Because it demonstrates how we can leverage other funding sources." Adams said the UMass nanomanufacturing center is the perfect nexus of academia and industry.

"This is just the kind of collaboration we need to feed the new economy," Adams said.