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UMass angles for share of tech money

By From the Lowell Sun

By Tom Spoth
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- With the Patrick administration's top economic official in town, University of Massachusetts Lowell representatives yesterday made their pitch for a chunk of the $1 billion the governor has pledged to spend on the state's life-science industry.

The university believes it could put about $18 million to good use in promoting research and economic development, UML Chancellor Marty Meehan told Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Daniel O'Connell. The request came after O'Connell had heard several of UML's top research staff detailing their scientific breakthroughs and their partnerships with private companies in Massachusetts.

UML is in line to receive $40 million in state funding for a new center for research into bio- and nanotechnology manufacturing, which is expected to cost $80 million to build. Meehan yesterday told O'Connell the university would like to get a total of $50 million over five years for that project, as well as another $8 million to renovate a 30,000-square-foot building at Perkins and Aiken streets into an "innovation center."

The building, which is owned by the university and currently contains laboratory space used by molecular researcher Polnox and biotechnology firm Metabolix, could be ready by early 2008, according to Meehan. The research center is expected to be operational in 2010.

"This university is the engine that drives the economy of our region," Meehan said. "We see enormous potential to grow even more."

That expansion will hinge on the success of UML's efforts in nanomanufacturing, biomanufacturing, and medical-device development. Crucial to that progress will be the ability to find real-world applications for scientific breakthroughs, said Julie Chen, director of UML's Nanomanufacturing Center of Excellence.

"It's taking it from an 'a-ha' moment in the laboratory to a commercially viable product," Chen said.

Stephen McCarthy, co-director of the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2), a collaboration between UML and UMass Medical School in Worcester, lamented the fact that money is often not available for early-stage companies to test and develop their ideas.

McCarthy called the gap between invention and commercialization "The Valley of Death," and stressed the need to build a bridge by attracting investors. From M2D2's perspective, this takes money -- the center is applying for a $500,000 grant from the state's John Adams Innovation Institute, which already awarded M2D2 $150,000 earlier this year -- and more importantly, space. (That's where the bio- and nanomanufacturing center, of which M2D2 would be a part, comes in.)

O'Connell listened attentively throughout the presentation, and asked several questions.

After about two and a half hours, he offered this nugget of hope: This is a good day for me."

The $8 million innovation center might be a particularly attractive option as Patrick's $1 billion pledge is put under the microscope, he said.

"It's very important to come up with some projects that can move forward right away," O'Connell said. "We need to show the Legislature the funds are out there and being used effectively."