By Hiroko Sato
LOWELL -- If Srikanth Ammu knows anything about what most cutting-edge nanomaterial-analysis equipment has in common, it's that they are nothing more than pieces of metal if you don't know how to use them.
Being able to manipulate the equipment is a skill in itself, which employers look for in job candidates, said Ammu, a ph.D. student in biomedical science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
That's because innovation requires state-of-the-art tools.
Donna Bibber, president and CEO of Micro Engineering Solutions of Charlton City, for one, has been wanting easy access to high-end analytical tools to further improve products like bio-resorbable scaffolds that are used to help build bones in plastic surgery.
For 7AC Technologies Inc. of Woburn, having a place to experiment and figure out the most cost-effective manufacturing methods for its liquid desiccant commercial/industrial air conditioning systems is essential. The company even travels out of state to find an ideal facility, said Colin Paterson, who works for the company.
Ammu, Bibber and Paterson will now have access to everything they need at UMass Lowell, as the university officially opened its $80 million Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center (ETIC) on Thursday. Complete with clean rooms, a nano characterization lab, mechanical properties testing and advanced manufacturing labs, the 84,000-square-foot ETIC houses a range of advanced machines and gadgets that industries need to compete in the global market. From nanotechnology to life science to chemical engineering, researchers, manufacturers and investors are expected to work together here to get their jobs done.
As the banner on the outside walls of the center reads, it's a place where "ingenuity meets industry."
"This new Emerging Technology and Innovation Center represents where the university is headed," said Chancellor Marty Meehan, as he stood in front of hundreds of people gathered to celebrate its grand opening Thursday morning. "(The center) will be the hub of industry partnership," he said.
Economic growth requires investment in education, innovation and infrastructure, said Gov. Deval Patrick.
"This building strikes us on all those prongs," Patrick said. "Innovation economy is our edge here in the commonwealth."
Politicians and university officials speaking at the ceremony all stressed UMass Lowell -- founded in the 1890s as the Lowell Normal and Lowell Textile schools -- has always worked with industries to develop and apply emerging technologies. But as demands for the workforce to fill "knowledge-based" jobs grows, industry partnerships are becoming more critical than ever, Meehan said.
For the university, ETIC marks a turning point in its transformation from a commuter school to a competitive university known for academia with global-class expertise.
Julie Chen, vice provost for research at the university, said the $25 million federal grant, coupled by the John Adams Innovation Institute's $5 million matching grant eight years ago propelled UMass Lowell's nanotechnology research. Now, nano manufacturing is the university's flagship expertise and is drawing industries to ETIC.
Michael Del Checcolo, vice president of Raytheon, said the company uses nanomaterials to produce various sensors and antennae and has worked with UMass Lowell to develop such products as special helmets to protect soldiers from brain injuries. Del Checcolo said at the ceremony that ETIC will help further collaboration between Raytheon and the university.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, who has pushed for federal funding for light-weight body armor, said nanotechnology is useful for developing such garments.
Meehan thanked Patrick, Tsongas, Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell and Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, who all spoke at the ceremony, as well as Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell, and Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, for their efforts to secure $35 million in state funding toward the construction of ETIC. The building also received $10 million in federal funding. But no one received more words of gratitude than former state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, who led the effort to obtain the state funding. Panagiotakos said he and fellow legislators and university officials continuously worked until the funding came through. The university and the city have a "symbiotic relationship" for local economic growth, which local residents used to take for granted decades ago, said Panagiotakos, a Lowell native.
After the ceremony, hundreds of people flooded into the gleaming technology center for a tour. Industry representatives stopped and looked at each piece of equipment and asked questions of university staff.
Akshay Phulgirkar, a Lowell resident pursuing a master's degree in chemical engineering at UMass Lowell, said being able to conduct research in the industrial-scale clean room is important because he would otherwise never know what worked in a small lab setting could apply for manufacturing.
Bibber, a 1988 UMass Lowell graduate, said having access to expensive cutting-edge technology that small companies could not afford is critical to regional economic growth.
Bibber said during her tour that she was asking herself one question: "What (is) here that we can use for our clients?"