By Todd Feathers
LOWELL -- Tom O'Donnell swooped his hand upward, like an airplane taking off at an extreme angle, to demonstrate the rapid growth of an exponential curve.
"We're at an inflection point," said UMass Lowell's senior director of innovation initiatives.
He stood feet away from office space being used by startups developing environmentally sustainable fish food, a first-of-its-kind ankle brace for horses, and artificial intelligence for image recognition.
Nearby, a 3D printer flashed a completed job message. On the floor above, entrepreneurs in lab coats developed the next generation of medical devices. On the floor below, construction was underway on a cutting-edge robotics and textile research space.
O'Donnell oversees the operations at 110 Canal St., home of UMass Lowell's Innovation Hub, Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center, and, soon, the Fabrics Discovery Center. The building, which stands among the dirt and weed-filled parcels that are slowly transforming into the Hamilton Canal Innovation District, is the Petri dish out of which many people hope Lowell's future economy will grow.
It is an exciting time there. About 60 startups operate out of the building and three that got their start there -- Invitrometrix, Horsepower Technologies, and invisaWear -- recently received the first loans from a new, $1 million fund operated by the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation.
The Innovation Hub opened several years ago, and there's a tangible feeling that it has reached a critical mass and is producing the results it was meant to.
"There's a real culture that's starting to begin here," said Mouli Ramani, president and CEO of Horsepower Technologies. "There's actually a community that's starting to get built here. In the hallway you meet someone and get a new business model or new business opportunity."
Lowell may never be Kendall Square, the Cambridge tech hub where startups are almost as common as degrees from MIT and Harvard, but the city is positioning itself to be an attractive, economical alternative for entrepreneurs.
"I don't think startups should be spending too much money on real estate so the availability of resources and cheaper space is a healthy thing," said Ian Mashiter, director of entrepreneurship activities at Boston University and a member of Launchpad Venture Group, a Boston-based coalition of angel investors who exchange seed money for equity in promising startups.
Lowell is close enough to Boston to have access to the city's angel investors and venture capital firms but small enough that it isn't oppressed by traffic gridlock and astronomical rents.
"I'm sort of a tech enthusiast so I would say it's exactly the right thing to do," Mashiter said of the city's wager on the startup economy. "These are the businesses of tomorrow. These are the businesses that can create jobs."
The city's economic development office has a desk in 110 Canal St. and is aggressively encouraging any developer interested in the Hamilton Canal Innovation District to include startup-ready office space in their plans.
In a coordinated effort, the Lowell Development and Financial Corporation's Launch in Lowell fund is offering $100,000 loans -- at 3 percent interest rates -- for startup companies that commit to staying in the city.
The benefits are expected to reach far beyond the startups in 110 Canal St. The vision is to create a tech economy that builds upon itself and pours money, and jobs, back into the city.
"We're drawing from New Hampshire, we're drawing from the Boston-Cambridge area, we're drawing from the (Interstate) 495 area," said Steve Tello, UMass Lowell's associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development.
"Our job is to attract the little companies, the little fish," he added. "The more little fish we attract to the entrepreneurial research ecosystem, the more big companies, or big fish, we'll attract."
Fluctuating lines ran across Abiche Dewilde's computer screen, a real-time analysis of liver cells sitting in a freezer across the hall.
The results, indecipherable to anyone without an advanced degree in biomedical engineering, are the product of a new device for studying reactions in cells that Dewilde and her young company, Invitrometrix, hope will change the way drug makers test their products and oncologists prescribe them.
It's on the verge of being a multi-million-dollar idea.
An investment from UMass Lowell's River Hawk New Venture Fund and a Launch in Lowell loan allowed Invitrometrix to hire several employees and move into the third floor of Boott Mills South, where it operates out of two small offices, a lab the size of a child's bedroom, and a converted closet.
Dewilde is now pursuing her next round of funding: $3.5 million that will help Invitrometrix put its device on the market by 2019.
During a recent meeting with investors in the Boston area, she brought up the startup culture in Lowell.
"One person turned around to us and said 'Lowell is starting to be a thing now,'" Dewilde said. "It's starting to get that recognition."
The reputation to attract other startups is important for a company like Invitrometrix. Even though Podium Data, the big data firm down the hall, and Lavoie Industries, which makes thermal imaging masks for firefighters upstairs, don't overlap industries with Dewilde's company, there's value for a scientist-turned founder in being able to discuss things like hiring a CEO or courting investors with others in the same situation.
With UMass Lowell providing the incubator and entrepreneurial starter kit and LDFC offering the loans, the next important piece is space in which companies can grow and collaborate. O'Donnell said 110 Canal St. is at around 90 percent capacity and isn't designed for companies that are ready to start hiring and producing in mass.
Farley White, which owns Boott Mills South, is positioning the renovated mill to be that space.
Dozens of empty clean rooms and labs surround Invitrometrix in the third floor's maze-like hallways. Farley White has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit them, betting that they will soon be filled with innovative young companies.
"I hope we have 20 companies in that space, 15 companies in that space, a couple years from now," said John Power, a principal and founder of Farley White. "That's truly going to generate the kind of businesses that, long-term, connect to the city and generate growth, which is what we need in Lowell. Lowell needs to roll into its next vision. It needs to start to create its own sort of fusion, the sun-keeps-burning-on-its-own kind of thing."
Those who found startups, invest in them, or act as their landlords know that innovation is a risky business. It's a truism in places like Silicon Valley and Boston that most startups fail and do so quickly.
It's possible that the same will be true for initiatives in cities that go all-in on the startup economy. Just about every community with a university of any size is developing incubators along the lines of 110 Canal St., and competition is fierce.
But there's a reason Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash make a point of visiting Lowell and the Innovation Hub on a regular basis, O'Donnell said. Special things are happening there.
"That's where 90 percent of startups fail. It's not the technology, it's not the market, it's the execution," he said, adding "I think the region -- this city specifically -- is doing a terrific job."