Merrimack Valley Magazine
By Kathleen Pierce
When the Class of 2016 steps onto the campus of UMass Lowell for the first time, the Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center will beckon as a gleaming totem toward the future. In the next-generation building, students, professors and leading-edge companies such as Raytheon and Boston Scientific will make discoveries that could rock the universe.
“The seeds of the next industrial revolution will be planted by the research conducted inside this building,” UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan told the crowd at the center’s groundbreaking last summer.
The sleek, $70 million, LEED certified, green building dedicated to nanotechnology, plastics engineering, biomedicine and electro-optics is expected to change the region and transform the Merrimack Valley’s innovation footprint when it opens in September 2012.
“We think we’ve only really scratched the surface,” said Julie Chen, the school’s vice provost for research.
The university has burnished its reputation as a research facility, and the ETIC should further cement its standing by attracting professors to campus and companies into the region. According to Chen, students will help “translate scientific discoveries that companies can actually implement into a product. An example is medical sensors.”
Another will be figuring out how to build a better smart phone. “No one department will control the center. The College of Management, located across the street, will use ETIC’s meeting space, and all departments in the school will have access to the research facility,” said Christine Gillette, media relations specialist at UMass Lowell.
The idea for the building was hatched in 2005, and the decision to build at the entrance to the North Campus was Meehan’s. The original plan called for tucking the center near the science department at the back of the campus. “Chancellor Meehan suggested we put it up front to show it off. Everybody said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ ” Chen said.
The center will have a controlled environment called a clean room. It will be designed for nano experiments so sensitive that a particle of dust could skew the results. This room will be temperature, humidity and vibration controlled, even though it is adjacent to a busy intersection at VFW Highway and University Avenue. “We made sure the foundation was solid,” Chen said.
Funded by the state, the UMass Building Authority, private donations and federal monies, the first new building to be constructed on campus in 35 years will house $25 million in the latest equipment, including a $1.2 million electron microscope.
“We will not be moving any dinosaurs into the building,” Chen said. “We are pushing for the cutting edge of the research that’s needed to make us economically competitive.”
Just as MIT turned the once-slumbering Kendall Square section of Cambridge into a hub for the life science industry, UMass Lowell could do the same for the Merrimack Valley in the nanotechnology sector. “Its advanced capabilities will attract companies up and down the I-495 and Route 128 tech corridor,” said Gillette.
A UMass professor launched Konarka, a solar-energy company based in Lowell, a decade ago. It now has offices around the world and is considered a leader in its field. Similarly, Chen expects the number of business spinoffs to multiply once the center opens. “It forms a nice partnership. A small startup or big company looking to break into an area they are not familiar with can come to the university, talk to management students about business issues, work with faculty and get solutions to technical problems. Having these pieces all in one place makes it easier for these companies to compete,” she said.
But learning remains the center’s core mission. “The key part is helping students, because they are the work force, they are the ones making the next discoveries,” Chen said.