By David Perry
Fan fiction-driven scholarships. Apps for personal money management. Empowering teen girls through mentorship.
These student-generated ideas are products of the DifferenceMaker program, a driving force in the university’s growing innovation ecosystem and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Business incubators, venture competitions and support programs for campus entrepreneurs are all components of that ecosystem, one that encompasses every discipline on campus. And it’s inclusive of everyone – researchers, students, faculty, alumni and area businesses, working cooperatively to nurture innovation and foster economic development.
There are plenty of other signs of innovation on campus. An incubator space at 110 Canal St. in downtown Lowell is drawing business start-ups, attracted to its location, beehive structure and access to business and university brain trust support.
The former North Campus bookstore was converted into makerspace where students can build prototypes and test their ideas. Beyond the classroom, students interested in pursuing their dreams of building products or launching startups have numerous outlets like the Entrepreneurial Ventures Association, a campus group that meets weekly.
With these programs, UMass Lowell is filling the demands of students looking to impact the world around them, says Steven Tello, vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development.
“Creation of maker spaces, innovation centers and these pitch contests reflect an effort to excite and engage undergraduates in building new products and new ventures,” he says.
Bringing Entrepreneurship to Life
For evidence of the way the spirit of innovation has taken root on campus, one has to look no further than December’s DifferenceMaker competitions, which drew hundreds of students and dozens of faculty, alumni and community members as judges. Over three nights, the schools of engineering, business and fine arts, humanities and social sciences staged their own DifferenceMaker events, awarding thousands of dollars in prize money.
Alan Foster’s Lorebooks – created to offer writers of fan fiction college scholarships – topped the Engineering competition, earning the Mechanical Engineering major $1,000. A trio of graduate-level winners (also earning $1,000) formed Top-A-Can to safely dispose of tobacco products.
A project called Get Girls Going, designed to empower teen girls through mentorship, education and wellness, took top prize of $5,000 at the College of Fine Arts Humanities and Social Sciences DifferenceMaker event.
At the Manning School of Business pitch contest, top honors went to Banking BR, a mobile application allowing users to track, manage and monitor their spending. Digital Federal Credit Union and its CEO, Jim Regan ’88, sponsored the evening and donated the prize money.
Regan, who mentored the five finalist teams during the fall semester, said the program has created an important channel for give-and-take with students.
“It’s a learning experience for us as an organization to see what other people’s thoughts are,” he said.
Alumnus Marc Thomas ’82 came back to campus to serve as a judge in the College of Engineering’s prototype competition. Thomas, who now lives in California and is an engineer with New Power India, said he was “shocked, amazed and impressed” by the event. The emergence of students interested in making things and the availability of resources to create prototypes are evidence of the creative energy on campus.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction, putting the right tools in the students’ hands. It’s an opportunity not to just create an idea, but to see if it has legs,” he said.
It’s not just student entrepreneurs who are making use of the resources on campus. When the university’s New Venture Initiative (NVI) office offered a four-part training series for faculty on how to commercialize their research, a dozen or so people were expected for a lunchtime talk. More than 30 showed up.
Organizers knew there would be interest, but “we didn’t anticipate how much,” says director Nancy Saucier. “Entrepreneurship is increasingly not just a desire or a catch phrase. The faculty, researchers and staff are increasingly taking action to bring about more start-up activity.”
The university’s innovation ecosystem, like most thriving ecosystems, is poised for more growth.
Tello says plans call for an inter-college “hack-a-thon” to engage UMass Lowell students in developing fresh product and service solutions in the area of digital health.
The Manning School of Business has begun a course for all business school freshmen introducing them to the DifferenceMaker program. DifferenceMaker program director Holly Butler trekked to India with a group of business school faculty and students to develop of Global DifferenceMaker program with KLE Technological University.