A bandage that alerts you when it’s time to remove it. Shrink wrap on a bridge that electronically detects the tiniest of cracks. A soup can label programmed to display a dozen different languages.
It may sound like the stuff of sci-fi movies, but the future of printed and flexible electronics is closer than you think. And thanks to a $4 million grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, that future is taking root right here at UMass Lowell.
Gov. Charlie Baker announced the four-year MassTech grant, which will fund the university’s new Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC), before a standing-room-only crowd at the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center on Jan. 13.
Under the direction of Craig Armiento
, professor in electrical and computer engineering, PERC will connect Massachusetts businesses big and small with the expertise of university researchers, providing students with cutting-edge experiential learning opportunities.
“This is exactly the sort of thing that we should do more of,” said Baker, who joked that he wasn’t sure how much credit he deserved for the announcement since it was only his second day on the job as governor. “I love the idea of creating relevant opportunities for kids, relevant opportunities for faculty, leveraged by resources from the public and private sector.”
Citing the university’s long and successful history of cultivating business partnerships, Chancellor Marty Meehan said PERC “will be a model for academic and industry collaboration.”
“We are grateful to the Commonwealth for its investment,” Meehan said. “This type of collaboration creates innovation, jobs, workforce development — all of which serve our mission here at this university, but also the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
In good company
The grant is the third of its kind awarded by MassTech’s Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant Program, a $50 million capital fund created in 2012 to support research projects that spur innovation, cluster development and job growth. Matched by $12 million in industry support, the grant will outfit laboratories and research space at the Saab Center, home of the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI).
Raytheon is one of the founding members of the collaborative, along with Rogers Corp. of Burlington, SI2 Technologies of Billerica, MicroChem of Westborough, Triton Systems of Chelmsford, MC10 of Cambridge and FLEXcon of Spencer.
“These are the engines that drive the economy of the Commonwealth, and even more importantly, they’re the companies that hire our students when they graduate,” said Vice Provost of Research Julie Chen
, a MassTech board member.
While the initial focus of PERC will be on supporting the state’s defense cluster in printed electronics, the technologies are expected to also have future uses in health care, telecommunications and renewable energy. As more and more companies join the collaborative, Chen says the resulting industry cluster “will be competitive globally” in what’s currently a $16 billion market.
In terms of interdisciplinary research, Chen says the collaborative will draw on expertise in electromagnetics, optics, functional inks, polymers and nanomanufacturing. “And it will all bring together the ability to draw 3D structures on a computer and print them out of conductive and nonconductive materials as easily as we print things today out of red, green and blue ink,” she said. “It leads to the possibility of portable, lightweight, conformal things that embed our everyday lives, everything from communications and power to things like nano devices for drug discovery and diagnostics. … It will affect our health and everyday life.”
MassTech CEO Pamela Goldberg said the expansion of the university’s research and development facilities, along with the training opportunities made possible at PERC, “will help drive growth in the defense sector and beyond.”
Several members of the business and technology communities were on hand for the announcement, along with the Lowell legislative delegation — State Sens. Eileen Donoghue and Michael Barrett and State Reps. David Nangle, Thomas Golden and Rady Mom.
UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson and UMass Medical School Chancellor Michael Collins also attended, along with Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy and City Councilors Corey Belanger and John Lahey.
Noting that Saab Center is where he held his first public event after jumping into the governor’s race in 2013, Baker said he was happy to see things coming full circle and “celebrate the next act associated with what has been happening here.”