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Two Floors, No Ceiling on Invention

UML Business Incubator Opens in Rehabbed Canal District Building

UMass Lowell Image
Erin Keaney, co-founder and CEO of Nonspec, and Brendan Donoghue, right, a 2015 UML graduate who is an intern at Nonspec, show a prosthetic foot to UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson at UML's new incubator at 110 Canal St.

Lowell Sun
By Robert Mills

LOWELL -- Catherine Pujol-Baxley started on Tuesday about 9 a.m., the first scientist to work in the new research space at UMass Lowell's business incubator in the Hamilton Canal District.

The incubator is the first commercial property to open its doors in the Hamilton Canal District, a prominent part of the city at the edge of the downtown, long home to little but abandoned buildings and vacant lots. It makes its home on the top floor of the former Freudenberg Nonwovens mill at 110 Canal St.

Pujol-Baxley is director of research and development for KnipBio, a start-up that is engineering micro-organisms to improve the quality of food used in aquaculture, also known as fish farming.

UMass Lowell leases the top two floors of the building, with 11,000 square feet of space on each floor meant to help grow start-ups in the biotech and medical-device fields.

The facility is home to two separate but related programs -- the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, on the fourth floor, and an extension of the university's Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center, also known as M2D2, on the third floor.

Both programs provide work space to start-up companies and entrepreneurs who need space to work, but which do not yet need their own large research facilities.

"Most researchers don't need lab space for 52 weeks," said Steven Tello, the university's associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development.

Those companies can lease work and research space dedicated just to them, while sharing lab space and equipment, such as autoclaves, centrifuges, biotech safety rooms, 3D printers and more.

"That's the expensive part," Tello said.

Pujol-Baxley, working in barely 20 feet research space, said another advantage is the access to UMass Lowell biology faculty, students and other university resources.

"I have 20 years in biotech and I've been at start-ups and big companies," Pujol-Baxley said.

"This is one of the nicest spaces I have been in."

Also moving in is Steve Lufkin, CEO of Vantix Diagnostics, a start-up creating "point of care diagnostics" -- systems that will enable doctors and patients to get results from lab tests in a matter of minutes, all inside a doctor's office.

"As a company in our stage of growth, you need flexibility to have administrative space, access to excellent laboratory facilities, and at the same time have the flexibility to grow and expand," Lufkin said.

Lufkin said the space enables the company to continue its work even as it seeks more funding to fully launch its products. He echoed Pujol-Baxley in saying another benefit is access to UMass students and faculty from the medical school and engineering departments.

"When you're in the development phase, having those resources close by is so helpful," Lufkin said.

The building isn't open to the public, but the university opened its doors to businessmen and academics from across the country who are already in Lowell this week for the annual Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education.

Attendees included faculty and staff from institutions including Columbia University, MIT, Cornell, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas A&M and Florida State University.

Tello said the facility could end up benefiting the city as well as tenants, since some of the businesses started there could end up staying in Lowell, perhaps even in the commercial spaces planned for vacant lots around the building.

And as those small businesses start, grow and eventually get bought up by larger companies, those larger companies could also begin to view Lowell as an attractive site.

Tello said the facility won't impact student costs since it will pay for itself with the leases of those who work there.

Nevertheless, tenants will include current students, and one student-led company is already moving into the facility to work on developing prosthetics for people in Third World countries, according to Tello.

"We anticipate 30 to 40 entrepreneurs per floor engaged in various stages of turning ideas into innovation, and then into businesses," Meehan said. "Together, these facilities are going to support UMass Lowell's commitment to moving our research from idea into impact in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and beyond."

Meehan noted the canals running just outside the building and their connection to Industrial Revolution, when an earlier round of innovation changed the face of America.

"It's a fitting place to have an innovation hub such as this," Meehan said.

Brent Sebold, director of Arizona State University's start-up center, said his university has a similar facility known as the Skysong Center that has been very successful.

Like Meehan, Sebold said he was struck by the facility's location, where entrepreneurs are trying to start a new manufacturing revolution in an area where the American Industrial Revolution began.

"Instead of harnessing the water, they're harnessing ones and zeroes," Sebold said, in a reference to computer code. "It's cool. I really dig it."