By Prudence Brighton
LOWELL -- Recent UMass Lowell graduate Rajia Abdelaziz had a job interview scheduled with Google in California, but chose not to go. Tory Thompson was an Oracle marketing professional who decided to leave her comfortable career at the software giant.
Each woman felt the pull of entrepreneurship and rejected easier career paths. On Thursday, other risk-takers joined them at a Mass Innovation Nights event, held at UMass Lowell's Innovation Hub in the Hamilton Innovation District.
Just as the entrepreneurs felt the pull of starting a company, the university seeks to attract early stage ventures to its iHub at 110 Canal Street. The iHub "is here for a very particular reason," said Steven Tello, the university's senior associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development.
The university works closely with the city to bring startups to Lowell and keep them here. "It's part of our commitment to economic development," said Tom O'Donnell, director of the iHub. The city has space in the building to encourage startups to settle in Lowell.
"We've attracted about 45 startups to Lowell in a range of areas," Tello said as he introduced the normal program, which followed a clamorous hour of networking on the third floor of the iHub.
"We want to pull them up from Boston, down from New Hampshire, or up and down (I-495)," he said.
It was not your father's or mother's networking event.
The city helped to bring Tello's vision to reality for the night by ensuring shuttle service from the train station to Canal Street so that people from Boston and Cambridge could learn more about what's available for them in Lowell.
And when the night ended, participants wandered over to nearby Mill #5 for coffee and shopping.
During the networking hour and the program that followed, attendees were invited to blog, tweet, or post to Facebook their comments and pictures of their favorite products. The comments were streamed and projected in real time.
Experts in helping startups were on hand to promote legal, venture capital, marketing and insurance services.
People were also encouraged to vote for their favorite new product, and the top four vote getters had the chance to pitch their company and product.
Abdelaziz and Ray Hamilton, co-founders of invisaWear, described their product as "smart jewelry" that at the touch of a button sends your location to the police and designated individuals on your contact list. It targets all age groups from women on college campuses to the elderly fearing falls. For the elderly, it would replace conspicuous medical alert systems.
Abdelaziz and Hamilton took top honors for their product and received a certificate entitling them to a session of legal advice from the Choate law firm in Boston.
Thompson's love of horses led her to join a start-up called HorsePower Technologies. She is the business manager for the venture that will help horses recover from lameness. She described a legwear for injured horses that gets them moving again.
Other presenters have strong ties to the university.
Graduate students Erin Keaney and Jonathan Perez identified a need in developing countries for affordable prosthetic limbs. They developed a process that will make prostheses for a fraction of current costs. Their venture is called Nonspec.
Keaney, who completed her doctorate in mechanical engineering last spring, explained that prosthetic limbs can costs thousands of dollars, but using its process Nonspec can sell them for a mere $20. Perez finishes his doctorate this spring.
Pradeep Kurup, a professor in civil and environmental engineering, invented a device that scans tap water for heavy metals. He pointed to Flint, Michigan and four Boston school buildings to emphasize the timeliness of the device. His company, AquaTerrene, makes a small household device that will sell for about $20. Commercial-grade products are part of his plan.