University’s Ecosystem of Innovation Flourishes

The campus celebrated its entrepreneurial spirit recently. Image by Tory Germann
Justin Lozier ’17 of Topacan explains his entrepreneurship strategy while Andrew Sutherland ’94 and David Tetreault ’16 look on.

By David Perry

On an evening of baseball playoffs and a penultimate presidential debate, Steven Tello had a problem.  A good problem. Fifty more people than last year were coming to the annual campus entrepreneurship celebration.

“All I could think was, where do we put them all?” the senior associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development told a packed house of students, faculty and alumni.

For Tello and the attendees, it’s all about finding a solution. This year, they fit in University Crossing’s Moloney Hall, but if the campus community of innovators keeps growing, “we may have to move to the Inn & Conference Center next year,” Tello said.

The response isn’t all that surprising for a dynamic, thriving culture of entrepreneurship and innovation now woven into every strand of UMass Lowell’s DNA.

Tracing the university’s history to Lowell’s role at the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation, noted that “the spirit of entrepreneurship is what created this university.” That spirit has been “kicked up” in recent years, Chen noted, with the promise of “turning ideas into the next invention to create a better life for all of us here. It is an amazing time.”

During the celebration, the university honored several faculty members who have helped UMass Lowell’s economic development engine purr.

Six faculty members and National Science Foundation I-Corps graduates — Xinwen Fu, Zhiyong Gu, Pradeep Kurup, Yan Luo, Xingwei Wang and Hongwei Sun — received Entrepreneurial Faculty Awards, and Kurup and Joel Therrien were Tech Venture Program winners.

Susan Braunhut, Kenneth Marx, Georges Grinstein, Stephen McCarthy, Erno Sajo and Thomas Shea were recognized for their role in UMass Lowell startup companies.

Tello also introduced the new structure of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, which now includes intellectual property and commercialization, the New Venture Development Initiative, the DifferenceMaker program and startup incubators the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2) and the Innovation Hub

 “It’s one-stop shopping for entrepreneurship” at the university, Tello said.

Panel discussions with faculty and students spotlighted some of the new ventures and products that were born in the university’s labs and classrooms.  

Award-winning DifferenceMaker students and their mentors discussed their inventions, such as Topacan, an ashtray that turns empty cans into environmentally friendly cigarette disposal units; WordPro, vocabulary-building flashcards aimed at high schoolers learning a second language; Veteran’s QRF, the web-based platform to help veterans claim their military disability benefits; and eNABLE Lowell, which uses 3D printing technology to make low-cost prosthetics for children around the world.

Since it began in 2012, the DifferenceMaker program has reached more than 20,400 students, led to the formation of 14 companies and spurred the creation of four dedicated entrepreneurial spaces and six team patents filed or approved. More than $153,000 has been awarded to students, and $368,000 has been raised by student teams.

Andrew Sutherland ’94, an alumni mentor from the Manning School of Business who calls himself “proudly selfish” to serve as a mentor to Veteran’s QRF, spoke with passion about working with a DifferenceMaker team.

“I like to talk about business, [and] love startups and entrepreneurship,” he said during the panel discussion. “The passion and enthusiasm is really infectious.” He also appreciates the cause of simplifying and improving care for military veterans.

Sutherland, who has worked in several startup ventures, didn’t have the benefit of learning from a mentor earlier in his career.

“I learned the hard way. So if I can help someone avoid pitfalls and help to accelerate good ideas, we will all benefit,” he said.