State Awards UML $11.3 Million for Advanced Textile Manufacturing

architect's rendering of the new Fabric Discovery Center
Architect's rendering of the Lowell Fabric Discovery Center.

By David Perry

Can the university help launch a 21st century textile boom of smart fibers and wearable electronics?

That’s what the state is banking on with Gov. Charlie Baker’s May 31 announcement of $11.3 million for UMass Lowell to establish a Fabric Discovery Center and to support its industry partnerships.

“Massachusetts is a competitive player in the global innovation economy because of our leadership in technology, strong workforce and educational institutions,” Baker said. “This investment will ensure we continue to see that success and growth outside of Greater Boston, and that Lowell will have an opportunity to return to the center of the textile industry.”

It’s been decades since the city’s mills hummed, but the state award – $10 million to create a hub where researchers and industry can collaborate on next-generation smart fabrics and $1.3 million to support a trio of projects with industry partners S12 Technologies and Raytheon – sets the stage for Lowell’s emergence as a 21st-century textile powerhouse.

According to the Baker administration, the funding will allow UMass Lowell to acquire the specialized equipment needed to develop materials that can be used in flexible, hybrid electronics. Combined with more than $2 million in federal and industry funds for these projects, the investments will help spur future innovations and provide the resources to bring new technology from concept to commercialization.

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at UMass Lowell Fabric Discovery Center announcement. Image by Tory Germann
Baker made the announcement at the university’s Innovation Hub at 110 Canal St., a renovated manufacturing building in downtown Lowell. The building’s third and fourth floors now house the university’s two business incubators – the Innovation Hub and the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2). The state funding will be used to transform the first and second floors of the building into the Fabric Discovery Center.

There will be room for prototyping and testing next-generation materials, a start-up incubator for emerging businesses and space for workforce development efforts. There will even be space in which fashion entrepreneurs can create runway-ready fabrics.

The space-age fabrics that officials envision are largely “smart” fabrics, with sensors and communications features, said Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation at UMass Lowell. The high-tech inventions can be woven into designs to do everything from detecting dehydration in soldiers to monitoring buildings for leaking pipes, she said.

“With our ongoing leadership in the development of advanced fibers and textiles, medical textiles and flexible electronics, today’s announcement continues UMass Lowell’s strong partnership with Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, NextFlex, the U.S. Army and the Commonwealth to build the future of high-tech manufacturing in Lowell and across the nation,” said UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.

UMass President Marty Meehan said the university’s roots date back to 1895 as the Lowell Textile Institute, an institution founded to educate workers who came to the Mill City for the textile boom.

“It takes partnership, and there’s not a community that does partnership the way Lowell does,” said Meehan, noting the “innovation ecosystem” – a critical mass of entrepreneurs, startups, university researchers and creative talent – that has developed in the city. Not only will industry have access to the university’s research and business development support, but also a pipeline for highly skilled workers, he said.

State Sen. Eileen Donoghue described the new venture as “on the cutting edge of the cutting edge.”

“There was a feeling for a long time that textiles were part of Lowell’s past, but not its future. Lowell has become the leader of the technological revolution that once seemed so disruptive,” she said.

The Fabric Discovery Center is a perfect fit for the Innovation Hub, where concepts, in the hands of small business, move from idea to industry.

“It benefits UMass Lowell, it benefits the community, [and] it benefits the Hamilton Canal District,” where a state-funded $200 million judicial center is under construction, Baker noted.