Getting Ready to Fly

08/06/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By REBECCA LIPCHITZ
Sun Staff

LOWELL The lives of Lowell's former mill workers were ruled by bells, ringing morning and night to signify the beginning and end of work, mealtime, even church-going.

The sounds of industry bouncing off the walls of the Wannalancit Mill have changed from clacking, churning looms to phones, faxes, conversation and quick well-heeled footsteps, occasionally interrupted by the so-called "revenue bell."

But this brass bell, which can be found hanging on the wall outside Paul Wormser's office, is not rung as a warning to workers; rather, it's done in celebration, when one of the businesses in residence has something to ring about.

Four start-up businesses are currently working from the Wannalancit Mill in partnership with the university in their business incubator program, a division of the school's Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property department.

Since opening in 1998, the incubator has attracted $60 million of venture capital for its startups, many of which have achieved success upon entering the marketplace independently.

According to Wormser, about one in every 10 startups survives in the marketplace, but five of every ten developed in the incubator succeed.

The program's greatest success story to date is Konarka Technologies, a company that creats small, lightweight flexible solar panels. The business was born from a scientific discovery at UMass Lowell.

As former president and co-founder, Wormser helped deliver Konarka into the marketplace. Now he has returned to the university incubator as an entrepreneurial associate, providing financial, strategic and inspirational support to help launch start-up businesses.

The transition of Konarka from idea to business was performed by such people as start-up business expert Howard Berke, and Wormser, who was brought in as a domain expert in the energy industry.

Konarka's partnership with UMass Lowell was one of many unusual advantages the company had, Wormser says. Also, through the friendships of the company's founder and visionary, Dr. Sukant Tripathy, Nobel laureates were brought to its board of directors.

"(Tripathy) did quite a lot more than lead the technology team," Wormser said. "He got people excited about it. People met him and shook his hand, and could then dedicate their life to working with him."

Tripathy died in Hawaii during a swimming accident in December 2000, just a month away from launching the company. But university Chancellor William Hogan was determined not to let the idea die with him, and handed the baton to Berke and Wormser.

Even at its early stages, investors were interested in Konarka, and Berke knew who to go to, Wormser says. They tapped into the labor pool abandoned by Polaroid; engineers with expertise in coating chemicals on rolls of plastic. Thirteen months later, Konarka was an independent company.

"That very rarely happens," Wormser says. "Things aligned, time and time again."

As of August, Wormser left Konarka and now helps develop companies at UMass. The other half of his job includes licensing and marketing the intellectual property of the university.

He filled a post at the incubator vacated by Marty Anenberg, and his presence is appreciated by entrepreneurs in the program.

"Paul brings a lot to it," says Timothy Looney, president and CEO of Atrox Technologies Corp., an incubator business. Looney says Wormser knows how to make businesses happen and inspire entrepreneurs.

"They went big guns. There's a real benefit to having him back," Looney says.

Wormser says his work with young companies is on "the other side" of business development than it was with Konarka. While he was asked to join that company for his expertise in the energy industry, the skills that make a good entrepreneur are transferrable, he says.

"What makes a company tick? What markets will make the cash register ring?" Wormser asks. "We expect them to have expertise in their domain, but there is a common core of what goes into a business plan."

The challenges of launching a startup are mounting, he says. The hurdles for winning investments are growing higher and higher.

"VCs are looking for you to have more of your act together. They want you to have customers," he says.

But the focus of his work has shifted from simply how to get a company off the ground, to including weighing the benefits to the university.

"We want to be seen as a lightning rod for entrepeneurship, campuswide," Wormser says.

Students at UMass are employed by the startups, giving the companies a talent pool and giving students an opportunity to work in "the real world," with a chance to move up in a company they helped start.

Wormser's concerns now include providing students with good opportunities, and providing the regional economy with with sustainable jobs.

"Venture capital companies don't care about that. I'm much more involved in the day-to-day operations of the business."

Entrepreneurs interested in joining the incubator program are often people who have worked hard to develop a technology, and have an excellent concept of it, but haven't yet demonstrated that it will sell.

"If the technology is compelling enough, maybe the university will help, but technology (itself) is insufficient for success," Wormser said. "We need some evidence, not just a dream."

Wormser's presence ensures that there is no lack of enthusiasm. He lights up at the idea of filling the mill with more aspiring business owners.

"There is a real sense of excitement with each achievement," he says. "I want to create a real buzz around here."

Rebecca Lipchitz's e-mail address is rlipchitz@lowellsun.com .