Coalition Launches Merrimack Valley ‘Sandbox’ Initiative

12/09/2011
By For more information, contact media@uml.edu or 978-934-3224

Additional media contact: Nishith Acharya, Deshpande Foundation, 617-752-2590, Nishith@deshpandefoundation.org

Deshpande Foundation Announces $5 Million for Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell to Grow Next Generation of Leaders

LOWELL, Mass. – A coalition of organizations today announced the launch of a new initiative to build up the innovation ecosystem in the Merrimack Valley through partnerships that promote innovation and entrepreneurship in business and the community.

Called the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, the new coalition’s partners include the Deshpande Foundation, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Middlesex Community College, Northern Essex Community College, Merrimack College, Teach For America and other local non-profit organizations. The sandbox will support the new Merrimack Valley Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell, which will coordinate activities between the university and colleges, local non-profits and the business community. 

The Deshpande Foundation, based in Stoneham, will provide $5 million over the next five years for the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, which will be one of only three of its kind in the world and modeled after programs the foundation supports at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in Northern Karnataka, India. In addition, the Deshpande Foundation hopes to raise another $10 million from outside funders to supplement its funding in the region.

“We are pleased that our foundation will have the opportunity to work with such a great group of organizations. Innovation and entrepreneurship are the drivers of our economic development, and we look forward to working with the leaders in the Merrimack Valley to boost the innovation ecosystem,” said Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, chairman of the foundation and a successful high-tech entrepreneur who serves as chairman of Watertown-based A123 Systems and founder of Sycamore Networks, headquartered in Chelmsford. 

The center will fuel the innovation ecosystem through efforts to boost entrepreneurship among college students, young professionals, displaced workers, experienced professionals and existing companies. This will include providing leadership training, seed funding and capacity building support to organizations and individuals in the region.

“As the home of the Industrial Revolution, the Merrimack Valley has a strong history of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan. “This new center will be an idea generator that taps the imagination, idealism and capacity to solve problems of some of the best minds in the region. Students will partner with experienced leaders in business and nonprofits, as well as educators at all four institutions to address social challenges and spark new economic development. The entire Merrimack Valley will benefit.”

The announcement was made at the first-ever Merrimack Valley Development Dialogue, which drew more than 300 representatives of business, education, government and nonprofit organizations to the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. Speakers included Deshpande and the leaders of the four educational partners, along with Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, and Chief Technology Officer of the United States Aneesh Chopra.

“This initiative complements what Northern Essex and our other educational partners are already doing to help Merrimack Valley individuals and employers develop technology skills and a competitive entrepreneurial approach,” said Northern Essex Community College President David Hartleb. “It will allow us to bring our efforts to a new level, helping us to grow the Merrimack Valley economy in exciting new ways.”

“Middlesex Community College is proud to be a partner in this initiative. Combining the assets of the Deshpande Foundation with our expertise in entrepreneurship and that of our partner institutions, we aim to provide a network of support and resources for new and existing businesses across the valley, as well as fostering entrepreneurship among students in all disciplines and the entrepreneurial spirit of the community,” said Judith Hogan, Middlesex Community College’s dean of business, engineering and technology. “Our thanks and gratitude goes out to the Deshpande Foundation for recognizing the potential that exists and for its investment in the Merrimack Valley.”

“Merrimack College is delighted to join forces with the Deshpande Foundation and the partner institutions on this exciting new initiative that will fuel economic growth for the Merrimack Valley and provide innovative education opportunities for students,” said Merrimack College President Christopher Hopey. “This initiative underscores Merrimack’s commitment to experiential learning opportunities, entrepreneurial innovation and supporting the Merrimack Valley region.”

Teach For America, the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in expanding educational opportunity, has already launched its efforts in Lawrence in partnership with the Deshpande Foundation.

“Through the generosity of the Deshpande Foundation, Teach For America has been able to expand our impact to Lawrence Public Schools, where our corps members are working relentlessly alongside other dedicated teachers to increase student achievement levels,” said Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America. “We are committed to strengthening the leadership pipeline in the Merrimack Valley, and the foundation’s support is critical to this effort.” 

The event also included the presentation of the first round of grants to community partners including: Ashoka Youth Ventures, Interrise, Lawrence Community Works, National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Social Enterprise Alliance and Teach For America, all of Lawrence; Jericho Road Project, Jumpstart, Social Enterprise Alliance, United Teen Equality Center; all of Lowell; and Root Cause/New Profit, based in Boston.

The coalition plans to launch programs in 2010 to promote student entrepreneurship, train young professionals in the non-profit sector and to incubate startups in Lowell and Lawrence. More information on this work and the foundation is available at www.deshpandefoundation.org