By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online
By VANESSA HUGHES
LOWELL -- Konarka Technologies, a solar technology startup, is on the verge of a major Lowell expansion, currently in negotiations to lease about 14,000 square feet at the Boott Mill.
Founded last July, Konarka was spun off from the polymer chemistry labs at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The company is developing lightweight, dye-sensitized solar technology to be integrated into products in order to power them using energy from the sun.
Konarka currently operates in a total of about 5,000 square feet in the Wannalancit Mill and an office in UMass Lowell's chemistry department. The company has 23 employees, and is adding about one job per month, said President and Chief Operating Officer Paul Wormser.
"We're bursting at the seams. We have more people than we have space for," he said.
If Konarka moves into the mill, it will breath life into a space recently abandoned by Mission Critical Linux, a startup that had been thriving until early this year, when most of the staff was laid off, and the company moved to a smaller space.
Konarka bought much of Mission Critical's possessions at auction, including office furniture, a security system and phone system. While no one has signed on the dotted line yet, "They're getting ready for us," Wormser said. He expects the deal to be finalized within a week.
The new location would house all of Konarka's operations, including research and development and a new pilot manufacturing program. Konarka is currently developing its products and expects to begin manufacturing prototypes on a "miniature manufacturing line," Wormser said.
The first applications will be the equivalent of flexible solar panels embedded into the material used to make such wireless devices as cellular phones and palm pilots. Konarka dreams of also integrating its products into everything from clothing to windows.
Keeping Konarka in Lowell is a boon for the city, which often sees startups move to larger suburban campuses where they can expand, said Thomas Galligani, director of economic development.
Lowell has historically served as an incubator for the region, by spawning companies that later grow into other Greater Lowell towns, he said. While that role is important for the area, the city also wants to hold on to growing businesses.
"A lot end up going to suburban towns. Of course we like to see them stay in Lowell," Galligani said. "We'd like to see more businesses move into other properties downtown to help support the downtown economy."
Other UMass Lowell-spawned companies, such as Anvil Informatics, Fuelspot, Avid Technology, and Functional Foods all found space in the suburbs when they expanded.
Wormser said Lowell remains ideal for Konarka's plans. Another Lowell startup, Ibex Process Technology, is also looking to grow into a larger space within the city.
"It was important to stay nearby because we have ongoing programs with the university and also it's an attractive place to be in terms of talent," Wormser said. "We're hoping to find some support within the city for what we do in the way of grants and loans."
The city and the Lowell Development and Financial Corp. are working with Konarka to possibly provide the company with financing through the federally funded Section 108 loan program. The program allows the city to borrow against about $3 million in state funds received annually for economic development.
"It's not as common as we would like it to be now to get an opportunity when a company says, 'Hey, we want to stay and grow in Lowell,'" Galligani said. "We're going to bend over backward."