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New UML Incubator Nourishes Medical-Device Start-Ups

Visitors tour the 14,000-square-foot facility. Eight companies are calling the incubator home.

Visitors tour the 14,000-square-foot facility. Eight companies are calling the incubator home.

Lowell Sun
09/23/2011
By Lyle Moran

LOWELL -- Vista Scientific LLC is working on developing a device made of polymers that people suffering from glaucoma could slide under their eyelids and have their medicine dispensed over a 90-day period. 

The thin device should help older patients who struggle to use medicines that come in drops make sure they are properly following their treatment regimen, said Vista President Robert Thompson. 

But like many other start-ups, the five-employee company needs all the financial and technical support it can get, because trying to bring a new product to the market is a long, costly process. 

Enter the $4 million Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center's business incubator at UMass Lowell, which celebrated its grand opening yesterday. The facility, housed at the Wannalancit Mills, features 14,000 square feet of collaborative work space and wet labs for start-up ventures. 

The incubator not only possesses top-notch resources, but also gives companies access to researchers with expertise in business management, engineering, medical procedures, prototypes and clinical trials. 

Vista Scientific is occupying lab space in the facility and has received help from university experts fine-tuning its device so that it causes no discomfort to users' eyes and producing prototypes. The university's support should enable the company to move forward with clinical trials. 

"The engineering provided to us would cost a great sum of money if we went outside of the university," Thompson said. 

UMass Lowell's new space, which opened its doors this summer, is quickly filling up with companies like Vista Scientific. Five of the six wet labs are occupied, as are five of the six office spaces. Eight companies are calling the incubator home. 

Other companies are focusing on devices that could address wound care and osteoporosis-related fractures. One company from New York has shown interest in the incubator. 

"A lot of states want what we have," said Thomas Sommer, president of MassMedic, the state's medical-device industry council. 

UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said the incubator is the latest example of the university's commitment to promote new technologies that have a high likelihood of commercialization. 

The initiative also promotes job creation in the medical-devices sector, which is responsible for the most exports of commodities in the state. More than 25,000 people are employed in the medical-device industry in Massachusetts and there are 80,000 jobs in related industries. 

"What we are doing here is seeding tomorrow's jobs with the incubator and Emerging Technologies Center," Meehan said. 

The state provided funding for the renovation project, which was overseen by the UMass Building Authority. 

State budget czar Jay Gonzalez, the state's secretary of administration and finance, said the incubator received state support because it allowed Gov. Deval Patrick's administration to show its commitment to infrastructure improvements, innovation and education. 

State spending on capital projects has increased from $1.7 billion to $3.5 billion in recent years, and the portion of the capital spending on higher-education projects has grown from 3 percent to 10 percent, said Gonzalez. 

"This is the poster child of Gov. Patrick's economic-development strategy," Gonzalez said of the incubator. 

The Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center overseeing the incubator is a collaboration between UMass Lowell and UMass Medical School in Worcester. UMass Lowell Professor Stephen McCarthy and UMass Worcester Assistant Vice Provost for Clinical Research Sheila Noone are co-directors of the center. 

Speakers at the grand opening yesterday praised the increased collaboration between the universities' different campuses. 

"UMass has never been collaborating so effectively," Meehan said. "It just makes the university stronger."