By Joyce Tsai
LOWELL -- As you drive onto the Textile Memorial Bridge toward UMass Lowell's North Campus, the dramatic glass structure looms on the horizon, like a beacon of a new age of industrial innovation.
The $70 million state-of-the-art Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center is meant to serve as a gateway to the university. And when it is completed this fall, the 84,000-square-foot building at the corner of University Avenue and VFW Highway is intended to serve as a mecca for cutting-edge innovation in nanotechnology, biomedicine and plastics engineering.
And yesterday, the university scored another victory toward that goal: It will receive a $10 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center that will help to build a laboratory, within the center, with "clean-room capabilities," university officials said.
The multimillion dollar, high-tech "clean room" is essential for much high-level manufacturing involving nanotechnology, biopharmaceuticals and semiconductors. They ensure a low level of environmental pollutants such as dust, airborne microbes or particles, that prevent contamination of the process. And that's especially important when you consider nanomanufacturing, which is done on a very small scale, sometimes at 1/100th the size of a human hair, explained UMass Lowell spokeswoman Christine Gillette.
Such research facilities are "expensive to build and very much in demand," said Angus McQuilken, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency of the state, tasked with implementing the Massachusetts Life Sciences Act, a 10-year, $1 billion initiative signed into law in June 2008. One half of the $10 million grant will go toward construction of the "clean room," and the other half to its equipment, he said.
"It's rare to have such facilities," said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan. "It's going to bring together experts on the leading edge of research, specifically in nanotechnology, biomedicine, electro-optics and plastics engineering. And UMass Lowell is really one of the top institutions in the nation for these fields."
With these unparalleled clean-room capabilities and other state-of-the-art features, "this will be the most significant research and academic building, north of Boston," Meehan said.
Right now, researchers and companies have to go to Boston to gain access to such a state-of-the-art "clean room," Gillette said. But this laboratory will be the only one in the region.
The university was able to obtain $35 million in state funding for the tech center through the Massachusetts Economic Investment Act of 2006 and $5 million in federal funding to equip the building. And so far it's raised about $10 million in private sources, and it hopes raise another $10 million, to help outfit the building with high-tech labs and equipment, Meehan said.
Meehan said he is thankful to state Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, and the entire Lowell delegation for helping UML secure the grant, as well as other state funding for the project.
"If we are able to spur economic development through these startup technology companies using the center, and if they succeed, they will hopefully locate in Lowell and provide jobs in our community," said Murphy, who worked with Reps. Tom Golden and David Nangle to secure funding.
The center, which broke ground in June 2010, is well on track for its official opening in October, Meehan said. In fact, due to the mild winter his year, it's on schedule to begin moving offices into the new building in July and August.