Lowell is the Region’s High-Tech Development Hub
The city of Lowell brings several things to mind: brick mill buildings, UMass Lowell and possibly Mill No. 5, the trendy new shopping center. We might not think of Lowell as a burgeoning center for innovation and startup technology companies, but at UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub, affectionately nicknamed the iHub, they’re looking to change that perception.
Walking into the iHub, centrally located in the city at 110 Canal St., you’re met by a bright, cheerful space with high ceilings, an open concept and bold wall art that is professional, young and creative. It’s a place that offers medical and technology startups the space and resources to move through what Steve Tello, the associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development at UMass Lowell, calls “the valley of death”: the journey from a conceptualized idea to a marketable prototype, a leap that can be extraordinarily challenging for new companies with few resources.
The first floor of the iHub features a “co-working” area where companies can rent desks and have access to a large conference room and private meeting areas. This, Tello says, makes it look like the companies have a good amount of space, giving them additional prestige when talking to potential business partners. The iHub also has several closed-door offices and, most importantly for startups, a workshop area.
Rory MacKean, co-founder and CEO of Franklin Robotics, has rented space at the iHub since last September. His company is developing an autonomous, solar-powered weed-whacker, which he says might not have been possible without the resources available at the iHub. In creating the prototype, he said the 3-D printer — priced at about $30,000 — and laser cutter, as well as tools used to assemble the circuit board, have been essential since they are well beyond a small company’s budget.
MacKean says working in a space with like-minded people has created an “inspiring” environment, as well as a bit of healthy competition to keep things interesting. “The days of startups working out of garages is over,” Tello says.
Several companies work out of the first floor at the iHub, including a UMass Lowell student group called Nonspec, which is working on the development of affordable prosthetic limbs to send to India. KnipBio, a biotech aquaculture startup, develops healthier food for farm-raised fish, better replicating their diet in the wild.
The second floor of the iHub houses the Medical Device Development Center, or M2D2. This space offers even more expensive equipment and laboratories than the tech area downstairs. With everything from a wet lab, to utensil sanitation machines, to a minus 80-degree freezer for cell work, M2D2 has everything a medical researcher would find at a prestigious facility in Boston or Cambridge.
So what makes Lowell a feasible alternative to the big cities? Cost, for one thing. According to Tello, monthly rent for a wet lab in Boston or Cambridge could cost as much as $10,000; in Lowell, that price is reduced to $3,000. There are waiting lists to use the lab facilities at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Tello says, while the iHub still has available space — although Tello says that occupancy is likely to reach 50 percent of capacity this June, which will mark one year in operation.
Accessibility also plays a big role. For serial innovators, or for big companies looking to get its innovators out of the company’s main production sphere, Lowell is a great option. It’s easily reached by train, and for many it goes against the usual commuter patterns, saving travel time.
In addition, Tello believes that Lowell has a trendy vibe that draws in young startups. With restaurants, a good music scene and places like Mill No. 5, Lowell is a less expensive city with a buzz similar to Boston’s or Cambridge’s.
Already, Lowell has drawn considerable attention for further development, according to Tello. Two large companies are breaking ground in an empty space adjacent to 110 Canal, and with 14 acres of free space in empty mill buildings throughout Lowell, there is ample room for more growth.
UMass Lowell Innovation Hub
Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center