UMass Amherst investing in innovation

More than $100m goes for institute, venture fund, faculty

THE UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST, the flagship campus of the state’s university system, is diving into the innovation economy with a splash they hope will ripple out far beyond the campus, boosting the region’s economic development for decades to come.

The university has invested heavily in the initiative in recent years. Well over $100 million has been spent so far on new faculty positions, buildings, equipment, and other resources to usher promising new ideas from lab bench to marketplace.

Last fall, a $95 million Massachusetts Life Sciences grant (the largest ever to a state university) and $55 million of university funding backed the opening of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, with 30 core facilities dedicated to develop new drug, drug delivery, and health-monitoring products. Several years before that, a $10 million private donation supported the launch of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship to support new enterprises on and off campus.  Earlier this month, the Berthiaume Center announced a $1.5 million Maroon Venture Fund, which will invest in promising start-ups led by faculty, students, alumni, and postdocs.

The investments are integral to a bigger vision that establishes the university as a hub of innovations. “Going back to our land grant roots, we have a role to play in the economic development of western Mass and the whole Commonwealth,” says UMass Chancellor Kumble Subaswammy. “That’s the logic for why Mass Life Sciences gave us that $95 million grant  – to spark some of that activity out here, drawing perhaps some of the startup companies that are not quite able to survive or afford the greater Boston and Cambridge area.”

In addition to drawing entrepreneurs out to the western part of the state, UMass will also support students and faculty in commercializing ideas that spin off into companies located nearby.  The end goal, Subaswammy said, is twofold: enrich the educational experience of students, preparing them for jobs in the innovation economy while at the same time making that economy more robust.

Peter Reinhart in the metabolism chamber.

Peter Reinhart in the metabolism chamber.

The university’s expertise and focus in life science, finance, and big data reinforce the region’s strengths, which Subaswammy says are advanced manufacturing, health care, and finance. Western Massachusetts has a trove of companies that do precision manufacturing, a skill set easily transferable to manufacturing a wide range of new innovations.  And the region’s two largest employers, Baystate Health and MassMutual, are major partners with the university in the drive to support innovation. Mass Mutual has already set up an incubator space in Amherst to link with the university in the development of innovations that mine big data to develop new financial applications.

The Institute for Applied Life Sciences, housed in a new 275,000-square-foot building in the center of campus, is the showcase of the university’s innovation initiative. The institute’s director, Peter Reinhart, is well-practiced at giving tours. “This building is our best tool for recruiting new faculty,” he said. Reinhart is in the process of filling 11 new faculty positions this year and will go through the same process next fall.  He opens the door to a laboratory, and warns a group of students clustered around a high-resolution microscope, “Another quick tour coming through.”

He stands outside the “collaboratories,” spaces where faculty, postdocs, students, or outside companies with expertise in basic sciences will eventually work together with colleagues with business expertise to begin the long process of moving a promising idea to the marketplace.  “We’re joined at the hip, IALS, the Isenberg School of Business, and the Berthiaume Center. The collaboratories is where we all come together,” said Reinhart. The large room is empty except for a small pile of books and papers at one station. “Our first group just moved in yesterday,” he said.

Walking from lab to lab, Reinhart points to the institute’s dizzying array of high-tech and high-end instruments. One state-of-the art spectrometer can image live animals. In another lab, he points to a 3-D printer, an imposing machine that can be used to make prototypes for just about anything, from new prosthetics to next-generation stents. It is a big draw for outside companies.

“They’re lining up at the door to get into this facility,” Reinhart said. “If you’re a small or medium-size company, you’re not going to invest $5 million in a machine to develop prototypes when you don’t know if it is even going to pan out. But you can come in here and test things out. Renting it for an hour or a day at a time becomes very cost effective.”

Roll-to-roll manufacturing machines in another room can print out wearable health-monitoring devices. Some of the devices being developed at the institute can sense peptides on the surface of the skin to detect stress levels and disease markers. “So, instead of making one device that costs a $1,000 and takes a lot of energy to make, this does it in a single pass, almost like printing the New York Times. At the other end, you get a sheet with hundreds of devices, you cut them up and you’ve created hundreds of devices for a few dollars,” Reinhart explained.

Downstairs, an energy metabolism chamber – resembling a tiny hotel room – allows researchers to measure the energy metabolism of human subjects without touching them.

“This allows us to do longitudinal metabolic studies,” Reinhart says, “There’s a bed and a shower, and an exercise bike. You pass food through here,” he said, pointing to a small airlock chamber on the side of the wall.” The chamber has piqued the interest of companies making sports apparel for testing next-generation sport shoes and clothing that measures caloric output during exercise.

That laboratories with such different but complementary functions are within paces of each other is part of the institute’s grand plan, allowing students and faculty to  interface more easily with industry.  “Because it’s so compact and unified, some companies love coming out here. It isn’t just that they want one specific thing. Some of them do, but other companies want to measure something on humans and develop prototypes for a device and have large data analytics using the latest statistics. Here, with a single contract they can tap into as many different things as they want,” he said.

Reinhart and his staff lower the hurdles that have traditionally kept industry from using many of the resources on other campuses. They’ve kept access points simple, streamlined the application process, and  hustled contracts through the system so companies don’t get discouraged by red tape.

Subaswammy said the university has learned from other campuses, such as MIT, which has been a model for how to intersect with industry. But as a public institution, UMass had challenges that private universities don’t face. “As a public university, there are state regulations, so it’s far more difficult for us to establish policies and practices than it is for a private university. There are tremendous anti-nepotism rules and ethical requirements that are pretty onerous for a faculty member to actually own a company and make things happen.  Another complication is that we work in a system environment. What we want to do on campus sometimes has to go through the (UMass) systems office. So all of that has been sorted through.”

UMass leaders don’t expect to realize the fruits of their investment and labor overnight.  Reinhart said it takes about 14 years for a promising new product to move from “a glint in someone’s eye to the market where someone can buy it off the shelf and a doctor can prescribe it.”

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Basic science research and development at the institute comprises the first three-to-five years of that process. And if an idea succeeds in winning funding from the Maroon Venture Fund, the university and other investors would ideally like to see a return on investment in roughly 5 to 10 years.

“This is a complex project with many partners. We expect to see how all this works in a couple of decades, not years,” said Subaswammy. “What it takes really is a critical mass of entrepreneurs who have constant ideas. They exchange ideas with one another and give more ideas to our own faculty and students. So if you look at Silicon Valley or San Diego or Research Triangle, or, of course, Cambridge, everyone wants to be there because there is intellectual power, financial power, the know-how – and everything converges.”