An entrepreneur's lab rises in an old UMass dining hall

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Aug. 27, 2008

An old cafeteria on the fifth floor of UMass-Boston's science building is being transformed this summer into a research and development "innovation" center that will allow entrepreneurs to conduct experiments and prepare new products for the marketplace with the aide of UMass faculty and students. The Venture Development Center (VDC) will mark UMass-Boston's first foray into a rapidly expanding field of on-campus innovation incubators that could bolster the university's position in recruitment and retention of faculty and students.

"The Venture Development Center will bring R&D activity and the innovation economy to the Dorchester waterfront," said Chancellor J. Keith Motley. "And it's also representative of our commitment and aspirations as a university, to inspire positive growth and change benefiting not only the University of Massachusetts Boston but also our neighborhood, city, and region."

Funded to the tune of $6.5 million - largely with state bond money leavened with federal dollars - the center is presently recruiting its first round of tenants. According to William J. Brah, the university's vice provost for research and executive director of the VDC, prospects will likely include faculty members with ideas for new technologies in fields like life sciences, education and computer programming. But, the center will also seek out business plans from the larger community with the hopes of bringing in a broad range of innovative businesses.

Tenants will need to pay rent for their share of the 18,000 square foot space, which can accommodate up to six teams - each one contracted for an 18-month run - at a time. What they will get in return, UMass officials posit, is the chance to collaborate with specialized faculty members who will team up to support the developments, along with students eager to gain experience.

It is presently being outfitted with state-of-the-art laboratories, offices and multi-media rooms, most of it designed to accentuate a team approach. The open-space plan - designed by Cambridge architectural firm Sasaki Associates - includes a large outdoor patio that overlooks Dorchester Bay.

"This is a place for very early stage ventures," says Brah, who worked on a team that built a similar center at UMass-Dartmouth. "This is where they can come because they have to finish a product."

Christine DePalma, the center's program manager, expects that the mix of tenants will likely mirror the university's current diversity of research fields.

"UMass-Boston research is so broad, so we hope that our partners will be broad too. Life sciences, non-profits, things that may be more creative like software curriculum. We want to be just as diverse as the research that's going on here," says DePalma. "What I'm excited about is that it has the potential for someone in the life science field to learn from someone from a totally different field and they can learn from each other.

Brah says the concept of the center has been on the drawing boards for four years, driven largely by on-campus calls for such a facility from faculty members, many of whom have been working on research that lends itself to new product development. A 2007 study commissioned by the university found that the opportunity to conduct research at the campus was a key incentive for top faculty members. The same report tracked the upward trajectory of the university on the research front: From 2000 to 2005, the number of peer-reviewed publications produced by UMass-Boston jumped by nearly 50 percent, while the amount of funding for research awarded to the campus leapt by 75 percent.

Senator Jack Hart, who authored an economic stimulus package two years ago that is the primary source of funding for the center, thinks that the facility will help UMass-Boston lay claim to a new identity.

"It's a partnership with a huge economic engine, the Longwood area, which employs 80,000 plus people in biotech and related fields.