R & D Hub

In all the good words spread around last Thursday at the announcement of the forthcoming UMass Lowell Innovation Hub in the 110 Canal St. building, formerly Freudenberg Nonwovens, this  statement by Mayor Rodney Elliot resonated strongly for me because it had a familiar theme: “The location of UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub in the Hamilton Canal District is the next logical step in the City of Lowell’s quest to continually reinvent itself. The recognition of Lowell’s remarkable journey from factory city to research and development hub is gratifying.” (emphasis mine)

I can’t tell you how many times the late Dr. Patrick J. Mogan said to me that research-and-development had to be a big part of Lowell’s economic development strategy if the city was going to have a fighting chance at breaking the boom-and-bust economic cycle, which had inflicted so much pain on Lowell’s people through the decades.  Pat said R&D was the way to go because it continually renews itself. The focus is not on mass producing one widget whose design will inevitably be knocked-off and whose production process can be outsourced or turned over to robots. Innovation, adding to our knowledge base, developing new products and services—all this can be sustained longer term. The people who do this kind of work are likely to stick around, especially if you have an appealing place for them to work, live, learn, raise families, grow old, and enjoy themselves. Making Lowell a better place,  a city with a high quality of life, a coherent community that inspires people, was a twin objective for Pat Mogan.

Chancellor Marty Meehan  said the University’s Massachusetts Medical Devices Development Center, a collaboration with UMass Medical School, has nurtured the emergence of some 50 businesses that have raised about $50 million in private capital, plus grants and loans. In addition to new medical products, about 250 jobs have spun off the efforts.

Thanks are due to Governor Patrick, Trinity Financial, and everyone involved with this encouraging news. We can look forward to breakthroughs in the areas of clean tech, robotics, flexible electronics, medical devices, and more. The old Lowell Machine Shop was very close to the Canal Street location. In the nineteenth century, that was an “innovation station,” to borrow a term from Peter O’Connell, former director of the Tsongas Industrial History Center. Lowell had its own small version of Silicon Valley along the Merrimack Canal. Here’s what the National Park Service says about the Lowell Machine Shop:

The shop underlay Lowell’s textile industries: fabricating machines that turned cotton into cloth, building waterwheels, turbines, and steam engines that provided the power, and making shafts, gears, and pulleys that transferred power within the mill. Its influence extended beyond Lowell, as it built machine tools and complete sets of machinery for mills in other cities. The locomotives also produced there helped transform New England’s transportation system.

Innovation has been the key to Lowell’s success all along.