Sundar Krishnamurty, professor and Department head in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering department,talks to a group from Raytheon employees during a tour of the UMass Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication lab during a tour Monday April 2nd. Left, Bill Tice and Ryan Carrara. —CAROL LOLLIS
AMHERST — In one part of a building bustling with activity on the University of Massachusetts campus, someone uses a 3-D printer to create a prototype with moveable parts inside. Down the hall, employees from a different company use new state-of-the-art equipment to develop a new device to monitor health.
If Peter Reinhart, director of the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences has his way, these companies will be just two of many that will establish themselves in western Massachusetts to take advantage of the advanced research facilities the Institute has to offer in what the university has dubbed its “core facilities,” or labs equipped with sophisticated technologies that can be invaluable for industry.
The core facilities on the flagship campus were created with — and have received major boosts from — state funding. Now the school is looking to use the more than 30 research and development facilities, which contain everything from the 3-D printers in the Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication Core Facility to sleep monitoring equipment in the Roll-to-Roll Fabrication and Processing Facility, to bring more private businesses to the area.
“It’s an experiment that’s running,” Reinhart said. “Can you effectively create a western Massachusetts innovation hub in this area?”
The core facilities, run out of Institute, are designed to be a resource for students, faculty and the private sector, that give access to high-quality equipment and facilities. Some of the facilities include mass spectrometry, small molecule screening and advanced design and digital fabrication.
“It’s just hugely valuable,” Reinhart said. “They (industry) can get ready access to a variety of equipment.”
University and state officials hope that a new state-backed program announced Friday will give the venture a boost. Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced a new, $2 million program that will make it easier for small- and medium-size businesses to use the core facilities, as well as facilities on other UMass campuses. The Innovation Voucher Program program will pay 75 percent of the cost for companies of 10 employees or less to use the facilities, and 50 percent of the cost for companies with 50 employees or less.
“It’s a really good deal,” said Jim Capistran, executive director of the Innovation Institute at UMass Amherst. Capistran handles relations with industry for the entire campus, and is in charge of coordinating the relationships between the core facilities and private entities that use them. He said the cost of using the facilities is offered on a sliding scale, and that small companies are already charged nearly at cost.
Capistran said that about 20 companies have signed agreements with UMass that allow them to use any core facility, and Reinhart said that about 60 industry partners are currently using the facilities in some capacity.
“We’ve been working with industry forever,” Capistran said.
Intellectual property is handled on a case-by-case basis, though the university takes a hands-off approach when it comes to ideas and technology brought in from outside, Capistran said.
One of the companies that uses the facilities is defense contractor Raytheon, which last week sent some of its employees for a tour of the Advanced Design and Digital Fabrication core facility.
Bill Tice, of Raytheon, said the company has had longtime partnerships with UMass, and that the company collaborates on a lot of research, noting a project categorizing additive materials as one of the ways they use the core facilities.
“I think the partnership is solid,” he said, when asked about the future of Raytheon’s partnership with UMass.
Last year, about $17 million worth of industry-sponsored research was done at UMass Amherst, Capistran said, a figure that Reinhart wants to see grow. Reinhart has a background in private industry, and he said that he’s been working to shed barriers to collaboration.
A major problem for the Core Facilities that he highlighted involves location, specifically not being close to Boston.
“It is really hard to rise above the background noise of Boston-Cambridge,” said Reinhart.
He also said that getting more companies to move to the area is a goal for the facilities.
“It’s a growth plan for us,” he said.
Reinhart noted that while many venture capital startups try to stay virtual for as long as possible, eventually they need a physical facility.
“I think that could be our sweet spot,” he said.
Reinhart said UMass is talking with Amherst and surrounding communities about being a part of such a business environment, and discussion has included the idea of creating a special business incubator to grow young startups. Additionally, he noted interest from developers and the others in the five colleges in the work of the Core Facilities.
Reinhart also said that a better job needs to be done marketing the facilities, which he believes is the most urgent need. “How effectively can we get the word out that this actually exists?” he said.
On Friday, Reinhart expressed satisfaction with how the Innovation Voucher Program rollout went.
“Everyone agreed to the value of this (the core facilities), and that it will serve as a catalyst to bring industry closer to academia,” he said.
Bera Dunau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.