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The Door is Open
UMass Innovation Institute has successful first year courting industry
UMass Innovation Institute director Jim Capistran in front on new UMass building

“Our key task is to quickly and efficiently move the new technologies and scientific capabilities developed in our laboratories at UMass Amherst into the real-world economy,” Capistran says.

The UMass Innovation Institute (UMII) is accelerating connections between advanced science and technology available in campus laboratories at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and private business. Its most recent initiative is a five-year strategic partnership with BASF, the world’s leading chemical company, to develop new advanced materials for the automotive, building, construction and energy industries.

The agreement between BASF and the UMII along with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is called the North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials and is expected to create 20 new postdoctoral positions at the three universities.

In addition to the new agreement with BASF, the Innovation Institute, in its first year, hit an all-time high generating $14.3 million in industry research awards.

The UMII, established in June 2011, expects to grow industrial supported research to about $30 million annually in five years and to become financially self-sustaining during this period. Additional income is anticipated from licensing and startups through the office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property.

James D. Capistran, executive director at UMII, says his organization is well on its way to meeting the initial goals. “Our key task is to quickly and efficiently move the new technologies and scientific capabilities developed in our laboratories at UMass Amherst into the real-world economy,” Capistran says. “We have streamlined the process so that all parties to our agreements can realize the maximum benefit in a timeframe that is responsive to the markets and business cycles.”

Capistran also notes that in addition to linking the top-notch researchers and scientists at UMass Amherst to the many high-technology businesses in Massachusetts and the New England region, UMII also plays a key role in boosting the overall reputation of UMass Amherst. “A lot of people in business know we do good work, but now they know we can move rapidly when developing new ideas and products,” Capistran says.

Industry representatives echo that sentiment. Paula A. Calabrese is senior vice-president and chief strategy officer at ReCommunity, Inc., a leading recycling, recovery and repowering company based in Charlotte, N.C. The company has negotiated several contracts with UMass researchers on new technologies that will improve its business.

Calabrese, who works out of Rutland, VT., says her work with UMII has been mutually beneficial. “The university-industrial research collaboration merges basic and applied research and leverages those results to advance innovative product and technology development,” Calabrese says. “The UMII has worked aggressively to insure the alignment of our needs with the expertise of the university.”

Paul Dauenhauer, a chemical engineer who is a national leader in biofuels research, conducted some of the work done for ReCommunity at UMass Amherst. He says UMII helped match his research skills with what the company was investigating.

“Jim Capistran and UMII make working with industry efficient and effective,” Dauenhauer says. “The challenge is connecting the needs of industry with the research capabilities of academia. Jim and the Innovation Institute understand both groups in such a way that helps break down barriers to collaboration.”

Jim Caro, president and chief operating officer at AquaHarvest Technologies, a small Massachusetts company built around vertical farming and sustainable technologies, including hydroponics, is enthusiastic about his dealings with the UMII. Its core product is a cost-effective plant growing system that combines well-proven hydroponic technology in a fully integrated and controlled environment. The company has built a production prototype at UMass Amherst and is producing vegetables for use on the campus.

AquaHarvest Technologies began working with the UMII just over a year ago. “From the moment our team began working with the UMass Amherst community, it has been nothing but fantastic,” Caro says. “From the fact that we completed the paperwork to participate in UMII in less than a couple of hours, to the ease of building powerful research relationships across diverse academic colleges, the team at AquaHarvest has been beyond pleased with this great partnership.”

The key to success is the institute’s enhanced ability to work directly with the faculty member and the industry partner to craft and close business deals involving intellectual property, technology advances and basic research that has a potential commercial value, says Michael F. Malone, UMass Amherst’s vice chancellor for research and engagement, who oversees the UMII.

“The academic and industry landscape is changing and UMass Amherst has taken a leading role,” Malone says. “We’re excited to focus on maximizing the impact of our research by engaging partners via the Innovation Institute. It’s the right enhancement at the right time and the perfect complement to our basic research.”

Capistran has also been expanding his role as a key contact with the state business, industry and state government leaders. The UMII has partnered with the Mass Manufacturing Extension Partnership and director Jack Healy to connect the campus with manufacturing across the state. In September 2012, Capistran was appointed to the executive committee of the state’s Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative. The appointment was announced by Gregory P. Bialecki, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development.

Janet Lathrop