Two Hundred Years Later, Lowell Continues to Experiment & Evolve

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Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mill_Building_(now_museum),_Lowell,_Massachusetts.JPG

Ideally situated thirty miles north of Boston, just before the New Hampshire border and along the Merrimack River, is a city recognized across the world as the “Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution.” It’s one of the first and greatest planned manufacturing communities of the 1800s, an original leader in workers’ rights, and a place hailed for its rich history, resilience, and today, for its tech.

Lowell, Massachusetts, began as a social experiment, known simply as, “The Lowell Experiment.” It was designed to be America’s first large-scale, planned, industrial town, and despite a dynamic and sometimes complicated past, the spirit of experimentation and innovation at its core is alive today.

Ask any individual member of the diverse assortment of tech companies that call Lowell home today “Why Lowell?,” and all offer similar reasons. The space is bigger and cheaper, the commute is better, talent is readily available, both the university and the town are great partners, development is constant, and the culture is thriving.

And while the outsider might think that Massachusetts’ fourth largest city has reinvented itself, locals know that the story is different. Led by entrepreneurs, public officials, and a world-class university, Lowell, a city designed to lead in changing times, has simply returned to its roots.

Innovative by design

Lowell’s origin as a hub for technological innovation can be traced back to the early 1800s, when its proximity to the Pawtucket Falls (and the water power it provided) rendered it the ideal location for the hottest new venture at the time – textile manufacturing. The city was designed deliberately with green and clean living space, unique at the time, as a response to cramped British mill towns, and as a result, workers flocked to Lowell’s factories from across the world.

Within decades, the city on the river was the largest industrial town in America. Lowell, with its diverse and booming population, was even the first US city to get individual telephone numbers in the 1880s.

The rest, of course, is history. By the mid-1900s, textiles and, later, all manufacturing would be shipped south and then overseas where labor was cheap and workers less organized. Lowell fell into a deep recession. Fortunately, the original mill buildings were saved, and the resulting Lowell National Historic Park kept the town afloat until high-tech industry, particularly Wang Laboratories, first returned to the city in late 1980s. When Wang went bankrupt in 1992, the city pushed on, ready to experiment yet again.

The Lowell of today, of course, thanks largely to the active support of both its university and economic development office, looks very different than Lowell at the height of its factory days two hundred years ago.

The historic mill buildings remain – but are now populated by robots. Fabric technicians continue to research the best in material design, but now for medical wearables that will save lives.

Space to grow

“If you wanted to do something like this in Boston or Cambridge, it would cost a fortune,” laughs Holly Yanco, UMass Lowell Professor of Computer Science and Director of Lowell’s still young New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) center. “We have 10,000 square feet!”

Yanco, who says it was the city’s palpable “can-do” attitude that first attracted her to the city eighteen years ago, loves the energy and interdisciplinary support that she finds both at the university and in the community.

The NERVE Center, a national leader in the development of robotic systems for academia, industry, and government agencies, shares a building at 110 Canal Street with the Fabric Discovery Center, M2D2 Biotechnology Lab, and Innovation Hub.

The NERVE Center at UMass Lowell is a national leader in the development of robotic systems for academia, industry, and government agencies. // Image Source: The NERVE Center

The space, once the former Freudenberg Nonwovens mill, has become a focal point of Lowell’s tech ecosystem. Other organizations, large and small, are located nearby.

“We have wonderful students that we work with, we have the companies in the iHUB, and the nice thing about our location is that we are at the end of the commuter rail,” continues Yanco. “There are so many great restaurants and artists. It’s a really vibrant community.”

Mary Ellen Sparrow, Co-founder and CEO of NextShift Robotics, a small local company that specializes in creating material handling systems using collaborative, mobile, autonomous robots, agrees. “Lowell has a great location with an industrial heritage and proximity to Boston, Worcester, and New Hampshire, making it convenient for visiting clients, hiring staff, and access to the surrounding academic communities,” she says.  “It’s close to a couple major airports and the train and has the location and existing infrastructure to support a growing technology business.”

Lowell-based NextShift Robotics specializes in creating material handling systems using collaborative, mobile, autonomous robots. // Image Source: NextShift Robotics

NextShift Robotics, notably, is located in a building that was originally constructed to manufacture Wang’s microcomputers. “It would be almost impossible to find the type of industrial space we have in Lowell in the Boston Metro area,” emphasizes Sparrow.

Bigger companies are happy to call the city home too. Workforce management and human capital management (HCM) software giant Kronos made headlines in late 2017 for its decision to move its global headquarters – and 1,500 employees – to Lowell’s Cross Point complex.

According to David Almeda, Chief People Officer at Kronos, it was a great decision.

Our new headquarters search started as a parking and office capacity problem,” says Almeda of Kronos’ Cross Point location, which he describes as “second-to-none, including offices in Boston all the way to Silicon Valley.”

David Almeda, Chief People Officer at Kronos, describes the company’s new Lowell HQ as “second-to-none, including offices in Boston all the way to Silicon Valley.” // Image Source: Kronos

“Cross Point was one of the few locations that met both criteria – location and capacity – with the added bonus that we could completely renovate half-a-million square feet of office space while accounting for future growth.” Kronos, which signed a 12-year lease at Cross Point, is currently constructing an entire new floor to match 2019 growth projections and job creation targets.

Supportive ecosystem

Lowell’s affordable real estate offerings, shared work spaces, and direct-from-the-university talent pipeline make the city an attractive place for large companies seeking office space and for entrepreneurs just starting up. In the experience of Brian Bolton, Founder and CEO of StitchDX, a growing, Lowell-based digital experience agency, it’s a great place to scale up too.

StitchDX is a modern Lowell success story. After outgrowing a desk at the IHUB Workbar where it started, the company relocated to space in the historic Boott Mills, which Bolton describes as “a fantastic old mill building right along one of Lowell’s canals and up against the Merrimack River.” It’s “part of the charm of Lowell,” he says, with “lots of brick walls and high ceilings and really interesting space.”

Lowell’s Economic Development Office, along with the Mayor’s Office, was there to cut the ribbon after they moved in last fall. “Lowell is committed to helping companies get started and grow here” says Bolton. “Through the economic development office, there are some financing opportunities, and [the city] helps promote companies that have set up shop.”

When StitchDX and some other tenants moved into their new office space at Lowell’s Boott Mill, members of Lowell’s Economic Development Office and the Mayor’s Office were there to cut the ribbon. // Image Source: StitchDX

“We have no plans to relocate. It’s a really great place to start a company,” he says. “The costs are reasonable. The access to talent is reasonable. Quality of life can be great.”

Continuously evolving

Lowell, with its industrial heritage, vibrant downtown, and convenient location, has evolved into a powerful, independent innovation ecosystem in its own right, and its tech companies, like the mills of the past, are proud to lead the way.

Kronos’ Almeda says of the company’s role in the future of the city, “We’ll continue to partner in various ways with UMass Lowell and double-down on relationships with local organizations. With Lowell being a gateway city, we take our role in that movement – and being a leading Massachusetts technology company – very seriously by giving back to the community and partnering with local organizations.”

A standing-room-only crowd gathers for the grand opening of the UMass Lowell Fabric Discovery Center at 110 Canal Street. // Image Source: MassTLC

“It takes a village,” says Sparrow. “Entrepreneurial companies like NextShift Robotics can be the engine of prosperity for the area. Each of these emerging technologies and services brings something unique to the equation,” she notes. “That uniqueness, when combined, makes for a durable contribution to the local economy and culture.”

For Yanco, the trajectory is natural. In her eyes, the city has simply come full circle. “Lowell has always been a city of innovation from the mills to now – even if you look back to the early weaving machines, they were using punch cards and programming the patterns. We can expand in robotics at the same time that we expand in fashion.”

Lowell is changing quickly, but the spirit of experimentation and venture that led to its creation, remains. With several major development projects already underway and active, involved community organizations, the future is bright.

“If you don’t physically need to be in Boston and are looking for a good alternative, Lowell is a cool, interesting place to build a foundation. It’s got a vibrant downtown scene and is close enough to get into Boston when you need to” says Bolton.  “There are a lot of opportunities to grow. Lowell is about more than its past. I wouldn’t stay in Lowell if I didn’t think it had a strong future.”

“It’s a great place to be working, all of us here want it to be the best place it can be. Whatever resources we have, we are going to do amazing things with them,” emphasizes Yanco, and while it’s impossible to predict how the city of Lowell will evolve in the next 10, 20, 50 years, according to her, at least one thing is certain.

“As the ecosystem changes, we change with it.”