CBIA BizCast: UConn Tech Park Drives Innovation
Just on the outskirts of the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus sits the UConn Tech Park, a center for cutting-edge research, collaboration, and innovation.
“The Tech Park is a really amazing initiative that the state and university funded to act as a kind of front door for industry into the services that are available at the university,” said Michael DiDonato, business development manager for the Innovation Partnership Building.
The Innovation Partnership Building is the first and flagship building of the Tech Park.
The facility features 19 centers focused on four pillars: sustainability, defense materials, cybersecurity, and systems manufacturing.
Spreading the Word
The goal of the Tech Park is to connect businesses with their research facilities and technology services.
The facility opened in 2017, but DiDonato said COVID slowed its growth.
“I would say, really, we’ve been accelerating since COVID,” he said. “I look at the last year as being a really productive time for us, increasing outreach, really spreading the word.”
DiDonato said spreading the word is one of the biggest challenges the Tech Park faces as it grows.
“A lot of people don’t know what’s there,” DiDonato said. “And how many different services are available to them that could help out their business.”
That includes a world-class microscopy wing, which DiDonato described as Connecticut’s metallurgy lab.
“I mean, this isn’t just a good resource. It’s an unbelievable resource,” he said. “People need to know about it.”
“The director of that microscopy room was commenting that if that wing was at MIT, it’d be used 24/7, and it’s not being used 24/7. And it should be, and it’s here for Connecticut businesses to utilize.”
The Tech Park also offers services and access to technology like metallurgy equipment, modeling and simulations to solve problems, and prototyping capabilities for 3D printing or laser cutting.
It’s those services that DiDonato said many small businesses may not be able to do on their own.
“If we can get them to consider the resources at university to be an extension of their resources, it becomes really obvious,” he said.
“If we can meet engineers and get them familiar with what’s available, then hopefully they’ll take advantage.”
One of those companies to take advantage of the services at the Tech Park is Acme Wire Products Co., Inc.
The Mystic-based manufacturer makes products including lacrosse face masks.
Acme president Mary Planeta Fitzgerald says the company’s experience with the Tech Park “challenged our tool designers and toolmakers to review different materials and processes and opened our eyes to the technical research partnership opportunities available within our state.”
“One of our employees saw an opportunity for Acme Wire Products to explore using 3D printing to create weld fixtures that needed to be replaced/remade regularly due to high volume use,” she said.
Fitzgerald said the relationship led them to use a new material that “reduced the labor cost and turnaround time.”
DiDonato said the accessibility and approachability of the Tech Park surprises some businesses.
“We’re not interested in getting into the game production,” DiDonato said. “What we’ll do is we’ll prove to you this works, and maybe we’ll guide you.”
And it’s not just technology that the Tech Park offers, but also access to faculty and students doing cutting-edge research.
“UConn is, first and foremost, an educational institution,” DiDonato said. “So the students are the top priority.”
DiDonato said many companies partner with UConn on senior design projects.
Those projects give teams of engineering students a task or project to complete for a business.
One of those projects involved Willington Nameplate. They worked with students on moving one of their processes from being manual to a level of automation.
“They helped identify the proof of concept for us that we will utilize to develop a working prototype,” said Willington Nameplate president Brett Greene.
The projects not only help businesses solve problems, but they also provide important real-world learning opportunities for students.
“We need to get more of our engineering students, students in general, to be exposed to practical tech problems, so that they can be better prepared to hit the ground running with real work environments that face real challenges,” DiDonato said.
As UConn Tech Park looks to continue spreading the word about what they offer, DiDonato said they’ve built strong relationships with groups like CONNSTEP, AdvanceCT, the Connecticut Centre for Advanced Technology, and state leaders like chief manufacturing officer Paul Lavoie.
“All of us together I feel are bigger than the sum of our parts,” DiDonato said.
“You take one plus one plus one, and you get four. And that’s where this collaboration feeling in Connecticut has been so awesome.”
DiDonato said the Tech Park is hoping to expand and add more buildings.
They want the next one to provide industry tenants with on-site access to equipment, faculty expertise, and UConn’s student pipeline.
Success for Connecticut
DiDonato said the goal is to not only help businesses in the state, but to help the economy grow overall.
“If what UConn has can help attract more businesses that are focused on sustainability, that’s a really good thing for us,” he said.
“If we can attract more businesses that focus on specialized materials that can then be used by the defense industry, that’s a really good thing for Connecticut.
“If we can attract more businesses that are focused on cybersecurity, the same thing becomes true, and hopefully we’ll be able to feed back into industry, more industry support, that would be a great success.”
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