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LOWELL

UMass will host creative ‘sandbox’

Program will seek leaders for Valley

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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The University of Massachusetts Lowell is home to a new privately funded program aimed at mobilizing public-spirited leaders to seek innovative solutions to problems in the Merrimack Valley.

Launched on Dec. 9, the Merrimack Valley Sandbox is a collaboration among UMass Lowell, area colleges, nonprofit organizations, and the Deshpande Foundation, which is providing $5 million over five years to fund the initiative.

Operating out of a new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell, the program will provide training, mentoring, seed funding, and other resources to promote new approaches to economic development, education, job training, and other regional needs.

In addition to UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, Northern Essex Community College, and Merrimack College are educational partners in the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, so named because it aims to promote the creativity and trial-and-error innovation symbolized by children’s play in a sandbox.

The Merrimack Valley initiative is modeled after programs established at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in the Indian city of Hubli by the Stoneham-based foundation, which is headed by Gururaj “Desh’’ Deshpande, an Indian-born high-tech entrepreneur.

At the heart of the program is an attempt to motivate students, young professionals, leaders of for-profit and nonprofit companies, and others to act as social entrepreneurs, those who apply to social problem-solving the spirit of innovation traditionally found in business.

“We are trying to foster innovation and entrepreneurship on a very large scale,’’ said Nishith Acharya, executive director of the Deshpande Foundation.

The hope is that through that process, leaders will emerge to pursue positive changes in the region, bolstering what the foundation calls the innovation ecosystem in the valley.

“Our premise is that any solution facing the region — whether it’s a social issue or a technological challenge or an economic development challenge — will ultimately be addressed by strong leadership from people that live in that area and are committed to that,’’ Acharya said.

UMass Lowell chancellor Martin T. Meehan said the university is pleased to house and participate in the new center, which he said will be “an idea generator that will tap into the imagination, idealism, and problem-solving capabilities of some of the best minds of the region.’’

Meehan said higher education “is the right fit for this initiative,’’ noting, “the region’s colleges and universities form the intellectual base of the Merrimack Valley, and motivated students, talented teachers, research facilities, and the thousands of alumni we have here are deeply engaged’’ in improving the economy and community life.

He said the region is a great match for the program.

“The Merrimack Valley is the home really of the American industrial revolution,’’ he said. “And we have a strong history of innovation and entrepreneurship.’’

Acharya said the foundation was spurred to establish a program in the Merrimack Valley in part because Deshpande and his wife, Jaishree, with whom he founded the organization in 1996, feel a hometown connection to the region, having resided in Andover for the past 20 years. The founder of Chelmsford-based Sycamore Networks, Deshpande is also chairman of Watertown-based A123 Systems.

“We wanted to work in one of the gateway cities in Massachusetts,’’ Acharya said, referring to a term given to older industrial communities like Lawrence, Lowell, and Haverhill that face economic challenges due to the state’s movement away from a manufacturing economy. “And there was clearly a need here.’’

He said the foundation also perceived that the Merrimack Valley has the leadership to take ownership of these ideas, noting that the four college and university presidents are very engaged.

Acharya said the foundation is hopeful that the $5 million it is providing for the Merrimack Valley Sandbox will help leverage another $10 million in funding from other sources.

The program formally launched at a Dec. 9 Merrimack Valley Development Dialogue conference sponsored by the foundation at UMass Lowell. The foundation holds such conferences once a year for its MIT program to discuss issues it plans to tackle in the coming year, and plans to do so for the Merrimack Valley Sandbox.

Even before the Dec. 9 launch, the foundation had made its first funding award for the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, providing money to help Teach for America bring to Lawrence and Lowell its national program that places recent college graduates in urban and rural public schools.

At the conference, the foundation presented another 10 grants to nonprofit groups for a variety of community initiatives, mostly in Lawrence and Lowell.

Todd Fry, previously executive director of the Boston Center for Community Justice, has been hired as executive director of the new center at UMass Lowell. He and other staff members will operate out of the university’s Wannalancit building.

Acharya said that while the specifics are still to be determined, the center’s initiatives will include providing college students with grants for entrepreneurial efforts like starting tutoring businesses in low-income neighborhoods. It will also provide training and leadership programs in social entrepreneurship to young professionals, business executives, and nonprofits.

“The more people we can develop as leaders, the better off our community will be,’’ Acharya said.