UNH research and outreach is shaping the success of the region’s economy

Friday, May 20, 2022
Image of a New England downtown

Downtown Franklin, New Hampshire.

In 2015, a county agent for UNH Extension started paying closer attention to Franklin, New Hampshire, a small city situated 20 miles north of Concord. Nestled at the intersection of three rivers, Franklin was a struggling former mill town that had spent several unsuccessful decades trying to forge a new identity.

“There was a real sense that nothing ever happens here,” says Franklin Mayor Jo Brown, a native of the city. “There was just this pervasive loss of confidence in the town and community.”

side by side photos of a smiling woman in a sweatshirt and a smiling man wearing a plaid shirt
Franklin Mayor Jo Brown, left, and UNH Extension's Charlie French.

But the Extension agent saw potential for a renewed Franklin. What could be done with the river fronts? How could the old downtown brick buildings be repurposed? How could the region’s population surge translate into a healthier tax base? A dialogue began between city officials and UNH and soon the Extension team, led by Charlie French, head of the Extension’s Community and Economic Development program, and associate state specialist Molly Donovan began working with town leaders to build out a revitalization process.

This isn’t new terrain for UNH Extension, with a mission rooted in community collaboration and sharing its research and expertise across the state. Nor for UNH broadly, which has helped shape the success of New Hampshire’s and the region’s economy through community collaborations, research partnerships, business start-up incubator spaces, and workforce training.

In Franklin, the Extension team fostered information gathering through a series of sessions in which different community groups, from seniors to school children, articulated what they wanted from their hometown. That new information allowed them to secure additional grants, hire an economic director and collaborate with Plan NH, a non-profit architectural group that works with communities to reimagine and restore their town centers.

“It’s about learning and listening to people,” explains French. “It takes time to figure out the particular issues facing a community. In the end, we were able to form four action committees that could really target what needed to change to make Franklin a better place for people.”

“We had ideas but we didn’t have our footing ... We feel good about all the great stuff that’s happening and I’m not sure it happens without the help we got from UNH.”

Seven years later, Franklin is experiencing a rebirth. Mill buildings are being converted into retail and condo spaces. New businesses, including a coffee shop opened by Mayor Brown, have begun to transform the town center. And along the Winnipesaukee River, the new nine-acre Mill City Park, which will include New England’s first whitewater park, is near completion. The New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs has forecasted the park, with its planned mountain bike pump track, community garden and outdoor center for kayakers, will generate $10 million in annual tourist revenue.

While the Extension team didn’t directly put all these things in place, Mayor Brown doubts Franklin would have experienced the turnaround it has without Extension’s efforts.

“What they brought to the table was expertise,” she says. “We had ideas but we didn’t have our footing. We needed the structure they provided. But it was also valuable to be recognized again. We feel good about all the great stuff that’s happening and I’m not sure it happens without the help we got from UNH.”

Bringing Business to Campus

Portrait of man standing wearing suit coat
UNHInnovation's Marc Eichenberger.

The story of UNH’s economic development work with communities and companies beyond its campus borders is not a new one.

A veteran of the start-up and venture capital worlds, Marc Eichenberger, UNH’s interim associate vice provost for innovation and new ventures and managing director of UNHInnovation (UNHI), is helping UNH offer a more expansive relationship with the private sector. Those partnerships take different forms. One of the most notable is the access private industry has to the University Instrumentation Center (UIC), a hub of state-of-the-art technology, from scanning electron microscopes to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which can be rented by the hour. For one New Hampshire biotechnology company, the UIC serves as part of their quality control activities.

“We have equipment and capabilities that many companies just don’t have at their own facilities,” explains Eichenberger. That includes collaborations with UNH’s John Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center, whose focus on precision machining, light materials and robotics has attracted 90 different companies from around the state and the region. One such business is Rimol Greenhouse Systems, a successful New Hampshire greenhouse company for whom the Olson Center is developing a production strategy.

Lately, physical space has been of high interest for outside companies. In December, UNHI closed on a facility-use agreement with NephriaBio, a venture-backed company developing next-generation wearable solutions to address unmet needs in kidney health, to provide access to lab space in Parsons Hall, home to UNH’s chemistry department.

Woman leans into industrial machining equipment
UNH's JOhn Olson Advanced Manufacturing Center.

In other important ways, UNH is boosting the economy and the workforce of its home state. Through a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant, the New Hampshire Center for Multiscale Modeling and Manufacturing of Biomaterials (NH BioMade) is advancing the state’s rapidly growing biomaterials industry in areas such as orthopedic implants, trauma fixation hardware and tissue engineering. Developing a skilled workforce for this industry through paid internships, transfer agreements with community colleges, teacher training and more is a key component of the UNH-led partnership of higher education and industry.

Ground breaking stuff, to be sure, but a bullish Eichenberger sees it all as just the start of even bigger things to come for UNH.

“I’d like to see us develop a deeper commercialization mentality and capability,” says Eichenberger, who is in talks with other companies to co-locate at the Olson Center. “Of finding new ways to help a researcher or a new company get their technology out.”

Starting Up and Spinning Out

Two women sit at a conference table
Soteria Solutions' Sharyn Potter, left, and Jane Stapleton.

UNH isn’t just bringing companies to its resources, it’s also leveraging its resources to partner with entrepreneurs to develop new companies, helping researchers launch their ideas into the world as start-ups and spin-outs. The lineup has been impressive, from a student-founded app called Kikori, which provides social emotional learning and team building activities, to the Stratham-based manufacturer Itaconix, maker of a biodegradable polymer that is used in detergents, cleaners and a variety of health care products.

UNH intellectual property is also at work in the not-for-profit sector. Its earliest and most notable success is Soteria Solutions, a Durham-based start-up that works with companies and educational institutions on implementing its pioneering strategies to create safe and respectful working environments.

Founded by Jane Stapleton and Sharyn Potter, two nationally recognized figures in the sexual violence prevention field, Soteria builds on the work and innovations the two thought leaders created while developing and running UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, a research and practitioner engagement organization that focuses on developing sexual and relationship violence prevention strategies.

During its three years of existence, Soteria has worked with clients throughout the country, including some of the nation’s largest companies.

It has secured a multi-year contract with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and has established some 500 licenses of its Bringing in the Bystander® harassment intervention program with organizations around the globe.

That kind of success is a testament to the decades of work Potter, professor of women’s and gender studies, and Stapleton have put into the field. But it also speaks to the foresight and belief they and others had in building a business that was a complete departure from the university’s previous partnerships.

“We don’t develop physical products like rockets, or seeds or chemicals,” says Stapleton, Soteria’s president. “We really were a test case and pioneers in starting a business like this.”

Could Soteria have succeeded without the help of UNH? Maybe, says Potter, who still serves as Prevention Innovation’s executive director. But research shows that having the support of a university greatly increases the chances of success.

“So many things, like trademarks and business structure, have already been resolved before the entity is on its own,” she says. “This means new businesses can focus on building a customer base from day one. For Soteria, it meant we could hit the ground running.”