UMass: The Gateway to Asia?

If MIT is the MIT of Massachusetts, then Tsinghua University is the MIT of China—a research and innovation powerhouse likely to drive much of that nation’s economic progress in the coming century. Links to laboratories and projects at Tsinghua could give Boston-area scientists and entrepreneurs access to local collaborators and local markets.

And that’s why University of Massachusetts president Jack Wilson, senior vice president for academic and student affairs and international relations Marcellette Williams, Nobel Prize-winning UMass biologist Craig Mello, and others have been schmoozing of late with Tsinghua officials. Earlier this month Williams attended the opening of the newest UMass-China partnership, a “technology base” for UMass at Tsinghua’s Langfang science park in the Hebei province of China.

Though still in its early relationship-building phase, the technology base is intended to function in the long run as an incubator for Massachusetts technology companies looking to do business in Heibei province, according to Williams. In return, staff at the base will train Tsinghua officials in the process of technology transfer—the commercial licensing of university research products.

“The Massachusetts Technology Base definitely will provide an additional venue for research collaboration between the University of Massachusetts and Tsinghua University,” says Williams. In later phases, she says, the technology base staff (which may include UMass faculty) and local collaborators will help ease entry into the Chinese market for U.S. entrepreneurs who may be unfamiliar with the local business culture, legal framework, and market needs.

The UMass effort is laudable, but needs to go even further, says William Guenther, president of Mass Insight Corporation, a consulting firm promoting Massachusetts as a world R&D center. “The most substantial asset we have to market is our university base,” Williams says. “UMass needs to play a major role in the state’s initiatives in China and other Asian countries, and the work that President Wilson is doing with Tsinghua is an indicator of the kinds of initiatives which are underway. But hopefully that’s only a start. We probably need to redouble our efforts”—perhaps starting with a major trade mission to China led by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.

Eventually, the flow of assistance will go both ways. Two faculty members from Tsinghua’s department of materials science and engineering are already at UMass to talk about nanotechnology research collaborations. “This is very much about supporting our companies in their efforts to get into the Chinese market, but it’s also about supporting Chinese and Asian companies that want to business in the United States, and ensuring that Massachusetts is a major gateway for them,” says Guenther.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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