Micro Technology Center closing

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NORTH BENNINGTON -- The Bennington Micro Technology Center is shuttering its doors after failing to meet lofty expectations laid out at its onset seven years ago.

Bennington County Industrial Corp. Executive Director Peter Odierna, a member of the center’s board of directors, said the center is set to deliver its final products to the Office of Naval Research in the coming days before closing down.

The center on Water Street was created in 2003 with great fanfare -- and state and federal funding -- to manufacture micro devices at low-volume. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, helped secure a $3.5 million contract with the Navy. The hope for the center, which partnered with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., was that companies would turn to BMC to have concepts put into working prototypes. At the time, officials predicted strong job growth from industries sprouting up around the center.

But the plan never fully developed, and the center employed about seven people at its height.

‘Overcome by events’

Phil Sussman, another board member, said the center was the victim of circumstance. "In some ways, we were just overcome by events. It’s unfortunate," he said.

A project to develop sensors for a Navy torpedo was shelved by the Department of Defense "beyond what seemed to be a reasonable time frame," Sussman said.

"We were given an inkling that it may change in the June, July time frame and were told this August that the whole thing was being pushed back by 24 months," he said.

A separate product, designed in conjunction with Integrated Nano-Techologies, a Rochester, N.Y.-based company, experienced similar delays. INT’s hand-held biological laboratory test unit uses a BMC-made sensor to test drops of blood that flow through the unit, delivering diagnostic information. The unit can detect anthrax and other viruses in minutes.

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"Something that was a five-hour exercise can be reduced to about a five-minute exercise," Sussman said. "That push off by the federal government to work in that area did cause us a little bit of difficulty and instability in the organization."

The center had no other work lined up, and the board determined it would not seek additional contracts, according to Odierna.

"We looked at the opportunities within that space and concluded that our internal goals had not been met and there were other areas in the local economy which should be prioritized at a higher level," he said.

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Sussman said the center proved that nanotechnology was viable in the area. "We had a number of customers that were interested in those technologies," he said.

But the center struggled to sustain itself because it had little internal funding. "I’m disappointed because I still believe that the concept is viable. I believe that we entered into this, possibly, maybe a little more under-funded than was required to sustain us over the long-term," Sussman said.

BMC experienced several hiccups over the years.

Dr. Harry Stephanou, the founder of BMC and the former director of the Center for Automation Technologies at RPI, as well as the former chairman of BMC’s board of directors, was the major impetus behind launching BMC. He soon moved to the University of Texas, however, and the relationship soured.

Then, Henry Klim was hired by the BMC board in 2006 to serve as director because of his knowledge of the sensors market and his contacts within it. But Klim was fired, then sued, by BMC in February 2008 to collect allegedly misappropriated company funds.

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Despite the setbacks, and now the center’s closure, Sussman said he happy with what the center accomplished.

"At this point in time I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been associated with this," he said. "I’m disappointed that it didn’t come together."

The center is looking to unload its pricey equipment and is in discussions with "several parties," Odierna said. Officials at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center have looked at some of the machines, he said.

The technical center recently received a grant earmarked for workforce development in the field of nanotechnology, Odierna said.

"We’re hopeful that the equipment will have a long-lasting value in Bennington," he said.

The center will cease operations without any debt.

"It’s pretty break-even at this point. We were lucky. We were able to end the Bennington Microtechnology Center’s operation and be able to pay off all of the vendors and eliminate any debt that existed," Sussman said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com


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