Tech Center Closes, Dashing Hopes For New Industry In Bennington

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(Host) The Bennington Microtechnology Center has closed. The nonprofit venture was launched in 2004 with help from federal and state earmarks.

But the jobs and spinoff companies the center was supposed to generate never materialized — as VPR’s Susan Keese reports. 

(Keese) The lease expired last month on the Bennington microtechnology center’s 2-story suite in industrial North Bennington.

The company spent its final months fulfilling contracts with the U.S. Office of Naval Research. 

The work involved developing a process for manufacturing minuscule, complex chips called MEMS, or micro-electronic mechanical systems – in this case, sensors to tell torpedoes when to fire.

(O’Dierna) "And it was done well. So from a functional perspective it worked. …From an economic development perspective, it clearly did not reach the goals that were articulated early in the concept."

(Keese) Peter O’Dierna heads the Bennington County Industrial Corporation. Back in 2004, the agency worked hard to bring the center to town. 

O’Dierna says the idea was that Bennington would share in a coming microtechnology boom around Albany, fueled by research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.

The vision for the Bennington Center came from an RPI professor, Dr. Harry Stephanou.

Phil Sussman heads a research facility at Norwich University and served on the Bennington Center’s board. He says Stephanou wanted to take experimental microtechnology inventions out of the lab and into mass production.

(Sussman) "He felt that there was a market to take laboratory-based devices and convert them into commercial products… and that the specialization within the Bennington Microtech Center would be the manufacturing processes, that these products that had been craft-made in laboratories could then migrate to a commercial application."

(Keese) The jobs would come when new industries emerged to use those new processes to manufacture microtechnology devices. But that didn’t happen.

Early on, Dr. Stephanou was lured, with his team of experts, to the University of Texas at Austin.

Stephanou wouldn’t talk on tape, but said in a phone conversation that the partnership could have worked, with his research team in Texas and engineers in Bennington.

But Sussman says it didn’t work.

(Sussman) "The regional partnership became a bifurcated partnership with two remote locations, and a large portion of the engineering design was taking place in Texas, that work was never carried out in Vermont."

(Keese) Stephanou says it was difficult to attract the necessary talent to Vermont. At its height, the Bennington Center only had a handful of employees.

But the Bennington Industrial Corporation says the Microtech Center was competing successfully on its own for contracts. But many of the prospective jobs were delayed or canceled because of the economy.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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