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Inside Somerville's Green-Tech Incubator

Greentown Labs, home to 37 green-tech startups, anchors a budding innovation corridor here in Somerville.

Young entrepreneurs play pool during a lunch break at Somerville's Greentown Labs. Credit: Chris Orchard
Young entrepreneurs play pool during a lunch break at Somerville's Greentown Labs. Credit: Chris Orchard
Since moving to Somerville in the summer of 2013, Greentown labs has converted 33,000 square feet of formerly empty industrial space into a buzzing hub of green-technology innovation.

It's also served as an anchor, along with Artisan's Asylum and Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, for a mini innovation corridor here in Somerville–a chain of businesses cloaked in the ethos of the creative economy (Brooklyn Boulders Somerville has collaborative workspace and pop-up retail stores in addition to giant indoor climbing walls).

Housed in part of the former Ames Safety Envelope facility, and located at 28 Dane St., the Greentown Labs site was an empty concrete space when Gov. Deval Patrick visited in July.

Today it's home to 37 startup companies that work in clean energy, green technology and "social impact" fields. The social impact category includes companies like Promethean Power Systems, which designs off-grid refrigeration stations for developing areas, like rural India, where people can store milk, vegetables and other perishable foods.

Need for prototyping space


Now, Greentown Labs is filled with desks, prototyping space and a cafeteria that has a pool table and, it seems, a kegerator.

Emily Reichert, CEO and executive director of Greentown Labs, said it's the prototyping space that's particularly valuable for startup companies.

Finding office space isn't difficult, she said, but "finding that prototyping space … is nearly impossible" outside a university setting.

"That's the need we're really satisfying," she said.

Indeed, many of the faces you see at Greentown Labs are just out of a university graduate school setting. When you're a hardware engineer, you actually have to build your ideas, Reichert explained. "You get money when you show something works." Hardware engineers need work space.

Currently, startups at Greentown Labs pay $400 a month for a desk in the open-plan office and $3 per square foot for prototyping space, with a minimum of 100 square feet. In other words, $700 a month gets you an office and enough room for a workbench, assembly table and some space to test your creation. There are also benefits, compared to working in a garage or taking over the kitchen in your apartment, to sharing a creative environment with 36 other innovators and being able to present a professional face to investors.

An incubator


Reichert stressed that Greentown Labs is an incubator space, not an accelerator space, saying the two are often confused.

An accelerator space is a short-term intensive program that helps startups form a business plan and get on their feet. As an incubator space, "We don't put any artificial time limits on our companies," Reichert said.

Greentown Labs serves as a home for young companies from when they're building a prototype until they receive their first big round of funding, she said. At that point, companies move on and establish their own headquarters.

In fact, a number of companies at Greentown Labs came from accelerator programs, such as MassChallege and Techstars.

Some quick examples


On a recent visit to Greentown Labs, Somerville Patch met quickly with a number of startups and young entrepreneurs:

Ivan Wang and Jason Ethier are founders of Dynamo Micropower, which is developing a "micro-turbine power generator system for remote applications." Among their applications, these micro-turbines will be able to capture wasted "flare gas" from oil rigs to generate power, alleviating the need for diesel generators and fuel transportation.

Keystone Tower Systems is developing a new method for building wind-turbine towers on site, which, according to Daniel Bridgers, allows them to be built taller without needing to transport huge pieces of the tower on trucks.

Refresh is building a new type of vending machine that contains reusable, collapsing bottles and that's connected to a local tap-water system, doing away with the need to transport truckloads of bottles from vendor to vendor.

Somerville Patch will post more about these companies soon.

Settling into Somerville


In all, said Reichert, most of the startups have between one and 10 employees, but the incubator space is also attracting a small handful of larger tenants, who will be moving in soon, she said.

Mark Vasu, a member of the Greentown Labs team, said the space is also exploring opportunities to test some of its companies' products here in Somerville.

Greentown Labs also hosts a number of events for students and local innovators, such as the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, the Cleantech Open and regular panel discussions. Students from Somerville High School recently paid a visit, too.

More on Greentown Labs


Joe Beckmann January 16, 2014 at 07:57 AM
What about a city and/or state tax incentive for incubator activities once companies proove their concept and until their profitability?

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