The panel brought together an inspiring complement of leaders dedicated to accelerating the next generation of hardware startups. The discussion focused on how incubators, accelerators, and makerspaces find themselves working together to support the rapid prototyping and early manufacturing needs of tech startups in the innovation economy.
Taking part were Emily Reichert, Executive Director of Greentown Labs, Molly Wenig Rubenstein, Interim Executive Director, Artisan’s Asylum, Inc. and Rich Breault, President, Lightspeed MFG, along with moderator, Andrea Foertsch, and Sunrise Labs, a product development company in Auburn, NH, sponsor of the event.
The panelists explored the evolving hotbeds of innovation and how these creative communities advance the work of hardware innovators who find themselves at the nexus of design, engineering and technology, and where these innovations in manufacturing contribute direct and indirect economic benefits to the region.
In Massachusetts, makerspaces tend to emerge near academic centers of strong engineering talent such as MIT, WPI, Olin College and the University of Massachusetts. They’ve carved out workspaces in the gateway cities of Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, Taunton, Somerville, Haverhill and the Pioneer Valley.
Artisans and entrepreneurs seek out inexpensive space, often in an underutilized urban area, where they can carry out their work in a collaborative community yet still be close enough to universities from which to draw talented workers as they grow their companies and begin to hire. These workers are often drawn to become residents in the areas near their work. Supporting vendors such as fitness facilities and restaurants choose to locate to the neighborhood where their patrons live and work. Emily Reichert, Executive Director at Greentown Labs expressed, “The leadership of Somerville has a real vision for economic development. Businesses like Artisan’s Asylum or Greentown Labs attract a certain type of innovative person that will spend money in the community”. As an example, Brooklyn Boulders (BKB) in Somerville, a rock climbing and fitness facility that offers a new type of community space blending state-of-the-art climbing terrain with art, culture, music, and entrepreneurship decided to locate in the neighborhood where a population of young residents can support their facility. Examples like these contribute to the economic growth and revitalization of the city.
"The emergence of spaces like Greentown Labs and Artisan's Asylum is incredibly exciting from an urban economic development standpoint," said Adi Nochur, a Somerville resident and MIT-trained urban planner. "The key challenge before us is, how can we leverage these new centers to create economic development opportunities for the broader community? How can we partner with workforce training programs and public schools to ensure that we are creating good career pathways in the new cleantech and manufacturing economies for residents of communities like Somerville, who might not come from the same knowledge background as the innovators driving these spaces? Along similar lines, how can such spaces enable and empower residents of underserved communities to become innovators and entrepreneurs in their own right?”, asked Nochur.
Startups Supporting Startups
Greentown Labs was founded 3 years ago when 4 hardware startup companies needed to find a place to “bend metal and make noise”. They eventually found themselves in space in Boston’s newly dubbed Innovation District in Fort Point Channel, growing to support over 30 cleantech companies. With the demand for more co-working and prototyping space and a waiting list of companies looking to join Greentown’s incubator, a new location was selected in Somerville, MA. Greentown Labs conveniently built out their new space just a corridor away from Artisan’s Asylum, an artisan’s community of over 400 members and 200 students, which provides education, tools, workspace, and community for fabricators, including hobbyists, artists, and early-stage entrepreneurs. The two organizations are working on an agreement which will allow members of both communities to share resources in the expanded space, thereby creating multi-discipline exposure to companies and talents that may not have otherwise occurred. “The cross-pollination that results is extremely exciting”, remarked Molly Rubenstein, Interim Director of Artisan’s Asylum.
Two local energy efficiency startups have incorporated their technologies into Greentown Labs’ new space. Boston-based Digital Lumens provided its intelligent industrial LED High Bay Lighting System and CrowdComfort is testing their crowd-sourced application for monitoring and adjusting climate comfort levels in buildings.
And Outside of Greater Boston?
Other interesting collaborations are happening around the Commonwealth. Rich Breault, President of Lightspeed MFG in Haverhill, MA, once a startup itself, recognizes the unique needs of early-stage companies. Lightspeed MFG participated as a business sponsor of the Haverhill Hardware Horizons Challenge (H3C), a hardware startup accelerator. John Michitson, President of the Haverhill City Council, organized the 2012 challenge. The challenge invited early-stage technology startups developing and marketing a hardware product to participate and brought together a collaboration of industry and education sponsors to support the companies in their path to tech commercialization, noting that the barriers to entry for technology startups focused on developing new hardware products are typically much higher than they are for software startups. Lightspeed MFG provided mentoring and manufacturing assistance by building circuit boards for the companies. “The City of Haverhill took a unique approach to attracting startups. If you have the companies, others will follow”, said Rich Breault.
Haverhill’s distinguished history of supporting technology hardware and manufacturing excellence is evidenced by its development of one of the very first technology hardware products, the telephone. The city is interested in promoting this competency in hardware development and manufacturing to support the next generation of tech startups. The H³C demonstrates that Haverhill is a forward-thinking community with unique access to the resources and expertise necessary to accelerate the success of the next technology product companies.
Rich Breault described an initiative between Lightspeed MFG and MassChallenge, the world’s largest startup accelerator and competition. Lightspeed MFG announced that it will be setting up a satellite lab for manufacturing at MassChallenge for industry and startups, taking their resources and competency to where the new companies are located.
Francisco Aguilar, Founder of Bounce Imaging and a MassChallenge 2012 finalist and 2013 contestant stated,” "We would not be where we are today without Rich and Lightspeed. They have helped us move from design to reality with the clear POV that prototypes are nice, but no good to the world if they don't become manufacturable products."
When asked if there was a model out there to help startups manufacture in small quantities, Mr. Breault replied, “It’s difficult to form partnerships with multibillion dollar companies. The big ones don’t know how to tie into the startups. Rather, they look to companies like Lightspeed, who has worked with the startup community, to pre-qualify the startups”. Lightspeed MFG offers medium volume contract manufacturing for startups. The advancements in 3-D printing and new distributed manufacturing models will offer innovators the opportunity to rapidly prototype and manufacture products unlike any time before.
You’ll find the published report “Innovationin Manufacturing- Makerspaces” here http://ampitupma.com/pdf/makerspacesreport_april2013.pdf .
Joan Popolo, Programs Director
ACTION, Association of Cleantech Incubators of New England