By Emanuele Bompan
The Silicon Valley of the green economy? Don’t search for it in California. The hub of cleantech startups is in fact on the opposite coast, in quiet New England. State support, research networks, the influence of great Massachusetts universities, MIT and Harvard and others, but also attention to energy conservation and renewable energy by citizens, public administrations and private enterprise contribute to the vital cleantech activities in the region. From Connecticut to Maine the new imperative is to develop new businesses related to technologies for the environment: from super-efficient battery systems, energy monitoring , a new generation of solar panels, anaerobic digesters to patterns of use of sustainable biofuels .
Just enter within the walls of Greentown Labs, a cleantech incubator born a few steps from MIT, to understand the atmosphere that characterizes this place. "We host over 40 companies here”, states Elizabeth Barno, head of public relations for Greentown Labs. "Each one receives counseling services to grow their business, has a work space and also, if needed, a space in the laboratory to build their prototypes.” One startup company Sistine Solar, designs and manufactures solar panels in a modular format that can be used as art installations or billboards, minimizing the impact of urban solar panels on the wall or installed on canopies . Another startup, CrowdComfort, has designed a system where occupants can control heating and cooling in public places with their mobile phones .
Other incubators, such as the Institute for Energy and Sustainability in Worcester, MA, do not necessarily house startups in physical space. "We work in a virtual way with many new businesses”, says Chris Noonan. “We provide support and training, putting companies in contact with potential investors, and help them to develop prototypes in order to come to market with a solid foundation behind them.”
With so many incubators forming, three years ago ACTION, the Association of Cleantech Incubators of New England was established, a business league of incubators that collaborate and share their networks. "The New England region”, said ACTION’s Executive Director, Gillian Isabelle, “has become the Silicon Valley of cleantech by virtue of the excellent entrepreneurial ecosystem for businesses of this type - solid networks, many institutions with engineering programs in the advanced cleantech sector that generated this humus to grow new businesses. Sure there are other important clusters that are forming, such as in Austin, Texas or North Carolina, but they still do not have the strength that we have".
Today ACTION includes twelve New England incubators that support over 200 early-stage businesses. There are almost 500 people working in these incubators, with a high concentration of young people from universities. "There were young people who were in a company where they could develop their idea, and dropped everything to be here," explains Noonan .
Although the U.S. market is a land of conquest for these young companies, many look to European markets for their first customers. ACTION has recently expanded its network to include three international incubators: one in England, one in Ireland and the third, and largest, in Italy. "We now have "Progetto Manifattura " in Rovereto in the network, the first Italian incubator for green startup ventures,” says Isabelle . "For us, she explains, it’s an opportunity to create new synergies and find new business contacts for our companies and open up attractive markets”. The European Union remains promising for cleantech. For the enterprises located in Progetto Manifattura however, it is useful to be able to connect to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in New England. ACTION has also recognized a strong interest from South American and Eastern European startups and incubators, which provides an opportunity to expand its network .
The types of businesses accepted in these incubators are very diverse because most of the incubators have decided not to specialize in a single sector, promoting many technologies. "So we encourage hybridization," says Isabelle. "Of course the proximity of MIT has led many IT companies to enter cleantech : energy management systems , an app for the control of house plants. In incubators located in more rural areas we see the startups forming related to anaerobic digesters or biofuels. Incubators in different states tend to attract startups developing technologies based on the sectors their regional economies support."
Public sector support played a crucial role in the development of these incubators, although they find strong financial support from private investors and large companies as well. One program found to stimulate the cleantech market was RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first U.S. regional market for voluntary emissions. In addition, some New England states have favored economic development plans to support these types of companies, using funds derived from excise duty on electricity costs. Strong American entrepreneurship and vibrant culture and science in the region have done the rest.