Exploring Mountains of Innovation in Northern New England

Xconomy Boston — 

It’s not that I thought Vermont and New Hampshire were technological backwaters, because I knew from my years of working in Boston that the local venture capitalists were pumping millions of dollars into startups in the two northern New England states. But what I’ve found over the past year or so of living in both Vermont and the Boston area is that the only thing that really separates the startups in Kendall Square from those in Barre, VT, and Lebanon, NH, is that the former are way closer to good seafood. The level of innovation and sophistication among the entrepreneurs in both camps is pretty much equal.

While attending a business and innovation event called Vermont 3.0 in Burlington, VT, last week, I thought it would be fun and interesting to take a look back at all the northern New England innovation I’ve covered over the past year. Indeed, a perk of working north of the Massachusetts border is that I’ve visited the laboratories and research facilities of many exciting startups up here. I’ve had a chance to visit with faculty and researchers affiliated with innovation hubs such as Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, and the University of Vermont. I’ve also talked shop with venture capitalists at firms such as Borealis Ventures, based in Hanover, NH, and FreshTracks Capital in Shelburne, VT.

What follows are summaries of the northern innovation stories I’ve written for Xconomy in the order in which they were published. For each story description I dug into my notes and tried add something that wasn’t in the original piece (but I’m not one to withhold interesting details from my posts, so the supply of previously unreported material was a bit thin).

My plan is to dig deeper into the pockets of innovation north of Boston over the next year. But make no mistake, the majority of my stories will still emanate from the Hub.

—In northern New England, there are no technology clusters as dense as those found in Boston, but I found an emerging innovation cluster in Dartmouth College and environs earlier this year. My trip to Dartmouth in February resulted in a post about the key labs, people, and concerns that contribute to the startup ecosystem there. (I also learned that parking is as difficult to find on the Dartmouth main campus as anywhere in Cambridge, MA.)

—People may assume startups in New Hampshire operate in small buildings nestled in the woods, and in the case of Lebanon-based antibody discovery firm Adimab, those people would be right. I met the founder and CEO, Tillman Gerngross, at the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, an incubator that hosts Adimab and other firms with ties to Dartmouth College. Gerngross, an engineering professor at Dartmouth, pointed out that a firm called GlycoFi that he co-founded and sold to Whitehouse Station, NJ-based drug giant Merck (NYSE:MRK) in 2006 was operating in separate labs in the same building.

—One of the first stops that startups make to find money in Hanover is Borealis Ventures. Borealis has done well investing in Dartmouth spinouts; its investment in GlycoFi alone made its first fund a big success, firm co-founder and managing director Phil Ferneau told me during a meeting. While there are many angel investors in New Hampshire, Borealis may be the only venture capital firm in the state. So, as you’d imagine, Ferneau and his partners are very popular among entrepreneurs in the state.

—After meeting with Gerngross and Ferneau, I wondered what exactly was under the hood at GlycoFi that would persuade Merck to maintain its operations in New Hampshire. It turned out that GlycoFi’s technology—which involves the use of bioengineered yeast to produce human proteins with lower structural variability than mammalian cell lines typically yield—is a centerpiece of Merck’s recent strategy to develop copies of biotech drugs. And many of the scientists who are developing the GlycoFi platform still reside in northern New England.

—Apparently, I’m not the only Boston-area innovation junkie who’s working in Vermont. John Danner, the CEO of Northern Power Systems in Barre, VT, told me during a meeting at his office that his primary residence is still in Massachusetts even though he spends most of his weeks in the Green Mountain State. Danner, a former engineer aboard nuclear submarines, is now engineering a turnaround at the Vermont-based wind turbine manufacturer. (The latest on Northern Power is that it’s aiming to raise $45 million in a new round of equity financing.)

—I was almost ashamed that I had walked by the Middlebury, VT, headquarters of startup Brighter Planet every week on my way to the bank for nine months before I dropped by for a visit. True to the mission of the Middlebury College students and professor who founded the firm, I found software developers and other technical folks working hard to launch a new social Web application that enables people to share ideas on how to lower their carbon footprint, among other functions. The app has since been launched (which reminds me that I should probably go back to the startup’s office for another visit).

—One of the most rapidly growing tech employers in Vermont is MyWebGrocer, a provider of software for grocery stores to enable their customers to do their shopping and coupon “clipping” online. The big new development at the firm that CEO and found Rich Tarrant told me about in August was its development of an iPhone app. When I saw Tarrant last week in at the Vermont 3.0 event in Burlington, he said that the app had been submitted to Apple for approval, but he wasn’t sure when it would be available.

Mascoma, a Lebanon-based developer of cellulosic ethanol, gave me the most comprehensive lab tour a startup has ever provided to me last month. The highlight was a close look at the dozens of small fermenting machines that the company uses to test new ways to make ethanol with non-edible feedstocks like broken down wood chips and corn husks. It reminded me a bit of the nearby Long Trail beer brewery in Vermont. (But don’t worry. They’re not making beer out of wood chips.)