TechSandBox Looking to Rally Entrepreneurs in Boston’s MetroWest

Here’s a concept: a Boston-area startup incubator outside of Route 128.

What’s outside 128, you ask? A whole lot of experienced technology and life sciences workers, that’s what. And some of them want to start new companies, without commuting every day into the rush-hour hell that is Boston and Cambridge.

That’s the impetus behind TechSandBox, a new collaborative workspace for entrepreneurs and execs in Southborough, MA. The 5,500-square-foot space is located on Route 9, just inside I-495, in a Becker College building (see photo). The model is different from accelerators like TechStars or MassChallenge, in that there’s no money, no bootcamp session, and no competition—just co-working, networking, and events.

TechSandBox is the brainchild of Barbara Finer, an engineer by training who has worked in marketing, business development, angel investing, and startups (this is her sixth). In her spare time, she has worked with organizations like MIT Enterprise Forum, WPI Venture Forum, and MassChallenge, and has taught business courses at Babson and Emerson.

Finer was motivated in part by her own commute from Hudson, MA, but mostly she thinks the MetroWest (a loose collection of towns between Boston and Worcester) needs a central meeting place for entrepreneurs and innovators. Despite the presence of big companies like EMC, IBM, Boston Scientific, and PerkinElmer—and plenty of young startups—the perception in the city is that not much innovative is happening in the ’burbs.

“People think we don’t have electricity out here,” says Finer (pictured at left). “The reality is there’s a heck of a lot of tech.”

The workforce demographics are certainly different in places like Boxboro, Marlboro, Hopkinton, and Natick, compared to Boston/Cambridge. For one thing, the average entrepreneur is 45 to 60 years old, with a lot more work and life experience.

“The dynamics are different,” Finer says. “There are a lot of very successful entrepreneurs who live out here. We don’t have the quantity of Boston/Cambridge startups, but I think we have a higher quality. They’re working 80 hours a week when they have a wife and kids, and they’re taking out second mortgages. When you’re 22, you can live with six other people, you can have a part-time job at a bar, you can try something.”

Finer, the CEO of TechSandBox, says she’s setting up the incubator as a nonprofit. Revenues will come mostly from sponsorships and membership fees ($200 a month to be in the co-working space, $450 a month for a closed office). The workspace can handle about 40 to 80 people at a time, depending on daily use, she says. It’s already open for business, but the official launch party will be May 15.

Here are some edited highlights from our recent chat:

Xconomy: So let’s talk a little more about how the incubator will work, and the sorts of services you’re providing.

Barbara Finer: We’ll have advisors, mentors, bullpen space—shared co-working space—a few closed offices too, and then the consistency of having programs and panels and speakers and networking. After four months of research, it ended up being: everything that MassChallenge has, scaled down, without the competition.

If you’re an entrepreneur, everything’s brought to you—mentors, advisors, Wi-Fi, office space. So you can stick to your knitting, and clear some of the noise away. You don’t have to go find people for IP [intellectual property], marketing, or legal services. Most people aren’t good at picking up the phone and calling an IP attorney.

X: What kinds of companies and people are the best fit as residents? Which sectors are you focusing on?

BF: Science and technology entrepreneurs in IT; life sciences, medical devices, pharma, biochem; and industrial automation, robotics, and manufacturing. Also the energy sector—people from battery and biofuel companies and solar companies. There’s mobile gaming out here too. They have to be a science or tech product or service company.

Our first entrepreneur signed up, he’s a [Worcester Polytechnic Institute] PhD with a life sciences company, KBioSim. He has kids at home, and he wanted to hang out with other people and get the energy, the buzz, the camaraderie, the commiserating, the healthy competition.

X: What are your goals and metrics for the first year?

BF: The metrics for us are to prove to the skeptical rest of the world that there really are some very cool companies out here. And have some of them get the attention they deserve and hit certain milestones. So, how many get recognized that are hanging out here. We want to be a vibrant community. And within 18 months, we’d like to have the business model solidly on its footing and out of the startup scariness phase.

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