Greentown Startups Work Around VCs, Find Niches in Cleantech

If you’re wondering what’s bubbling up in the fields of energy and sustainability, try visiting the incubator with the largest number of cleantech startups in the country.

That would be Greentown Labs, based in a 33,000-square-foot facility in Somerville, MA, between Union Square and Porter Square. The co-working space originally formed in late 2010 in Cambridge, MA, near the Galleria Mall, and moved to Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood in 2011. Last fall, Greentown resettled in its current digs, a manufacturing building previously occupied by Ames Safety Envelope.

The incubator officially opened in May 2011, and it celebrated its third birthday on Wednesday.

Greentown’s 40-odd startup residents span the fields of energy generation, distribution, and efficiency, as well as smart buildings, advanced materials, agriculture, water, and waste management. The facility converted from nonprofit to for-profit last year, and it gets about 80 percent of its money from the rent it charges its residents; the rest comes from corporate sponsors (15 percent) and city and state governments (5 percent).

The space has retained its original hardware focus—and its grassroots feel. Entrepreneurs sit in a large, open room and have access to a machine shop, electronics shop, prototyping equipment, and design software. They also have access to each other, of course: the network and community is one of Greentown’s main selling points.

Around Boston, there are well-established cleantech startups like Harvest Power, Next Step Living, and Digital Lumens. Yet for every Ambri (formerly called Liquid Metal Battery), which recently raised $35 million from the likes of Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures, there are many fledgling startups striving to find funding, customers, and the right market fit.

And that’s where Greentown’s impact lies. Indeed, early-stage companies are a key focus for the region, as many observers are wondering what’s next for green energy in Massachusetts after Gov. Deval Patrick steps down in 2015.

“Everybody thinks cleantech is down in the dumps, and it’s really not,” says Emily Reichert, Greentown’s CEO and executive director (pictured at top).

Reichert is an interesting mix of tech- and business-savvy. She did her PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then spent six years at TIAX, the Boston-area technology development lab, which is where she first got into green chemistry. After a few years directing business operations at Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, she got an MBA at MIT Sloan School of Management, with a focus on entrepreneurship. She signed on with Greentown Labs in early 2013.

“I thought I’d hang out with Greentown, but I got more and more involved and fell in love with it,” Reichert says.

She says the space has been adding two or three startups a month since last fall. Some emerging themes: agriculture, energy efficiency, manufacturing, robotics, oil and gas partnerships, and slightly more consumer tech.

Greentown startups tend to be young, gritty, and low-capital. A couple of the founding members, Oscomp Systems and Promethean Power, outgrew the space and now have primary operations elsewhere. Others are still based at Greentown and have recently raised their profile—quite literally, in the case of Altaeros Energies, which makes a wind turbine designed to float 1,000 feet in the air.

But most of the startups remain under the radar, working on niche products. “There’s no company in here trying to create a solar cell that’s cheaper than coal,” says Adam Rein, an Altaeros co-founder and board member of Greentown. Instead of trying to “solve the energy crisis with one company,” he says, Greentown entrepreneurs are working on narrower problems and focusing on very specific customers and partners.

They are also working around traditional venture firms, which … Next Page »

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One response to “Greentown Startups Work Around VCs, Find Niches in Cleantech”

  1. Jerry Jeff says:

    Sounds like a cool place, and I wish I’d made it to their open house this week. The focus on deployment and addressing tractable problems is both good and bad. It’s great to see some companies getting traction and solving problems in the real world. On the other hand, the *really big* problems aren’t going to solve themselves…