Cleantech Incubator Greentown Labs Makes Friends With Big Companies

If there’s one thing that many cleantech startups have come to realize, it’s the importance of having access to companies with deep pockets. In energy and water, big corporations, or “strategic partners,” can provide the funding and expertise that’s often needed to push a startup’s prototype closer to production—and sales.

The cleantech incubator Greentown Labs has taken that lesson to heart and has organized a number of partnerships designed to bring fledgling upstarts together with established energy and industrial companies. Today Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick’s office announced that Paris-based building and construction company Saint Gobain will create a testing lab at Greentown Labs’ Somerville, MA, offices. The deal was announced during a trade mission to France.

Greentown Labs is the home to about 40 early-state startups working on clean energy technologies and sustainability. The incubator already has a number of corporates sponsors, but the arrangement with Saint Gobain will be the first to bring a research and development facility into the shared office space.

Saint Gobain, which has a research and development office in Northborough, MA, plans to add an office at Greentown Labs and build a facility to run tests on building materials. A company could, for instance, measure how durable a new insulation material is under different temperatures and humidity levels, says Greentown Labs executive vice president Mark Vasu.

The Saint Gobain partnership is part of Greentown Labs’ strategy of getting tiny startups and giant corporations to talk to each. Compared to startups working in digital technologies, fledgling cleantech companies more often need to establish partnerships with incumbent providers. Big companies in energy or building materials, for instance, can provide funding and market knowhow to startups, advising them on their needs and marketing. In a best case scenario, strategic partners will be first customers to test new products.

These types of partnerships work both ways, Vasu says. The money provided by sponsors keeps the rents low for Greentown Labs member companies and large corporations get early looks at emerging technology. Also, corporations are helping to fill a void left by venture capitalists who have gotten out of energy and clean tech.

“Corporate strategic partners are becoming lifeblood investors in startups and their technologies,” Vasu says. “They’re looking for innovation. And the entrepreneurs are a potential sources of talent for them.”

Greentown Labs is also organizing an event with General Electric (NYSE: GE) where its venture investors and business managers from GE’s power and water group will come in for presentations and meetings. EnerNOC (NASDAQ: ENOC), which provides energy management services, last month also announced plans to open an office at Greentown Labs to collaborate with entrepreneurs.

The efforts reflect how established companies are looking to find fresh ideas from outside their companies by collaborating. “The mandates (big companies) are having is to go faster and be more innovative and they’re seeing that here,” Vasu says.

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