Greentown Labs Grows, Wants to Make Somerville a Global Cleantech Hub
In recent years, Boston’s neighbor to the northwest, Somerville, MA, has become increasingly known for its influx of young professionals, artists, and hipsters. If Greentown Labs has its way, the city will become synonymous with cleantech, too.
Greentown, the Somerville incubator for cleantech startups and research and development teams from large companies, yesterday announced an $11 million expansion that will more than double its current footprint. The group also picked up another big-name sponsor—Paris-based Veolia, a water, wastewater, and energy management company—which will place an employee on site and potentially form partnerships with startups working in the incubator.
Greentown made the announcements at an event showcasing many of the 43 companies currently working at its 40,000-square-foot space at 28 Dane St. Greentown will tack on another 53,000 square feet by moving into the building across the alley, 444 Somerville Ave. In the 1850s, the space was used to manufacture copper and bronze tubes for steam engines; it’s currently home to an auto body repair and paint business, which will relocate north of the city, Greentown officials said.
Companies apply to set up shop in Greentown and pay the organization rent if accepted. In return, they get access to co-working desks and lab space for building prototypes; free software and business services; and the ability to tap into a network of entrepreneurs, industry experts, and potential customers and investors.
The new space, which is slated to open by the end of 2016 (see above rendering), will allow Greentown to provide 400 desks and 45,000 square feet of lab space altogether—enough to house more than 100 companies, the organization said.
“We envision the creation of a global cleantech innovation center right here in Somerville,” Greentown CEO Emily Reichert said during a ceremony Thursday that included speeches from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. (The $11 million includes $2 million in public funding, with the rest mostly from bank loans, Greentown said.)
Greentown was founded in 2011 in a warehouse in nearby Cambridge, MA, and initially housed four startups. It later moved near downtown Boston, before settling into its current Somerville digs in 2013. It claims to be the largest cleantech incubator in the U.S.
The Greentown model of cleantech startups co-locating with R&D teams from big companies is becoming popular all around the country. Greentown has relationships with similar organizations in Milwaukee (the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium) and Los Angeles (the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator), Reichert said. Examples of other similar facilities include The Water Council’s Global Water Center in Milwaukee.
Greentown’s efforts are already bearing fruit, according to the organization. It said its member companies have raised $118 million from investors and employ 405 people. In the past year alone, five Greentown companies raised Series A funding rounds and two signed federal contracts worth more than $1 million. This fall, four companies gained enough traction to move into their own offices, Reichert said.
“These companies are changing the world, and their growth is fueling our growth,” Reichert said.
Greentown’s current tenants demonstrate the wide variety of opportunities in cleantech, from wind and solar energy to robotics and software. Its members include Voxel8, which makes 3D printers that can print electronics; Accion Systems, which is developing a space propulsion system for small satellites; and Grove Labs, which is developing boxes to grow food indoors.
Greentown could get more diverse with its new building, which will include 24 wet lab benches—something the current space lacks. That should allow Greentown to attract different kinds of tenant, like companies working in energy storage or bio-based chemicals, Reichert said in an interview after the ceremony. “We’re charging less than Kendall Square,” she added.
Things were tougher for cleantech startups in Greentown’s early days, Reichert said. In some cases, it was harder to get venture capitalists excited about the sector. That was perhaps due, in part, to high-profile failures like solar panel maker Solyndra.
Now, cleantech companies are becoming leaner and smarter, Reichert said. They might, for example, outsource their early manufacturing work and ink customer orders before setting up their own production facility. “People are trying to be as capital-light as possible. That’s tough to do in cleantech,” she said.
That, of course, is where Greentown wants to help. The goal is to offer cheaper work space for young companies, who also can get a boost from the more established corporations that have a presence there—potential customers, investors, and acquirers.
And Greentown is trying to be frugal when possible, too. Shell, a tenant that has a team there working on underwater drone research, offered free expertise to help Greentown design the safety protocols for the facility, thereby saving it money on hiring an outside consultant, Reichert said.
“The big corporations help us,” she said.
The newest example is Veolia. The multinational corporation doesn’t have a venture capital arm, but it’s getting more involved with startups, said Yann Moreau, Veolia’s North American director of research and innovation, who flew in from Chicago to attend the Greentown event.
Veolia’s leaders recognize that there are “new ways of thinking about older waste treatment” processes, Moreau said. The industry is looking at methods to be more sustainable, say, by producing bioplastics out of organic materials found in wastewater. A decade ago, “nobody was thinking about things like that,” he said. “Our company is in a transition phase.”
Veolia wants to tap into the ideas of startups. It’s doing that through initiatives like sponsoring Greentown, as well as starting a program with The Water Council and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to provide cash prizes and office space for a year to companies with innovative ideas in water and clean energy.
Veolia sees these programs as opportunities to purchase the startups’ products or perhaps jointly distribute them, Moreau said. It will make its facilities available to Greentown startups for pilot testing, he added. “That also serves us so we can see if the products work.”