Scout Somerville Highlights Greentown Labs

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GTL1On July 18, Mayor Curtatone’s dream of making his hometown into “Innovation City” came one step closer to reality when Greentown Labs, a cleantech-focused startup incubator formerly based in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, announced its decision to relocate to Somerville.

Although home to innovation-oriented organizations such as Artisan’s Asylum andFringe Union, Somerville has not historically been a major hub of the Boston-area innovation ecosystem. But with the arrival of Greentown Labs, that may soon change. In an op-ed piece in the Somerville Times, the mayor wrote that “Greentown’s move isn’t the start of a movement. It’s a sign that an urban renaissance already underway is picking up speed, with Somerville at the vanguard.”

An incubator is an organization that provides work space, mentoring and other assistance to fledgling startups. Entrepreneurs will typically move their young business into an incubator after graduating from college or university and stay until they have raised enough capital to move into their own space.

There are many incubators in and around Boston, but Greentown Labs is unusual in two ways. First, it is focused on cleantech, or technology geared toward sustainability. And second, nearly all the businesses it houses are developing actual physical objects, many of which are quite large, rather than the software and apps that constitute the Boston-area tech scene’s more usual fare.

The latter factor explains why, after two years in Fort Point, Greentown needed a new home: prototyping heavy equipment takes a lot of space, and they didn’t have enough of it.

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“In the beginning,” says Executive Director Emily Reichert, “we had plenty of space, but toward the end we started filling everything. It was so crowded on the shop floor, it was almost like you couldn’t build your prototype without smacking into someone else. And so, for us, that was really the driving factor – we had to have more prototyping space, because that’s what we uniquely offer, that no one else does.”

On top of that, the neighborhood had become unaffordable. When they settled there in early 2011, their 14,000-square-foot space cost them $8 per square foot. But just two years later, thanks in part to the City of Boston’s “Innovation District” initiative – an aggressive rebranding campaign aimed at revitalizing the underutilized Seaport District – rents in Fort Point climbed as high as $45 per square foot.

“Rent is our main source of revenue,” says Reichert, “and there was no way we’d pass on $45 per square foot to entrepreneurs. So it basically became impossible for us to stay in the neighborhood.”

As Reichert and her team began shopping for new spaces, they had two main criteria. First, their new home needed to be somewhere on the Red Line corridor. Given the intimate symbiosis of the Boston-area innovation ecosystem, with entrepreneurs shuttling constantly between MIT, Harvard, Kendall and Fort Point, a location outside the range of public transit would not be feasible for many potential residents. Second, it had to be large enough – and cheap enough – to provide ample prototyping space for 25 startups and counting.

In a city as small and dense as Boston, finding a place that met both qualifications was not easy. They found a handful of suitable spaces in other corners of the Innovation District, like the Leather District and the Drydock area, but they knew it would only be a matter of time before the inevitable rising rent would price them out once again. They also looked in Cambridge, but could find nothing under $35 per square foot.

In March, Reichert reached out to the mayor’s office to pitch the idea of moving Greentown Labs to Somerville. They met with City Development Directors Michael Glavin and Ed O’Donnell, who pounced on the idea and ran with it. Shortly thereafter, Mayor Curtatone visited Greentown Labs in Fort Point.

“I think he fell in love with the place,” says Reichert. “From that point, his team was pushing us to move here. They were recruiting us hardcore. It was awesome.”

And after seeing the cavernous expanse of the old Ames factory, the Greentown Labs team knew they’d found a match. The space, which had been vacant since 2010, offered five times the square footage of their original location, at a mere $7.50 per square foot. That, and just minutes from the flourishing yet still affordable urban hub of Union Square, it was only a fifteen minute walk from the Red Line. “Entrepreneurs can afford to live, work and play here,” says Reichert. “There’s not too many places where you can say that.”

The Greentown Labs Board made the decision to move to Somerville on June 10. After securing a $300,000 working capital loan from the Somerville Innovation Fund, they went public with their new location on July 18, signed the lease on July 30, started building out on August 5 and moved in on September 23 – a whirlwind undertaking that, according to Reichert, may well have been “the fastest buildout ever.”

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In addition to the loan, the City has also begun to help Greentown Labs out in another crucial way: by acting as a guinea pig for some of the companies’ products. For instance, one company, Refresh, is developing a water vending kiosk that “filters, flavors, carbonates and bottles water at the point of use, instead of in a bottling plant.” When Mayor Curtatone heard about the project, he suggested that the City could install one in a school or municipal building. That way, when companies go to potential investors, they can say that they’ve already had a pilot program with the City of Somerville, who gave them feedback and helped them improve their product.

“That’s so key to having these companies be successful,” says Reichert. “It’s a very virtuous circle, of Somerville being able to be more innovative, and at the same time helping the companies here to grow and get investment money.”

Reichert is optimistic about the difference that Greentown Labs will be able to make in their new community. Since September, the resident companies, whose total employees number more than 100, have already created 10 new jobs, and will continue to hire local talent as they expand. When the larger companies outgrow the incubator and strike out on their own, Reichert expects that many of them will want to stay in Somerville, especially given the great wealth of underutilized space all around town.

She also looks forward to building partnerships with Somerville’s community of local artisans, crafters, urban homesteaders and other DIY innovators. With Greentown Labs’ emphasis on hands-on technology rather than pure IT, as well as its ethos of sustainability, it could hardly be a more perfect fit for the local culture.

“We’re a magnet for our entrepreneurs,” says Reichert, “but then they come here and they fit – they like it here.”

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