After moving her company out of a university lab, Sarah Haig and the team at Silverside Detectors needed somewhere to build their product. They went to a startup incubator in Boston, but they were surrounded by software companies who simply needed desks to code, and they felt out of place.
That's because Silverside is building nuclear bomb detectors. Their goal is to help governments reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism — a huge statement to make, Haig said, but they're just tackling one tiny corner of it. They want to massively reduce the cost of neutron detection by developing more affordable, efficient systems for detecting plutonium and uranium, the two main ingredients for a nuclear bomb.
And to do it, they needed a place to work. More specifically, they needed a place where hardware companies tackling an issue as massive as this could work.
"It's a catch 22," Haig said. "You have to raise money in order to be able to rent a space to build stuff, but you need to prototype in order to raise money."
Someone introduced her to Greentown Labs, a cleantech startup incubator that provides prototyping space, shared machine shop tools, office space, and event space for companies. Discovering Greentown Labs was an eye-opener for Haig — Silverside Detectors could work alongside companies going through the same things they were.
"It's a hardware culture, making things and a lot of cross pollination — from ideas to tools to skillsets," Haig said. "Our engineers will go weld something for somebody else's team. [It's about] the engineering challenges of making new things at a low cost for new applications."
There are many companies that use Greentown Labs to tackle a host of huge environmental issues, ranging from energy generation and efficiency, to battery storage and fuel cell development, to robotics, to ocean monitoring, to food and agriculture, and more.
A few examples of companies that have come out of the incubator are Grove Labs, which makes urban indoor farming systems; Autonomous Marine Systems, which has built the world's most advanced robotic sailboat; Bevi, which makes beverage vending kiosks to cut down on shipping and manufacturing; and Greenbean Recycle, which makes reverse vending machines to make recycling easier and more accessible.
Greentown Labs is a 33,000 square foot facility, and as of December 2014, it's completely full with 25 companies. There's a waitlist for the space, as companies pay per square foot, they aren't constrained for a time period. Companies set up their own benches and workspaces, and then there's various rooms and areas to work privately or host roundtables, discussions, and meets.
"It was invented by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs," said Mark Vasu, the vice president. "The culture we've curated here is passionate about solving energy problems. There's no term limits, it's not an accelerator, there's no equity in companies."
The lab also provides software for its companies, like Dassault Systems (SolidWorks), Mathworks, Altium, Prosper IT and Microsoft, all sponsors of Greentown Labs. They also offer marketing and PR, HR services, design, real estate and liability insurance, and more through a sponsorship program with companies.
"[We're] seeing what was originally an idea in the lab, or very early stage, often at a university, come here to Greentown with initial seed funding to build prototypes, and seeing the transformation that happens as [companies] work with their first customer or manufacturing partner," said Emily Riechert, CEO of Greentown Labs. "That process and growth... is just an amazing thing to watch and makes you realize how alive clean technology is and how much there is that needs to be done and can be done in this area."
Greentown Labs was started by four startup founders out of MIT, really out of necessity. All four of them found that they needed space to prototype, to bend metal and make noise and build things. They needed a consistent space to work to bring their products to market.
When she was hired, Reichert's primary goal was to preserve the culture created by the founders. Greentown Labs was the most collaborative startup environment she had ever encountered, and it was critical to keep that.
What dominated her time, though, was finding a big enough space. Greentown Labs has moved three times in three years, simply because they keep outgrowing the spaces they occupy. Now, the company is in a giant warehouse in Somerville, Massachusetts, after being in Boston for the first two years of its life.
Clean technology was a phrase that got a bad reputation (mostly because investors have considered them unprofitable in the past), especially in Silicon Valley. But now, as more people are using technology to build solutions for problems in energy, agriculture, conservation, and storage, more startups are cropping up. And more importantly, more money is flowing into the field.
"The trend is definitely in a positive direction," Reichert said. "[Entrepreneurs] are a lot smarter about what they're asking for."
That means innovation in business models, particularly. Instead of going after venture capital, startups in cleantech are exploring different routes to more quickly get products in the hands of consumers — and again, it all goes back to solving that bigger problem.
"They do not have issues about potential customers, only a matter of finding funding, and the right partner to get them to market," Reichert said.
Being in Boston is advantageous for these types of companies because they are looking to get corporate partnerships as well as government funding to solve real-world problems. For Haig at Silverside Detectors, being at Greentown in Boston has closed the gap between startups and those types of entities. She said she's exposed to a broader policy context and marketplace, which she wants her company to enter into. It's about dynamics other than product market fit and raising capital. In Boston especially, there's less hype around startups, and more of a focused culture, she said.
"People are heads down over their product, but heads up in situational awareness — not just the Boston startup scene, but also heads up for other resources," she said. "Greentown really promoted and helped in connecting [that]."
Greentown Labs' longer term play is to influence the cleantech sector and cultivate partnerships with corporations, as well as work on manufacturing initiatives to ease the transition for startups to get their product to market as economically as possible. But in the cleantech sector as well as the hardware sector, that takes time. Greentown wants to make that process easier and more collaborative, because the stakes are so high to solve these problems.
"It's a community of like-minded entrepreneurs focused like laser beams on energy and environmental challenges," Vasu said.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.