Region's incubators driven by startup culture

BY Laura Finaldi

Companies like Enerconnex work out of the Worcester CleanTech Incubator.

When Wyatt Wade gets a call from a business hoping to move into the Printers Building, the nearly 100-year-old space on Portland Street in Worcester owned by his family, his No. 1 concern is making sure it's the type of business that might be able to collaborate on projects with other tenants.

“We want [tenants] to be creative-economy type businesses that could work well with the others. It will create potential synergies,” Wade said.

There's an African music development business, an NPR-affiliated jazz station and the Davis Art Gallery, which is owned and operated by the Davis family that Wade married into. Maker space Technocopia was in the process of moving into the sixth floor when Joe Bush, executive director of the Institute for Energy and Sustainability, approached Wade with the idea of bringing an incubator space for clean technology startups to the building.

“He almost jumped out of his seat and said, 'I love it. Anything we can do to get you in here, we'll help with,'” Bush said. “They've been incredible throughout the whole process.”

Deemed a good fit culturally, the Institute and its physical embodiment, the Worcester CleanTech Incubator, moved into the Printers Building and opened up in January. WCTI is one of the newest players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Central Massachusetts. The region's startup and craftsman culture is rapidly growing, as a result of a national surge in entrepreneurship and craftsmanship that has created a need for more collaborative spaces, like incubators, accelerators and coworking spaces.

Startup culture

When it comes to incubator, accelerator and coworking spaces, culture is key, said Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary for technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. In fact, most incubators happen organically out of a need for shared resources, expertise and connections among entrepreneurs and craftspeople, she said.

“As time is going on with the advent of meetups or different kinds of groups forming, creative people are finding each other, and as they're finding each other, they're collecting in a number and coming into a shared space,” Stebbins said.

Kevin O'Sullivan runs Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives (MBI), a biotechnology and medical device incubator in Worcester. MBI was founded in 1985, years before “startup” and “biotech” were buzzwords resonating deeply from Springfield to Kendall Square. At the time, the regional economy was teetering and jobs in manufacturing were going overseas. The Worcester Business Development Corp. and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce saw biotech as the area's saving grace and created MBI as a private/public partnership to accelerate the industry's growth.

“It was the beginning of biotech here in Worcester,” O'Sullivan said.

MBI was originally founded as a biotechnology incubator but has since expanded into medical devices, informatics and biomanufacturing. It has four locations across the city and a cumulative 30,000 square feet of space. Since 2000, it has created 476 jobs and contributed about $582 million to the local economy, according to MBI.

O'Sullivan said Worcester is an attractive location for startups because rent is cheap, there's a ton of local talent and entrepreneurs can avoid Boston traffic.

Barbara Finer, CEO and founder of Hopkinton incubator and co-working space TechSandBox, agrees.

“When you're spending 15 hours a week commuting, you could be more productive. And you kind of look at this region and say, 'Why don't we have some of these resources? We certainly have the talent,'” she said.

Startup uptick

Part of the uptick of startup spaces in the area probably has something to do with our neighbors to the east, Finer said.

“Worcester, I think, is looking at Boston and Cambridge and saying, 'Gee, we're a city. We have a mix of young and old with all of these old mill buildings that tend to lend themselves to being fun because rents aren't high, but ceilings are,'” she said.

That idea has worked for Running Start, a co-working space in Gateway Park that is housed in a former mill building.

Know your market

A collaborative space fails if it doesn't know who it is and what community need it is filling before opening the doors, Stebbins said. Otherwise it will likely fail.

“The community that drives them has to be built first and the space follows. When someone decides, 'I'm going to open a pretty space and hope the community shows up,' I have yet to see that model work,” she said.

Before opening TechSandBox three years ago, Finer said she spent months researching market needs and figuring out how it would fit in.

“The question I ask is it's not that any of these [spaces] are good or bad, it's that are you doing something that adds value,” she said. “It's really hard when it's fashionable to do stuff.”

WCTI was originally dreamed up in 2009 by Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), who wanted a clean technology incubator for Worcester, like the ones he saw in Boston, Bush said.

Since WCTI launched in January, it has attracted 12 people working on projects ranging from an e-commerce platform for craft goods, a home building auto company and an energy consultant, Bush said. It can accommodate up to 50 entrepreneurs.

“We hope to be the facility that can save people time and headaches by connecting them to resources they need to grow their business,” Bush said. “We hope that we can be a resource for startups and other industries in the area, so we can foster the growth of new companies and help the growth of established Worcester companies.”

Success standards

Ultimately, the success of any space for entrepreneurs or craftspeople will be judged by its members. That's why it's so important to make sure that members get more out of their time there than relatively cheap rent, O'Sullivan said.

“At end of the day, MBI is judged by whether or not the place is full, utilized, and do we have a high standard of service,” he said. “Keeping the labs full and making sure companies are okay on their own and successful. It's all about the companies.”