February 15, 2016

Manufacturers helping to create statewide incubator

Voxel8
Greentown Labs in Somerville incubates startups and helps them connect with established Massachusetts manufacturers.

Spencer manufacturer FLEXcon has the exclusive rights to polyimide aerogel – a thermal insulator that can be used in spacesuits – but since the material comes the form of a powder, the company didn't have any way to mold it into the right shape.

That's where Somerville startup Voxel8 came in. Voxel8 has the ability to take almost any raw material and turn it into an ink suitable for 3D printing after being exposed to a physical or chemical change. Voxel8 did this with polyimide and is now exploring ways to see how FLEXcon's clients, like NASA, can use it.

"It's a win-win for both companies. Our goal is to help [Voxel8] move to the next level and to become a more viable business," said Bill Sullivan, vice president of performance products at FLEXcon. "If they can hire more people and grow into a bigger company, that's a win-win for Massachusetts."

The collaboration between FLEXCon and Voxel8 came through a bigger partnership – this one between the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership based in Worcester and Somerville startup incubator Greentown Labs. The Manufacturing Initiative, as it is called, was formed with the goal of connecting clean tech hardware startups housed at Greentown with manufacturers across the state while supporting both groups. So far, they've worked with 33 startups and 86 Massachusetts manufacturers, resulting in 16 contracts for work.

The ultimate goal of the program is to make sure that products invented in Massachusetts get manufactured here, said Peter Russo, program manager for growth and innovation at MassMEP.

"We believe that if you create in Massachusetts, you should be able to manufacture in Massachusetts," Russo said. "The big 'what' in this is – what can we do to connect these two groups and what are the issues that connect these two groups."

Correcting misunderstandings

Micaelah Morrill, the initiative's program manager, said the partnership came out of the need to connect and then support startups and manufacturers. She had a lot of conversations with startups that thought they needed to connect with a manufacturer but didn't know how. Many of them, Morrill said, didn't actually know what they needed.

"A startup would come in and say, 'I just need a contact for someone in molding, or I need a contact for sheet metal fabricator,' and I would say, 'Okay, why do you think you need that?'" she said. "There's a really large difference between building one prototype in the lab and then building something for replicability for manufacturing."

Morrill decided to issue a survey for manufacturers and one for startups to see what the needs of both groups were and what their perceptions were. What she found was there was a gap in the two industries' understandings of each other.

For example, in many cases, manufacturing a product in Massachusetts hadn't even occurred to some startups.

"We have people who are graduating from universities in Boston, but they may not be familiar with the rest of the state," she said. "I want them thinking about Worcester, Springfield and North Adams before they think of China."

Greentown partnered with MassMEP, and together they were awarded a $267,500 MassDevelopment grant. They also received a $50,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Morrill said they are in the process of applying for more grants from the state, private sponsors and foundations.

Startup energy, established resources

About 10 Central Massachusetts manufacturers were involved with the collaboration in various capacities – everything from participating in the survey to working directly with startups to solve problems, according to the initiative.

When he visited Greentown, Joe Antocci – president of Leominster-based Antocci Engineering – was in absolute awe of its structure.

"I was just blown away from the energy in the place. It was really fun to go down and see what everybody was doing," Antocci said.

Being around new, budding companies is exciting, he said.

Craig Bovaird, president of Reliance Engineering in Leominster, agreed. Reliance, a custom molding company, regularly works with startups in the Greater Boston area outside of the initiative, but what is great about Greentown is it provides startups with the resources to take their ideas to the next level.

Reliance has quoted a few different Greentown startups on potential opportunities, and while they haven't made any official deals, Bovaird said he expects his company will in the future.

"The whole idea is to generate the opportunity – to let them know that we're here, and they're there," he said.

Since he started holding office hours at Greentown, Russo said out of the 122 connections between startups and resources he recommended, 16 of them have resulted in contracts. He said he expects that number to grow.

"The real value here is we started a movement," he said.

The program has received a lot of nationwide attention. Morrill said she has been approached by incubators across the country about creating similar partnerships. Here in Massachusetts, she hopes to eventually have more offices for the initiative across the state.

"The demand for this program is really exciting," she said.

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