Emily Reichert, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer at Greentown Labs, spoke with us about the incubator, changes in the industry, the Massachusetts cleantech community and much more.
“Greentown Labs provides prototyping space, shared machine shop tools, office space and an event space. We leverage our facility, partners, and sponsors to provide our entrepreneurs access to the equipment, services, education, and network they need to launch their companies quickly.”
Greentown Labs started in 2011 as volunteer run organization in Boston. Since, the Lab has been moved to a larger location in Somerville, MA and has acquired over fifty member companies under the leadership of Emily Reichert, who was brought on as the full time CEO in 2013. Emily previously served as Director of Business Operations at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, a sustainable contract R&D business, created to minimize the impacts of chemical products on the environment. She holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and an MBA from MIT. Today, her role at Greentown involves forging strategic partnerships, growing education opportunities in Massachusetts and working with the community, as well as member companies, to ensure a cleaner future.
“As of May 2013, two years after Greentown’s founding, these companies had raised over $25M and now employ more than 100 people. Greentown Labs now receives over 5,000 visitors per year, ranging from high school students to government leaders here and abroad, and is the center of gravity for clean technology and energy innovation in Boston, hosting an ever expanding array of events and providing a forum for educational programming for the Boston area entrepreneur community.”
How do you select the companies that you want to make members of Greentown Labs?
We have an application process with a few different steps. The main thing that we are selecting for is community culture. Does this organization fit within the current community? Are they interested and willing to participate actively? We love companies that are interested in helping others because we encourage peer mentoring and the sharing of resources within Greentown Labs. We’ll place companies that have just raised funds near companies that are about to raise funds. We create forums to get people involved. We have CEO round tables and lunch and learns where members can share experiences. We also have a listserve of constant chatter. People can ask, “Do you know an expert that does X” or “Have you ever used THIS consulting service?” Basically, if you want to be isolated, you should probably join another space.
We also require companies to do four hours a month of community service, which is a pretty unusual thing for an incubator to require. We feel that it gives people ownership. You have to be willing to give back…that’s a quality we’re looking for.
Then, of course, we’re looking for a technology fit. What’s the industry that you’re trying to work in? How are you going to save the world? We want companies that are passionate about solving big energy and environmental problems. Every single one of these companies, (even if the vertical is robotics) can answer if you ask them, “How are you cleantech?” That is important. We don’t want companies in here with one bottom line: to make money. Still, we have to look at business plans, financials, and conflict. Is there another company here that is too similar in market or technology? If that’s the case, we’ll usually give the company here the opportunity to veto the decision. We need that to maintain the collaboration atmosphere. If we have companies that don’t want to share information, or feel they need to work behind walls, that environment changes. We also look for companies that have already raised seed capital, so that they can come in and immediately start building a prototype. We like them to have gone through accelerator programs.
So, you would consider this to be the next step after an accelerator program?
Yes, absolutely. We want someone to have kicked the tires on your business plan before you come here. We often have companies approach us that are too early stage. We usually grow companies to about 10 or 20 people and then help them move out. We don’t want to have too many big companies.
Where have you seen the biggest change in the cleantech space?
The big industry shift, looking back as far as 2006, 2007 and 2008, is in venture capital communities. VC teams initially embraced the industry, and then became absent shortly after. Now they’re trickling back, but today they’re comprised of a smaller and smarter group, looking for promising companies in the field. Basically, “green” became popular a few years back, and everyone jumped in, regardless of whether or not they had relevant experience to be able to evaluate these companies. They got into capital-intensive cycles, which couldn’t be exited in five, or six years, which is already a long venture capital cycle, and a lot of those investments didn’t do very well. That scared the herd away from “green.” Some people in Silicon Valley will still tell you that cleantech is a bad word, because of that herd mentality. I certainly disagree with that. Recently, entrepreneurs and investors have made companies less capital-intensive and more innovative. There are also other funding sources being explored. There’s a lot of philanthropic activity that wasn’t there a few years ago. Large corporations are also thinking about acquiring or helping early-stage companies in this space by investing, partnering, or assisting in pilot studies to get their product to market. There are going to be a lot of funding avenues for cleantech companies.
Do you have any initiatives to get more women in the field?
My team has four men and six women, so we’re pretty women-heavy at the top of Greentown. I would say we do a fair amount of programming in this space, too. We recently co-sponsored a series on women in the industry, and I’ve spoken on panels about careers in cleantech for women. Everyone recognizes that we need more women in early-stage companies, and we attempt to garner interest through role modeling, ladies nights, and events specifically focused on women and networking.
Do you see Massachusetts as a promising place for funding and support in the cleantech space?
Yes, there’s a lot of advantage to being here. The state policies line up, and we currently have over 100,000 workers in the clean energy space in Massachusetts. When you consider that manufacturing has 250,000 and the life sciences workforce is 135,000, you see that we’re right up there population-wise as a tech sector. We’re also the #1 state in the country for the fifth year running as the most energy efficient state. That’s important. We have a lot of people who are very passionate about this field in a very small geographic area. There are events, programs, and mentors across the board, whether you’re an entrepreneur, lawyer, or policy person, or you’re somehow supporting this industry. It’s a very close-knit, networked group of people striving toward the same goal: to create a cleaner future. I think it’s because we’re so small. People can have person-to-person interactions on a regular basis; they can attend events where they see the same people and can keep up with them. We have MassCEC, which is a strong proponent of creating a clean energy economy at the state level, we have the Northeast Clean Energy Council, the Cleantech Open Northeast, and dozens of other organizations working in this space. All of those are positive reinforcements that keep up the strength and the energy of the community. Successful companies like Next Step Living, EnerNOC, and Harvest Power have grown up here and are now role models for the companies, and they all give back.
What’s the single most important piece of advice that you would give to an early stage cleantech company?
Consider your team composition. I like to see that there is a business founder and a technical founder in companies. You can have a great technology, but if you can’t sell it, it won’t make it into the world. So, think hard about how you structure your team. If your technical founder can give up control, it’s incredibly beneficial and successful companies do it.
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