Mass. should build the fire under two emerging tech clusters

Workers at Keystone Tower Systems work on a piece of a wind turbine at Greentown Labs in Somerville in 2014.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Workers at Keystone Tower Systems work on a piece of a wind turbine at Greentown Labs in Somerville in 2014.

Five years ago, I went to visit a rough, unrenovated warehouse space a half block from the CambridgeSide Galleria mall. It was the kind of place where you could wheel your mountain bike through the front door and park it next to your desk, drill holes without aggravating the neighbors, or inflate your 20-foot-tall blimp indoors.

The incubator space on Charles Street didn’t have a name. It was just a cheap home for four startups cultivating new energy technologies. And it started to become the obvious place you’d want to plant your team if you were building a wind turbine, a solar-powered refrigerator, or a new kind of energy storage system.

Today, the cleantech community born there is known as Greentown Labs, and located on the fringes of Union Square in Somerville. It’s home to 43 startups, along with research labs run by big multinationals like Shell and Saint-Gobain. It already claims to be the biggest collection of energy-related companies under one roof in the United States, and Thursday said it will more than double in size in 2016, increasing its capacity to about 100 companies.

That’s what I call going from a campfire to a bonfire. A campfire is a nice little cluster of activity that people in Boston know about. A bonfire is something that is visible globally — the obvious place to come if you want to participate in something BIG.

In the last few years, there has been a lot of jibber-jabber about establishing Boston as a center of health care technology and robotics. State agencies and trade groups have formed committees, put on panel discussions, and issued reports.

But both sectors are still at the campfire stage. Turns out that blowing on a campfire, even with lengthy blasts of hot air, does not a bonfire make.

In both digital health care and robotics, there’s a huge amount of activity. In October alone, we’ve seen major conferences in Boston, a hackathon organized by Athenahealth of Watertown, and an MIT-hatched underwater robotics startup, Hydroswarm, take one of the top prizes at the MassChallenge entrepreneurship competition.

But I think both sectors need their own physical place for companies to work from, emulating the Greentown model. You get major “multiplier effects” when startups can learn from each other and share equipment, and when investors or execs from Fortune 500 companies can drop in and hold a series of meetings.

But progress in creating hubs for digital health and robotics has been too slow. The state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development is still deep in study mode. These are fast-moving industries. Once a startup starts to grow in one city, it’s hard to persuade it to pull up stakes and move. And in robotics, deep-pocketed players like Google and Uber are funding major research and development activity in Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh, respectively.

Do we want to watch two new industries emerge where Boston gets to boast, again, “We’re number 2”?

Boston’s Longwood Medical Area is one of the densest collections of hospitals, schools, and research institutions — including Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It’s an obvious place to plant a startup hub focused on software and new devices that will change the way doctors practice medicine and people monitor their own health.

In summer 2012, a San Francisco investment firm, Rock Health, nabbed some space in Harvard Medical School’s library for seven startups. The entrepreneurs who participated in that summer “accelerator” program found that being surrounded by some of the world’s best hospitals gave them a big advantage in understanding the problems of doctors, nurses and administrators, and getting early tests underway.

Rob Goldberg, founder of Neumitra, which is developing new ways to monitor stress levels, says meeting so many health care professionals was key to understanding their different needs. “We’re still building upon those relationships as we scale,” he says.

David Bates, chief innovation officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says “a startup hub would make enormous sense. But space is at a premium in the Longwood area, and that has been the challenge.” Two possibilities: finding space at one of the universities in the neighborhood, or in the newly-built Longwood Center, which still has three vacant floors.

In robotics, there has been action around creating a shared space called Mass Robotics. There’s a website, Twitter account, and director — long-time robotics industry executive Tom Ryden — but still no space, and no opening date. Joe Jones, founder of the stealthy consumer robot company Franklin Robotics, and co-inventor of iRobot’s Roomba vacuuming robot, says “having some older, wiser folks around,” working in parallel with first-time entrepreneurs, would lead to better robots.

Mass Robotics is hoping to raise about $10 million to open the doors — which sounds like a lot, considering that Greentown got started with just the first month’s rent, a security deposit, and some donated chairs and desks from an MIT administrator. But Ryden says they’ve got a list of nearly 20 companies that “want to move in right away,” which points to the need for roomy digs.

Eamon Carrig wasn’t part of Greentown Labs’ founding in 2010; instead, he was getting his own company going in Maryland. Autonomous Marine Systems is developing a self-sailing, solar-powered catamaran that can monitor the ocean for months at a time. Last year, after visiting Greentown and meeting MIT researchers, Carrig decided to move the company to Somerville.

“We fell in love with Greentown and the scene here,” Carrig says. It wasn’t part of the plan — and one of the company’s co-founders decided not to relocate — but Carrig says “it was clear that this was really the right spot for us.”

When new industries are being born, he says, “it’s utterly necessary to have people together who are interested in the same stuff.” A collaborative environment like Greentown can lead to better survival and success rates.

So let’s gather up the logs, get some gasoline, and create a couple new bonfires in Boston.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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