Is Greentown Labs the coolest startup space in Boston? Yep.

Grove Labs founders Jamie Byron (left) and Gabe Blanchet. (Photo by Kyle Alspach.)
Grove Labs founders Jamie Byron (left) and Gabe Blanchet. (Photo by Kyle Alspach.)

I knew that Greentown Labs in Somerville had some interesting startups. For instance, there’s Rise Robotics (formerly Urban Hero), a company that’s invented a spring that can seemingly give people jumping super-powers. And there’s also Sol Power, maker of outdoor solar charging stations for cell phones, and Refresh Water, which makes a vending machine that lets you refill your water bottle for cheap.

But I hadn’t heard yet about Grove Labs. And so I certainly didn’t expect that my tour of Greentown would include a sampling of hydroponically grown tatsoi.

Grove, which is developing easy-to-use indoor food growing systems, is an example of what makes Greentown stand out among the numerous startup spaces in the Boston area.

The facility allows member companies — of which there are 44 currently, most of them focused on “green”-related products — to rent out prototyping space on an as-needed basis. That means that entrepreneurs that would like to explore developing physical products, but don’t need thousands of square feet of space right away, can get going quickly and inexpensively.

“Nobody else lets you rent a plot and set up whatever you need for prototyping and testing,” said Emily Reichert, executive director of Greentown Labs.

For Grove, founded by two MIT students in their fraternity, that means setting up a water and lighting system to test the growing of vegetables without soil, via hydroponics (which uses growing additives) and aquaponics (which uses fish).

Founders Jamie Byron and Gabe Blanchet are growing tomatoes, greens, peppers, and even strawberries at Greentown using systems they built.

The goal is to create a “ready to go” system for consumers that will let them grow a significant amount of their food indoors, year-round. Grove Labs is developing an app that will tell users when and what to do, monitor their systems, and allow users to interact with others and order seeds.

“We want to put the means of production back in the hands of people,” Blanchet said. “In the future we believe many people will have areas in their homes that have groves.”

After going through the R/GA Connected Devices accelerator, a New York program affiliated with Techstars, Grove landed at Greentown, which on Wednesday celebrated its third anniversary (and its first at the Somerville location, located in the former Ames Safety Envelope plant).

The bottom line on Greentown: It’s enabling a diverse set of early-stage startups whose products are grounded in the physical world (and that are trying to save the planet) — companies that otherwise might be relegated to building prototypes out of their homes or apartments.

Giving them a dedicated place to innovate (and collaborate with each other) is an important idea for the local innovation economy, and Greentown is starting to become known as an example for other regions in U.S., Reichert said. 

Plus, it’s also just really, really cool.

Read the follow-up post: If you build it (right), they will come… and more on Greentown Labs

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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