If you build it (right), they will come… and more on Greentown Labs

Greentown Labs executive director Emily Reichert (photo by Kyle Alspach)
Greentown Labs executive director Emily Reichert (photo by Kyle Alspach)

Yesterday I made the case for why Somerville’s Greentown Labs is the coolest startup space in the area.

In sum: It’s unique in providing space for a large number of early-stage startups (44 to be exact) that are focused on physical products (many of which aim to help save the planet).

I intentionally didn’t say much about the interesting history of Greentown, which I thought would be worth a few points/updates here:

1. Greentown just celebrated its third anniversary, in its third location. “We kind of are pioneers everywhere we go,” said executive director Emily Reichert. The incubator started out in an East Cambridge warehouse (which turned into biotech after they left). It then went to a former industrial space in the South Boston Seaport/Innovation District (which is now being turned into offices or condos). Last September Greentown moved to the former Ames Safety Envelope plant (a complex that also includes Artisan’s Asylum).

2. Greentown now plans to stay put for a while. The incubator has a six-year lease with a three-year option, Reichert said. And the rent is actually cheaper than Greentown was getting in the Seaport ($7.50 a square foot), she said.  Across the 44 companies there are 145 people at the incubator in all, up from seven people and four companies when it started.

3. A few investors have desks at Greentown too. They include Bill Warner and Matthew Nordan, formerly of Venrock, who has now cofounded an energy and environmental projects firm, MNL Partners.

4. Most of Greentown’s founding startups have “graduated.” OsComp (natural gas transport technology) has raised funding and moved to Houston. Promethean (rural refrigeration for emerging markets) has mostly moved to India. And Embue (wireless heating and cooling sensors, formerly Coincident) has gotten its own office in Boston. Altaeros (high-altitude wind power turbines) is still based out of Greentown but has been increasingly focused in Alaska, where it has a contract.

5. Why “if you build it, they will come” isn’t the best mentality for launching incubators. Greentown was founded by entrepreneurs, and thus was driven by their particular needs from the start, Reichert noted. She says that startup spaces — particularly those focused on physical products — turn out better that way. “Some say ‘if you build it, they will come,’ but I don’t think it really works that way,” Reichert said. “It should be entrepreneur-driven, vs. an executive director saying ‘I know the best way.’”

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