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Accelerating the Process

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The products and services vary widely — from smoothies to yoga classes; from pet adoption to solar-powered battery rechargers; from water-purification technology to entrepreneurial apprenticeships. But the companies in Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator class of 2018 have many things in common, specifically the myriad daunting challenges involved with getting a venture off the ground or to a higher altitude. For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at the three highest finishers among the 12 Accelerator finalists. We talked to those entrepreneurs about everything from what they’re going to do with the large checks they’ve received through this competition to how the Accelerator program helped them advance their concept.


WeThrive

Venture Provides an Entrepreneurial Practice Field for Students

WeThrive was the top winner in this year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

WeThrive was the top winner in this year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

Daquan Oliver is still in his mid-20s, but he already has a lot of awards and accolades on his résumé, including many of those ‘under’ lists that have become so prevalent.

He was included on the Forbes 30 Under 30 compilation for 2017, as well as the Boston Globe’s 25 Under 25 list. Back in 2014, as he was graduating from Babson College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he was named one of the Top Five Black Student Leaders to Watch by the Clinton Foundation. He’s delivered a TEDx Talk on actionable strategies to overcome structural violence, and been recognized by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yes, it’s an impressive list of achievements, and it looks like he’ll have to make room for more trophies, plaques, and citations — including the ceremonial first-prize check from this year’s VVM Accelerator program, featuring the name of the venture, WeThrive, and the number $42,500.

That’s because it’s Oliver’s goal — and WeThrive’s unofficial mission — to help young people make those same ‘under’ lists and other honor rolls.

Indeed, Oliver, who grew up in a single-parent, low-income household, made a promise at age 14 to assist future children in a similar socioeconomic position to become successful. In a nutshell, that’s what WeThrive, based in New York City, is all about.

This is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that essentially equips and empowers — those are two different things — low-income students in grades 7-10 to rise as entrepreneurial economic leaders, Oliver told BusinessWest.

“The students we serve are bursting with ideas to break the cycle of poverty, but too many times in their young lives, they have been told ‘no,’” he explained, adding that WeThrive gives them encouraging ‘yes’ to their entrepreneurial dreams.

It does this by training teachers, staff, and volunteers to become entrepreneurial educators who guide students through a curriculum designed to reach those left behind in traditional classrooms. Each student creates their own company, earning real revenues and donating profits to the charity of their choice.

The result is what the company calls an ‘entrepreneurial playing field,’ one that provides lessons not just in profit and loss and other business terms, but also in realms ranging from goal setting to teamwork to surviving the ups and downs of transforming an idea into a business.

Oliver, who launched this enterprise as he was exiting Babson, has taken it to a number of major metropolitan areas, including New York, Boston, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and it was while he was exploring the possibility of expanding into Greater Springfield that he learned about and then became part of the VVM Accelerator class of 2018.

His was, quite obviously, a story, a concept, a business plan, and a final pitch that won over the judges.

But as advanced and apparently rock-solid as this venture is, there is still growing and pivoting (that’s the term one hears a lot in rooms full of entrepreneurs) to do, and proverbial ‘next’ levels to reach, said Oliver, and the VVM Accelerator experience will help with all of that.

“We’re at a unique point in our journey,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re doing a number of different things, our model has recently pivoted pretty strongly, and we wanted to go through the nuts and bolts of really reassessing everything.”

The Accelerator program, a broad term used to refer to everything from the mentorship to the work sessions to the feedback from the other entrepreneurs in the room — helped with this by continually stressing the value of customer interviews.

“We need those to make sure we understand our principals, our teachers, the things they want, the value they see in WeThrive, their pain points, and more,” he explained. “That’s the biggest thing for us — the innate value of digging deeper into each of our customer pain points.”

Oliver said he was impressed by the strong sense of community within the VVM Accelerator and the manner in which the entrepreneurs, all vying for cash awards, nonetheless supported one another in their collective efforts to get to the next level.

“It’s technically a competition, but it never truly felt like one,” he explained. “Because we’re all rooting for each at the end of the day.

“When we approached this, we definitely wanted to win, of course,” he went on. “But we were much more focused on just creating a sustainable company, and VVM provided us with the resources to help do that, whether it was the mentors or the entrepreneurs.”

Oliver said WeThrive will begin operating in Springfield this fall, and he expects the nonprofit to expand into other parts of this region. Wherever it goes, it focuses on students who were like him — who all too often heard ‘no,’ and needed someone, some influence, to get get them to ‘yes.’

And in the process, maybe some of those students it helps will also follow Oliver onto some of those ‘under’ lists.


Breaking Through

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully say the market for their product may be vast, from residential and commercial applications to domestic sales to global interest.

Aclarity Set to Take New Water-filtration Technology to the Market

As Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully talked about the potential market for their product — a new type of water-purification device that uses electricity — they struggled somewhat to do the job with numbers, as many entrepreneurs do.

So they tried words, and one in particular: vast.

By that, they meant residential and commercial applications, domestic sales, and what they hope and expect will be truly global interest.

That’s because water is a precious commodity, and as the human population continues to skyrocket, the demands on the Earth’s limited supply of fresh water have increased accordingly. Meanwhile, the search for better, less expensive methods of filtering water have been intense and ongoing.

Bliss Mullen essentially grasped the size and scope of the potential market in 2015 when, while conducting evaluations of potential new filtration products as part of her lab work under the U.S. EPA’s Water Innovation Network of Sustainable Systems (WINSSS), she essentially discovered a novel, electrochemical advanced-oxidation process, or EAOP technology.

This technology has extensive treatment capabilities — more than the filtration products currently on the market — and low power-consumption needs compared to traditional processes.

“I found that the treatment capability of this specific technology was much greater than anything I had evaluated,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she became inspired to understand what it would take to bring the technology to the market, and in 2016 filed a provisional patent with the university and subsequently enrolled in entrepreneurship courses to further understand the commercialization process.

Moving the story along, Bliss Mullen and Mully met in the spring of 2017; she was participating as a student in a graduate-level Lean Launch Pad entrepreneurship class where she was conducting customer discovery while also seeking potential business partners. He was a fellow at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and attending that class as a teaching assistant.

“My pitch to the class was, ‘hey, I have this cool technology, but I need someone with a little more business acumen than I have to bring this to the market,’” she recalled.

Mully became immediately compelled by the potential of the technology and the business that could be generated from it, and the two quickly agreed to partner up. They won the top award at the UMass Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company, which was initially named ElectroPure and later renamed Aclarity.

The company was accepted into the inaugural Berthiaume Summer Accelerator in 2017, and it used that experience to continue customer discovery, meet with mentors, work with the university toward converting the patent, develop a business strategy, and advance technology research and development. The company won additional seed funding and soon thereafter embarked on a collaboration effort with Watts Water Technologies Inc. to help bring a residential product to market, something they expect to do within the next 12 to 18 months.

So it’s been a whirlwind few years, and those are just the first few chapters in this intriguing story; the principals are now involved in writing the next several, and they will have their $27,500 prize from the VVM accelerator — and the many forms of assistance that were part of that experience — to help them in that process.

“It’s not all about the technology,” Bliss Mullen said of the complex process of taking a product to market. “You need to find a customer.”

VVM has helped with that, said the two partners, adding that the next step in their journey is to raise capital for a pilot installation on an industrial scale.

“We want to look at the scalability of the technology and how we can put a pilot site in, what that looks like,” said Mully. “And prove the technology on a larger scale; once we do that, that opens up other markets.”

The prize money from the VVM accelerator will certainly help in taking that next step, said the partners, adding that it (along with other grants secured in recent months) will be put toward R&D, product development, and marketing efforts. In a word, it will be used toward generating that commodity they need the most at this time: validation.

As for the startup ‘experience,’ if you will, the two partners, like just about everyone else in their shoes, talked about a roller-coaster ride, with lots of highs and lows. And also about expectations and how to manage them.

“We have a lot of people come up to us and say, ‘this is the next big thing. I want to be part of it; I want to help you fundraise,’” said Bliss Mullen. “You think, ‘this is going to change the world.’ And then you have other days when it feels like the end of the world.”

Mully agreed.

“You have a lot of ups and downs,” he told BusinessWest. “The wins are big wins — they’re really high highs. And then, sometimes, when you think you’re going to hit a certain milestone and it just doesn’t work out that way and you have to make those hard pivots … it can get really challenging.

“It’s not that there’s no end product, because there is,” he went on. “It’s just so intangible at times, it’s like you’re feeling your way through the dark a little bit.”

It appears things are a little brighter these days, and the VVM accelerator played a big role in that process.


ACEA

Kyle Kahveci

Kyle Kahveci

Venture Sets a New Standard for Continuing Education

Kyle Kahveci says continuing education is part of life for a wide range of healthcare professionals, from physicians to dentists to nurses. They need it to keep their licenses.

Unfortunately, also part of life are considerable amounts of wasted or underutilized time for those same healthcare professionals as they take part in those continuing-education experiences, said Kahveci, who is part of the founding team at ACEA.

That’s an acronym for the Advanced Continuing Education Assoc. And maybe the key word in the phrase is ‘advanced,’ which in this case is used to connote a way of thinking about this topic — a methodology, if you will, that goes well beyond what Kahveci called “checking the box” as individuals go about amassing the requisite number of hours of required education each year.

“There are now hundreds of thousands of different continuing-ed courses in healthcare, but there’s no easy way to sift through it all and really find the most relevant education and have that all centralized,” he explained. “What we’re doing is aggregating all that in one place so a clinician can have a much more pleasant experience across all of those ed providers by discovering the right education in the right place and the most relevant stuff for their requirements, but also their personal interests.”

That one place is an app that does everything from track activities as members attend activities to sending a notification to a member’s phone alerting him or her to the fact that they haven’t taken a continuing-ed course recently and need to do so.

The app is live, and a number of clinicians have joined through a host of partners that ACEA works with, including the Cleveland Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Kahveci, adding that the broad goals are to continuously improve the app and add more members.

And VVM’s accelerator program has been quite helpful with those two assignments by emphasizing the need to for customer surveys to determine specific needs and how to go about meeting them.

Elaborating, Kahveci said that, in the beginning, ACEA and its app were focused mostly on helping healthcare professionals keep track of what they’ve done when it comes to a continuing education, something that might sound easy to those who haven’t tried, but definitely isn’t, as confirmed by all those who have.

“We were hearing complaints from physicians who said, ‘after one of these courses, I take I get a certificate, and it’s oftentimes on paper, and it’s like keeping receipts for taxes,’” he recalled, adding that the partners at ACEA followed how people kept track of these certificates. One physician kept it all in a manila folder that included courses from the ’90s.

Moving the story along, he said the first app they developed was designed simply to keep track of all those certificates much better than a manila folder could. It received a solid response, and thousands of clinicians signed on, he said, but it quickly became apparent that this app needed to do more.

Specifically, it needed to help members not just after the fact, but before it — in the discovery phase, if you will — and ACEA has made that shift, with a big assist from VVM and its accelerator program.

“VVM helped us treat this like an early-stage startup,” he told BusinessWest. “We did more 100 interviews with clinicians and partners to get a sense for where to really focus in on solving their problems.”

And there is tremendous growth potential, he went on, adding that, while ACE has tens of thousands of members, that represents a tiny fraction of the number of potential members.

The value proposition for this app is that it can save clinicians up to 40 hours a year by automating much of the continuing-ed process and getting them into relevant education. And considering how busy they are, 40 hours represents a great deal of value.

Getting that message across is critical, and the company will devote much of its energy — and the $20,000 prize it won during the accelerator contest — to do just that, while also continually improving the product and building a team.

The company is currently based in Boston — an ideal location, given the many world-class healthcare facilities in that city — but as a result of connections made with potential partners here, ACEA is thinking about opening a satellite location in Springfield.

VVM and its accelerator helped the company make those connections, he said, but mostly, the experience has enabled ACEA to sharpen its focus on the customer and identify opportunities for growth.

“It’s helped us see the forest for the trees,” he noted. “It was a good experience for us to help get the organization to the next level.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

The ‘Connections’ Business

Adam Rodrigues

Adam Rodrigues

Adam Rodrigues, manufacturing fellow with Greentown labs, says his job description can be smashed down to two words: Making matches. That would be matches between startups across the state, and especially those within the 413, and manufacturers in Western Mass. that can help bring a concept to the marketplace. He’s already made several of these matches and plans to make many more, connections that have a number of benefits — for the startups, the manufacturers, the region, and the state.

Adam Rodrigues has a nice, large office in Building 101 at the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College.

But it’s sparse, and, therefore, a little awkward.

“I’ve got about half a basketball court and just this little desk in the back right corner,” he said with an obvious nod to the office’s well-polished hardwood floors, a holdover from the days when this building was part of the Springfield Armory complex. “It’s a little weird.”

But it’s all good, because Rodrigues isn’t in his office or at that desk very much. No, he’s paid to be on the road, actually, and that’s where he spends almost all his time.

As a manufacturing fellow with Greentown Labs — or, to be more specific, Greentown Learning, a spinoff off the Somerville, Mass.-based clean-technology incubator — his job is to make meaningful connections between as many startups and Bay State-based manufacturers, and preferably Western Mass. manufacturers, as possible.

“I’m a matchmaker,” he said, adding that this role cannot be carried out effectively from Suite 32 in Building 101 — although he can do some paperwork there. The real work is carried on in a host of other settings. They range from area manufacturing facilities — he’s visited several dozen by his count — to various programs put on Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), SPARK, and other groups focused on encouraging and mentoring entrepreneurs; from structured meet-and-greet sessions between startups and manufacturers to what amount to organized road trips during which those incubating at Greentown get introduced to manufacturers who might make their concept a reality.

And there is much that goes into that last equation, he said, adding that a manufacturer can help an entrepreneur take an idea, maneuver it through the prototyping stage, make tweaks and improvements, and finally move it to the production phase.

And that’s exactly what’s happening — note the present tense — with a company called Quikcord, its principals, Matt Fioretti and Matt Adams, and East Longmeadow-based Toner Plastics.

Fioretti didn’t want to say much at all about his concept, intended for the military, until it reaches the market — “let’s just say it’s a product designed by a Marine for Marines” — but talked enthusiastically, and at length, about how Greentown’s efforts to match the company with Toner Plastics are helping to propel this venture forward.

“It’s had an unbelievable springboarding effect,” he explained. “Greentown was able to put us in front of the right people, and it just skyrocketed us to the point we’re at.

“And the best part about is that the amount of money we spent is next to nothing when you think of what we’ve accomplished,” he went on. “We’re two guys with an idea and no money, and we’re almost ready to do a short production run.”

Such a scenario, and such commentary, is exactly what several partners had in mind roughly 15 months ago when Greentown’s Western Mass. facility was created, with Rodrigues, a veteran of the industry having worked for several years at Lenox, at the helm.

When the initiative was launched, there were goals and benchmarks set, he said, adding that most all of them have been exceeded. Here are some of the numbers to date:

• More than 50 manufacturers have been identified as interested in working with hardware startups;

• More than 45 startups have received assistance from the initiative;

• More than 80 connections have been made between hardware startups and Western Mass. manufacturers;

• More than 30 east-west connections have been made between Boston-area startups and Western Mass. manufacturers; and

• Perhaps most importantly, five contracts have been signed between startups and Western Mass. manufacturers.

All of this translates into thousands of miles on Rodrigues’ odometer and comparatively few hours sitting behind that small desk. But, as noted, this is how those behind Greentown’s Springfield facility drew up this play, and thus far, it is netting real results for the region.

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at Rodrigues’ matchmaking work to date and how it has become another key ingredient in the region’s broad economic-development strategy.

Making Introductions

As he flashed back several months and retold the story of how the company that would become Quikcord became matched with Toner Plastics, Fioretti provided a textbook example of how Greentown Learning works and why it was created.

Matt Fioretti, left, and Matt Adams, cofounders of Quikcord, were successfully matched with Toner Plastics, enabling their concept to take big steps forward.

Matt Fioretti, left, and Matt Adams, cofounders of Quikcord, were successfully matched with Toner Plastics, enabling their concept to take big steps forward.

“We were at a VVM event, and we were making a pitch on our basic concept,” he recalled. “We had nothing; we just had a concept. Well, after we made the pitch, there were some breakout sessions where people come and talk with you about what they just heard. And Adam [Rodrigues] came up to us and said, ‘I’m just getting started, I don’t even have business cards, but let me get your names and e-mail addresses, and I’ll get back to you.’

“He then said, ‘this is going to be worth it for you,’” Fioretti went on, remembering that commentary because of its poignancy. “And at that stage, we were ready to try just about anything. So we said, ‘sure.’”

Fast-forwarding a little, he said Rodrigues did, indeed, follow up a few weeks later. They met and talked about their concept and also about Greentown. Later, Rodrigues arranged for the partners to pitch at a manufacturing seminar staged by Greentown and the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

One of the panelists they pitched to was Steve Graham, owner of Toner Plastics. Fast-forwarding some more, he said Graham and the team at Toner took an interest in the product and provided several different kinds of support to move the concept forward.

“They recognized that we were a small business without much capital, but they loved the idea,” said Fioretti. “And they did a lot of work for us pro bono; and they got us from to the point where we could take our concept to CAD [computer-aided design].”

Again, this is exactly the script those behind Greentown Learning had in mind, said Rodrigues, adding that the need for such a matchmaking outfit, if you will, had become increasingly apparent in recent years.

Especially at Greentown Labs, the largest clean-technology incubator in the country, with more than 60 hardware startups under that one large roof.

“As they started to incubate these startups, they realized that, while they had all these awesome ideas coming out of the state, they did not have a good link to manufacturers in the Commonwealth,” he explained, adding that, to address this, a manufacturing initiative was launched to help connect the startups with Bay State manufacturers.

Progress was made, he went on, and it quickly became apparent that attention needed to be focused on the western part of the state, not only the manufacturers that give the region much of its economic heritage, but the ever-increasing number of startups being spawned there as well.

So a position, funded by the Davis Foundation, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and MassDevelopment, was created, and Rodrigues started filling the drawers in that desk in January 2017.

He said he hit the ground running, and hasn’t stopped running. He had a good foundation on which to build, having been part of VVM’s manufacturing accelerator in 2016, serving as a mentor to the participants, passing on knowledge gained while working at Lenox in the supply-chain realm.

“Being a buyer, I was able to tell the manufacturers that were in the accelerator what a buyer is looking for when they’re working for new contracts,” he explained, adding that he had also taken part in several of VVM’s monthly gatherings at which entrepreneurs make pitches, make connections, and hopefully take steps forward.

So he knew both of the constituencies he would be working with in his capacity with Greentown. Sort of, but not as much as he would like. So he sent about making connections of his own.

“My goal was to meet as many manufacturers as I could in this area, and meet as many startups as I could in this area that were developing actual hardware, and try to connect them,” he told BusinessWest.

These connections usually come about, as noted earlier, through organized events, such as a Shark Tank-like gathering involving entrepreneurs pitching to manufacturing experts.

“Each startup would get on stage and say, ‘this is what I’m making, here’s where we’re hung up, here’s where we don’t know how to scale,’” he noted. “And then we’d have the manufacturers from this area there to say, ‘I’ve seen this before; here’s what I think you should do,’ and someone else would chime in with ‘have you considered doing this?’ And the startups walk away with a connection to manufactuters.”

Creating Progress

And the importance of these connections — to the startups, the manufacturers, the region, and the state itself — cannot be overstated, he went on, adding that they add up to potential opportunities that might be otherwise be missed.

Elaborating, he said part of this equation is a simple matter of awareness, or a lack thereof, as the case may be. Indeed, some entrepreneurs simply don’t know what the region’s manufacturers possess when it comes to capabilities and specialties, and often look overseas for someone to make their product.

“We want to raise a flag,” noted Rodrigues, “and say, ‘before you decide to manufacture somewhere else in this country, before you go China to have that prototype made, let me introduce you to a few people here who can help you out.”

But there is another element to these matchmaking efforts, perhaps one that’s even more important, he went on.

“Sometimes, in addition to making a connection, the entrepreneur will walk away with a completely new direction for the company and the design process,” said Rodrigues, adding that this is exactly what has happened with some of the connections he’s helped orchestrate.

Mike Reed, seen here in the Toner Plastics lobby

Mike Reed, seen here in the Toner Plastics lobby with some of the products produced there, including the hula hoop, says the company was able to help Quikcord reach the prototype stage.

Such as the one involving Quik-cord and Toner Plastics. Summing up how that worked out succinctly, and colorfully, Rodrigues noted that, “at the initial event, their prototype was a toilet-paper roll with duct tape on it; a few months later, they had a an actual, fully formed prototype with the logo on it, and they were ready for manufacturing.”

Spearheading that transformation was the team at Toner Plastics, a 25-year-old manufacturer of extruded products and a leader in 3D printer filament products and makers of, among other things, hula hoops. Among its many other specialties is manufacturing filler for wire and cable products.

Mike Reed, the company’s engineering manager, said Steve Graham saw potential in the Quikcord concept and its principals and agreed to work with the entrepreneurs to help move their idea off the proverbial drawing board.

“At that point, they had a good concept, but they really needed some help finalizing the design and getting to manufacturing,” Reed explained, adding that Toner Plastics worked on the project in conjunction with its sister company, Modern Mold and Tool, and especially design engineer Stefan Ogle. “We worked with them for several months on the design; we went back and forth, made several revisions, and did some prototype work as well. And then we optimized that design for manufacturing.”

These were critical steps forward, ones that prompted Fioretti to use that phrase ‘springboarding effect’ to capture how this connection gave the venture some needed lift.

“We should have the final product in hand soon,” he went on, adding that the company is close to moving on to the manufacturing stage, and he expects Toner Plastics to play a big role in that work. “We love what Greentown is doing because we’ve seen first-hand how it works.”

There are other startups that can make that same claim, said Rodrigues, including Kwema, a Cincinnati-based wearable-technology startup that had participated in the VVM accelerator and also in the same ‘rocket pitch’ where Quikcord met Toner Plastics.

“When they got exposed to what’s out here for manufacturing and they started working with Worthington Assembly, they now have plans to relocate their headquarters from Cincinnati to Springfield,” said Rodrigues.

Peerless Precision in Westfield

As part of his matchmaking efforts, Adam Rodrigues has been introducing startups to area manufacturers at tours, such as this one at Peerless Precision in Westfield, led by company president Kristin Carlson.

Still another success story is RiseRobotics, a company incubating at Greentown in Somerville, that has made not one but a few of the east-west connections Rodrigues said he loves to facilitate. Indeed, the company is now working with two Westfield-based manufacturers, Peerless Precision and Manufacturing Technology Group.

The goal moving forward, obviously, is to make more of these connections, said Rodrigues, adding that he’s only 15 months into a three-year contract and is already exploring funding options to extend the life of this important initiative.

“There’s some nice momentum going — the numbers are well beyond anything we could have projected,” he said of the initiative’s track record to date. “What that means to me is that people are excited about this; they’re excited about the whole innovation movement that’s going on in this area.

“The numbers show there’s a lot of potential here,” he went on. “Manufacturers are thinking about the future, and they’re thinking about innovation, and the exposure to what Massachusetts has to offer to innovators is changing the perception that they have to go to China first.”

Prototype for Success

As he talked with BusinessWest in Building 101 and posed for a few photos, Rodrigues admitted he didn’t know too much about what was going on within the facility still known as the Scibelli Enterprise Center, named for the former STCC president who created it.

He did know there are few businesses incubating there, and that there are some economic-development-related agencies leasing space, such as Leadership Pioneer Valley and the Western Mass. Small Business Development Center.

He knows those two because he’s worked directly with the latter as part of his connection-making efforts, and the former occupies the suite next door.

Other than that … he doesn’t know very much, because he’s not there, in his half-basketball court, very much at all.

His job is to be on the road, making connections, building bridges, whatever phrase you want to use. And there is still considerable work to do in that regard.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Planting Seeds

Steve Rosenkrantz

Steve Rosenkrantz

Western Mass. has seen an impressive surge in entrepreneurship over the past decade, but when people think about the successes, they tend to call to mind startups and independent companies. But there is another way to succeed in business ownership, and that’s through franchising. Through a national company called Entrepreneur’s Source, Steve Rosenkrantz has been matching clients with franchises for 17 years — by focusing on what they want not just in a career, but out of life.

Steve Rosenkrantz has a simple way of explaining his job.

“I think of what I do as planting seeds,” he said — and in 17 years as the owner of an Entrepreneur’s Source franchise, he’s planted many of them.

He also fancies himself a matchmaker of sorts, but not the kind who brings two people together. No, he’s making matches between his clients and what will, hopefully, become their ideal lifestyle, in the form of their own franchise business.

“I learned a few things a long time ago, and one is that nobody really wants to buy a business; they just like the benefits of owning one,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I create a safe space for the client to be educated and discover for themselves what types of franchise options match their career goals and expectations.”

In short, he’s helping individuals — usually people with well-established careers who are looking for a change and a measure of autonomy — transition to the realm of entrepreneurship. Rather than launching a startup, however, his clients are investing in a franchise of an established business.

The evidence of how it works began with his own search for a business opportunity in 2001, when his family business — a chain of Serv-U hardware and home-improvement stores — went through a dramatic downsizing. He then commenced a search for what to do next, and turned to the Entrepreneur’s Source for some guidance.

After a lengthy coaching and assessment process, one of the franchise opportunities put in front of him, oddly enough, was the Entrepreneur’s Source itself. Almost two decades later, he remains passionate about his work and the impact it has both regionally and nationally.

I learned a few things a long time ago, and one is that nobody really wants to buy a business; they just like the benefits of owning one.”

Take Antonia Santiago, for instance. She had an idea for a business startup in the senior-care space. When she talked to a local representative at SCORE, the business-mentoring agency, they referred her to Rosenkrantz. Through a series of discussions about what she was looking for in a career and lifestyle, another possibility arose.

“I said, ‘what do you think about working with children?’” he said. “She said, ‘I love children.’ I said, ‘I have a hunch.’”

So he connected her with a company, well-established in New York and New Jersey, called HobbyQuest, an after-school enrichment program that dovetails with local school curriculum to enhance what children are already learning and building on it.

“The match was perfect, and last month, she launched in West Springfield,” Rosenkrantz told BusinessWest. “It shows how, when people have awareness of what I do, like the SCORE counselor did, wonderful things can happen that benefit the community.”

Like his own experience, the process begins with an open mind to think past specific ideas the client may have in mind, and get to the root of their ILWE goals — income, lifestyle, wealth, and equity — to find an opportunity that fulfills them all in the short and long terms.

“I’m always respectful of opportunities people may have in mind when they come to me, but I like to back up the train a bit to get to understand what they really want their ILWE to be,” he explained. “The right franchise should be able to match all those things. My job is to match my clients with the right franchise models that correspond best to their geography, investment level, family dynamics, and the scalability they’re looking for.”

The options are endless, he added. “It could be with employees or without; with a physical storefront or a virtual storefront. I profile clients and, through lots of Q and A, help them determine what path to go on. It’s not a perfect system; there’s no such thing as that. But the program encourages clients to approach the process with an open mind, to determine whether we’re on the right track, or we need to redirect.”

Put Me In, Coach

There is a third term Rosenkrantz uses to describe his role, and that is a coach — in both business and life, with the recognition that the latter has a huge impact on the former.

The discovery process he undertakes with clients covers everything from personal and financial background to the type of business they believe they would be suited for.

He then offers a series of franchise ideas from his database, based on that all-important ILWE, which the client researches to see what might spark an interest.

Some matches have become well-known success stories in Western Mass., such as Jim Brennan and Rick Crews, who wound up starting a Doctor’s Express franchise in West Springfield and now operate more than 20 of them throughout the region. For their success, they were named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2012, and have significantly expanded their footprint since.

Their field of urgent care is, in fact, a good example of finding a niche with serious growth potential, and Brennan and Crews jumped in at the right time. On the flip side, Rosenkrantz said, anyone looking to open a Dunkin’ Donuts these days is about a decade past peak saturation.

On the other hand, “when the frozen-yogurt craze started not long ago, a lot of major players wanted to connect with us, but we chose to stick with a company called Menchie’s, which had a vision that was a little different. They were focusing on frozen desserts, not just froze yogurt, and they had a vision what they want to look like in five to 10 years.”

New England tends to be conservative about new businesses, he added. “We tend to bring in franchises that are already tested and have a strong track record elsewhere in the world. And that’s good for me.”

Indeed, Massachusetts is fertile ground for some nationally successful franchises that have not exploded here yet, such as Sport Clips, three of which were recently launched by Ian Coogan, a commander at Westover Air Reserve Base who was looking for a business opportunity he could transition into while still spending most of his time at the base. “He doesn’t cut hair, and he doesn’t have to go in on a daily basis,” Rosenkrantz said — again, demonstrating that there’s a franchise to match everyone’s schedule.

Speaking of entrepreneurs with a military background, Rosenkrantz pointed out Patrick Walker, a retired senior chief of the U.S. Coast Guard, who had been responsible for the maintenance and quality assurance of its Aviation Department.

He attended a military-recruiting expo in 2014 with an open mind and a taste for entrepreneurship, but also a recollection of other franchise representatives he had talked with before who were heavy on hard-selling their opportunities, but not as interested in what his own goals and needs were.

But the Entrepreneur’s Source coach he met was different, Walker explained in an interview — one of many with military clients — collected in a booklet to tout Entrepreneur Source’s Veteran2Entrepreneur program. Because he was interested in travel and wanted to relocate to his hometown of Frisco, Texas, he opened an Expedia CruiseShipCenter there in 2016, taking advantage of a career option that let him choose where to live after a lifetime of moving around from post to post.

“Most of my friends are getting comfortable jobs; I decided I wanted something I could call my own,” he said. “I have a sense of pride wearing my uniform and driving to my business. It’s the American dream.”

Rosenkrantz said veterans, as a group, especially understand the potential of franchising. “Why? Because they can follow a system, and they know how to add value to a system. They like organization, they like regimen, and a franchise system is their bread and butter. Franchising and the military is a wonderful combination.”

Walker agreed. “As a retiring veteran, I felt I was too old to start a business from scratch. But in a franchise, all I needed was to read and implement the operations and procedures manual.”

Living Proof

Rosenkrantz works with clients across the U.S. and finds them matches from coast to coast, but he said he’s especially gratified performing that task in Western Mass. and Northern Conn. because of the bonus of boosting the region’s economy and bringing intriguing new businesses to the area.

“I never lose sight of the fact that I am a franchise that helps people find the right franchise. I live franchising every day. I’m a testimonial to our process because I was a client myself.”

The Entrepreneur’s Source is paid by franchises for successful matches, and Rosenkrantz said they consider it money well spent.

“The introduction we make between clients and franchises is a much warmer connection because my clients have already been vetted, and I check the territory availability of the franchise model for the client. So, the franchise gets someone with potential synergies right out of the gate, and that is something that’s valuable to them, so they love compensating my company for those warm introductions. We are advocates to make sure everything is in alignment.”

Because of the wide range of opportunities, clients may have to invest as little as $20,000 for a franchise opportunity or as much as millions, and many, like Coogan, keep their current jobs while ramping up their new business. Rosenkrantz also helps clients navigate funding resources like a unique 401(k) rollover program that doesn’t pile on the penalties, as well as Small Business Administration loans and similar programs.

In addition, “I have helped many people who say, ‘I don’t have the liquidity,’ but you do have family and friends. Sometimes people allow pride to get in the way, but they have people who care about them, and good things can happen if you utilize your circle of influence.”

There is a second facet to Rosenkrantz’s role, however — to help small-business owners with a single location find the resources and support to expand into a franchise of their own. One of those, Extra Innings, was a business based in Middleton that specializes in baseball and softball instruction. After connecting with Entrepreneur’s Source, the business has expanded to 27 franchises across the country.

“I love hearing the ideas of independent businesses looking for the next stage of expansion,” he told BusinessWest.

When he’s not helping clients, Rosenkrantz is always looking for opportunities to speak to all kinds of groups — such as laid-off workers and college students — about the opportunities available through the franchise model.

“My mission is to educate anyone who has entrepreneurial curiosity about franchising,” he said. “Not everyone will or should own that path, but it’s my firm belief that, for anyone who has entrepreneurial curiosity, one of the steps in their educational process should be to learn about franchising.”

Simply put, he added, “franchising is an opportunity to be in business for yourself, but not by yourself.”

And it’s crucial, he went on, for both he and the client to feel strongly they’ve made the right match, because failed matches are bound to be discussed on social media. “I’ve never had a bad comment on social media. I stay in touch with a lot of clients years later, and I’m pretty proud of their successes in their respective franchises and industries.”

In the meantime, he said his mission is to create even more awareness. “I want to get onto more college campuses to spread the word about business ownership. It’s not for everyone, but those who want to learn about and explore entrepreneurship, franchising is an important part of that discovery process.”

Never Alone

It’s all about the support, he concluded — not just from the Entrepreneur’s Source, but from the chosen franchise’s parent company, which has a keen interest in each location’s success.

“Statistics say an independent business, within a two-year period, has a high probability of failure,” Rosenkrantz noted. “People don’t have that extra working capital; they don’t plan things beyond the starting phase. Franchises, though, have an exponentially higher level of success, both short- and long-term.

“People should be educated about this when they’re considering business ownership as a career opportunity,” he concluded. “I want to be a piece of that education. I’m making inroads, but it’s a long battle.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Venturing Forth

Paul Silva

Paul Silva says Launch413 one of two new startups he has launched himself, will fill a recognized gap in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Paul Silva uses the word ‘retired’ when he references his departure (at least as a full-time employee) from Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the groundbreaking nonprofit he co-founded to assist startups and next-stage companies.

And he acknowledged that he gets some strange looks when he does, not simply because he’s only 40 — and people that age usually aren’t retired from anything other than professional sports — but also because they can’t fathom why he would leave the organization he has helped lead to great success.

As for that word ‘retire,’ he said it sounds better than most all of the alternatives he could use, like ‘moved on,’ or ‘left,’ or even ‘transitioned from,’ all of which, or at least the first two, have largely negative connotations, at least in his opinion.

“Unfortunately, we really don’t have a good word for when you hand your startup off to the next group of people,” he explained. “Maybe someone will come with one; I’m open to suggestions.”

Meanwhile, as to why he retired, that will take a lot longer to explain. There is a short answer — that he considers doing so beneficial for him (ultimately), VVM, and the region as a whole — but one couldn’t possibly leave it at that. One would need to explain why that’s the case, and we’ll do most of that in a bit.

First, though, we’ll get to that ‘better for the region’ part.

In short, Silva said he can now focus his efforts — or a good portion of them, anyway, because his time will now be split in a number of ways — on filling what he called the next “gap” in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

That would be the one between organizations like VVM and the services they provide, and investing groups like the one Silva leads, River Valley Investors (RVI).

“For the past three years, VVM has been kicking ass at graduating startups, and good ones,” he explained. “And they come to my angel group and…”

His voice tailed off a bit as he noted that some come to angel investors ready, willing, and able to get to the next stage, and thus have relatively little trouble gaining all-important financial backing. Many others are willing, but not exactly ready or able. And this is where Launch413 comes in.

“Most early-stage investors don’t want to pay for the entrepreneur’s education in the many aspects of running a business, like selling and financials,” he explained. “So they don’t know how to operationalize and execute their business model. They graduate from VVM with a great business model, with evidence that it’s the right business, but they’re often missing great chunks of skills on how to get there; Launch413 parachutes in and fills the gap.”

But such skydiving will only fill part of Silva’s calendar. Indeed, as noted earlier, he is splitting his time between a number of different endeavors, including not one, but two new startups.

You have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are professionally. I know what I love to do; I love to teach and work with the entrepreneurs, and I’m really good at that. To be the CEO of an organization that’s scaling up is a very different set of skills.”

“I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said, adding that the second is called the Lean Innovation Institute (LII).

In simple terms, this initiative is an adaptation, and expansion, of VVM’s manufacturing accelerator, initiated last year, but orphaned by that agency (Silva’s word) because it didn’t exactly meld with its mission.

Sensing an opportunity, he essentially took ownership of that initiative with the intention of selling it to a host of sectors. And he’s already making headway with one he didn’t exactly expect — nonprofits, as we’ll see later.

The new adventures of Paul Silva — yes, he’s the one who wears the ties patterned with the likenesses of cartoon characters — are all spelled out on the back of his new business card — if you should happen to get one and have the time to read everything on it.

On the front, it declares he’s a startup advisor, angel-group leader, and innovation accelerator. For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Silva about those various talents and how he’s developed them into his own intriguing startups.

In Good Company

Getting back to why he was phased out of VVM at his request — that’s another way he phrased what’s happened — Silva said it’s beneficial for VVM because the agency is growing, expanding, and moving in new directions, and he is not exactly suited to lead an agency at that stage. By retiring, others more suited to that work can step in, he said, mentioning Liz Roberts, VVM’s CEO, by name.

As to why it’s better for him … well, if he stayed in a role he wasn’t really suited for, he said he wouldn’t enjoy it much, if at all.

“You have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are professionally,” he told BusinessWest. “I know what I love to do; I love to teach and work with the entrepreneurs, and I’m really good at that. To be the CEO of an organization that’s scaling up is a very different set of skills.

“I knew I had reached my limit,” he went on. “And if I wanted VVM to keep growing, either it was going to grow slower while I learned, or it could grow faster with Liz, who had already been there, done that, and been successful. And even if I could learn, I don’t think I would like it.”

So, after some due diligence and explaining to people that he was soon to be a ‘free agent,’ as he put it, Silva moved on to some things he does like.

Such as the broad mission of Launch413.

That name pretty much says it all — it’s focused on helping companies in Western Mass. get well off the ground — but its method of operation needs some explaining.

Working with several venture partners, Silva will parachute in, as he put it, and act as a venture fund in many ways, but the investment is in time and expertise, not dollars. In exchange for those investments, Launch413 gets a piece of the company’s future revenue.

This concept is called royalty financing, and while not exactly new, it has been gaining traction in recent years. That’s because entrepreneurs don’t want to give up a piece of their business, as in equity financing, but are more willing to part with a percentage of future revenues.

But royalty financing has benefits for both sides in this equation, especially in a smaller market like Western Mass., Silva explained.

“If I take equity in a company, the only way I get paid is if the company sells,” he said, adding quickly that there are other ways investors can reap dividends in such cases, but the company in question would have to be doing very well. “With a royalty deal, my incentive is in line with helping the company succeed; if they make money, I’ll get paid faster.”

Launch413 is currently working with one company, and Silva expects to soon be working on a batch of up to four. He will limit the number and start small, he said, to learn about what works and what doesn’t.

“We’ll figure out how much larger we can make the batches over time,” he said, adding that, given the great amount of entrepreneurial energy in the region, he expects Launch413 to flourish.

As for LII, as noted earlier, it is solidly based on VVM’s manufacturing accelerator, which was different from a traditional accelerator in that it focused on established companies rather than those just getting off the ground, which is why it became a business opportunity for Silva.

“VVM wants to focus on startups, which makes sense, because one of the great dangers with nonprofits is mission creep and losing focus,” he explained.

But the manufacturing accelerator was very similar to the traditional model in the way it prompted participants to identify who their customers were, what they wanted and needed, and how this should drive change moving forward.

And the LII (so named because it will hopefully involve companies in all sectors) will do all of the above with established entities, including a constituency Silva wasn’t exactly expecting when he launched: nonprofits.

He’s working with one at present — Pathlight, formerly the Assoc. for Community Living — and running pretty much the same curriculum put to use with the manufacturers at VVM.

Elaborating, Silva said Pathlight, which helps intellectually disabled individuals lead full and productive lives, developed a curriculum to help it meet that mission, one that could be adopted by other nonprofits doing similar work.

“They see this as an opportunity to create revenue from something they built that would help further their mission,” he explained, adding that the accelerator he’s running is focused on developing and maximizing this opportunity — one that amounts to a startup business.

“It looks like we have something that might make a difference here,” he went on, adding that he believes there is potential to add many more nonprofits to the portfolio moving forward because of changing dynamics within that sector, which has a huge presence in this region.

“The competitive pressure to raise grant dollars is intense,” he explained, “especially because Western Mass. has more nonprofits than just about anywhere else. So they need to find new ways of generating revenue; they need to think differently and in more innovative ways. It’s shocking how many of them don’t actually think about their customers and what they really need because they believe they know already.”

Meanwhile, he’s had discussions with Ira Bryck, director of the Family Business Center of Western Mass., about possibly running similar accelerators for groups of that agency’s members.

Overall, he said his business plan, like LII’s website, is very much a work in progress because, at the moment, he’s busy practicing what he preaches — meaning he’s figuring out who his potential customers are and what they want.

“If you asked me a year ago if nonprofits would be excited by this curriculum, I would have said ‘no,’” he explained. “But it turns out, among the sectors I’ve talked to, nonprofits are the most excited about this.”

Transition Game

Summing up the many changes in his life, career-wise at least, over the past several months, Silva acknowledged that he has taken a fairly sizable risk when it comes to leaving the steady employment provided by VVM.

But with the blessing of his wife — “she said, ‘this is the right thing for VVM; I’m proud of you’” — he gladly accepted that risk and moved on to something different and, in his opinion, at least equally rewarding, only in different ways.

This is what entrepreneurs do, and anyone who knows Silva is quick to grasp that he not only mentors and motivates such individuals; he is one himself.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Whatever It Takes

Kate Putnam

Kate Putnam says the WIT Fund hopes to raise $3 million over the next three years and focus on women-led companies.

Kate Putnam knew something special was going on — right from the first get-together.

That was back about 18 months or so ago, when a dozen women were invited to a breakfast to discuss ideas for making Western Mass. the place for women entrepreneurs and innovators.

“More than 30 showed up,” said Putnam, one of the organizers and chief spokespeople for a group that came to be known, after considerable discussion, as WIT, initially a joint venture of Valley Venture Mentors and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.

That’s short for Women Innovators & Trailblazers, and also for What It Takes, or Whatever It Takes, said Putnam, a veteran business leader, entrepreneur, and mentor. She said the former describes both the membership and the constituency it will serve, while latter pretty much sums up what it’s ready and willing to do to carry out its mission.

And that is, officially, to “ignite a women-led innovation economy in Western Mass. and beyond.” Beyond that simple statement on the website (witrocks.org), though, the group is committed to helping women succeed in business through funding, mentoring, and more, as in ‘whatever it takes.’

Especially funding. Indeed, the group is creating what will be known as the WIT Fund, an angel-investing fund that will, as that name suggests, focus on women-led companies. The goal is to amass $3 million over the next three years or so, said Putnam, and write the first check perhaps as early as next spring.

She said there is considerable interest among WIT’s members in contributing to the fund, with the suggested contributions being $10,000 to $20,000.

“You can definitely do more,” said Putnam, adding that the group’s tagline will be something along the lines of ‘by and for women,’ which speaks broadly to a two-pronged mission.

“We want to inspire women to become angel investors,” she said, “and also help women who are starting businesses through mentorship.”

Indeed, WIT’s reason for being is perhaps better summed by its stated vision: “to build a community where women boldly define and fulfill their entrepreneurial ambitions,” said Allison Werder, another of the group’s organizers and leaders.

She noted that the ‘fulfilling’ part of the equation is often more difficult for women than it is for men, especially when it comes to statistics related to funding of entrepreneurial ventures, as we’ll see. And WIT was created to essentially do something about that.

“The overarching premise is women investing in women,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, in this case, ‘investing’ comes in many forms, including mentoring and educating women in how to be angel investors.

But perhaps most importantly, it will come through actual angel investing, she said, adding that the need is real — and growing.

Nationwide, women-led companies (a phrase that includes diverse teams of individuals) comprise roughly 28% of the individuals seeking capital nationally, said Putnam. But they receive just 17% of angel funding and only 2.5% of venture-capital funding.

“Even if you can get to the angel round of funding, the VCs aren’t stepping up,” she explained, adding that, while in Massachusetts, and especially Western Mass., the numbers are somewhat better (anecdotally), there is still considerable room for improvement, a reality that was the real inspiration for WIT’s evolving mission and growing membership.

Indeed, those 30 women who turned out for that initial meeting in 2016, and those who have joined since, understand those numbers and what they mean, said Putnam, adding that the membership represents a number of groups involved with women, entrepreneurship, economic development, or a combination of the above.

These include VVM, the EDC, the Women’s Fund of Western Mass., the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Northwestern Mutual, Rainmaker Consulting, the Shops at Marketplace, and Lioness magazine.

As for the membership, it has grown to 80 or 90 individuals, and includes the leaders of the many women’s colleges in the area, other educators, business owners and managers, entrepreneurs, creatives, marketers, and individuals working in various aspects of economic development.

“It’s a broad spectrum of people, both those looking for guidance and those looking to grow the entrepreneurial community,” said Werder, adding that they have come together behind a single unifying assignment, if you will.

“We think there is an opportunity to put a stake in the ground that Western Mass. is very friendly to female-led entrepreneurial businesses,” she explained, adding that a number of forces, from the women’s colleges and universities to VVM, have inspired such optimism.

And now there is another in WIT, a group that has a lofty goals and a name — actually, two of them — that says it all.

—George O’Brien

Entrepreneurship Sections

Sweet Smell of Success

Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator Awards

The winners of Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator Awards, who split $150,000 in grant money to further their nascient businesses.

Valley Venture Mentors’ third annual Accelerator program may have been capped by the grants given to a dozen of its participants at a recent awards ceremony, but participants say the rewards of the program go far beyond dollars, encompassing everything from intensive business training and expert advice to exposure in the marketplace and critical networking. These entrepreneurs’ ideas are often potentially world-changing; VVM’s goal is to help turn that potential into reality.

 

By Kathleen Mellen

Ronny Priefer’s niece Ava was just 18 months old when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and almost died from diabetic ketoacidosis. If an alert aunt, who was babysitting, hadn’t noticed the telltale sweet smell of her niece’s breath (caused by a build-up of ketones), the toddler might have been in serious trouble.

“She realized something was wrong and took her to the hospital,” Priefer said, referring to the quick-thinking aunt. “If she hadn’t, the doctors think she probably would have died within hours.”

Ava’s story is not uncommon. Every year, more than 150,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; roughly one in four aren’t diagnosed until they develop diabetic ketoacidosis, which occurs when the body cannot use glucose as a fuel source because there is no insulin, or not enough insulin. When that happens, the body breaks down fat for fuel instead, which leads to a build up of ketones, which, in turn, causes the sweet-smelling breath.

Like others with type 1 diabetes, Ava, now 6, must monitor her blood glucose by pricking her finger six to nine times a day, every day, for the rest of her life. Those finger pricks and the associated pain, Priefer says, can cause compliance problems, and “low compliance rates correlate to higher diabetic complications.”

All of which got Priefer, a chemist, to thinking: since the initial indicator of the little girl’s disease was sweet-smelling breath, why not find a way to use the breath as a way to monitor diabetes?

Priefer, 42, a professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the College of Pharmacy at Western New England University, is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of a business startup in Springfield called New England Breath Technologies, which has, indeed, developed a way to measure blood glucose using a person’s breath.

“It’s 100% pain-free,” he said. “This is my way to help the diabetic community.”

Priefer and his business partners, Judi Grupp, the company’s CEO, and Michael Rust, a co-founder and chief technology officer, got a leg up in their efforts on May 25 when they were awarded $25,000 at Valley Venture Mentors’ (VVM) annual Accelerator Awards banquet. The group will use the money to run a clinical trial this summer.

Holding their check for $25,000

Holding their check for $25,000 are New England Breath Technology’s Ronny Priefer and Judi Grupp, with, from left, Jay Leonard, VVM board treasurer; Katie Allan Zobel, president and CEO, Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts; Dennis Duquette, head of Community Responsibility, MassMutual, and Scott Foster, VVM board chairman.

The company is just one of a dozen that walked away with a share of $150,000 in prize money at the awards banquet held at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. The other finalists were Genoverde Biosciences Inc. in Amherst ($25,000), MEANS Database in Washington, D.C. ($22,500), Ernest Pharmaceuticals in Hadley ($12,500), M1 Tapes in Haydenville ($12,500), Lumme Inc. in Amherst ($10,000), Streamliners in Hampden ($10,000), Kwema in Miami, Fla. ($10,000), Nonspec in Carlisle (7,500), RecordME in Torrington, Conn. ($5,000), Barakat Bundle in Cambridge ($5,000), and ProjectMQ in Pooler, Ga. ($5,000).

They’ll all put the money to good use, but the true wealth they received was, perhaps, less tangible.

The companies participated in VVM’s annual, four-month-long Accelerator boot camp, now in its third year, which is designed to prepare high-potential startups for serious growth. As participants, they received intensive training and critical support from experts, investors, and collaborative peers; marketing exposure and public-relations promotion; and the chance to build a network of peers, potential advisors, and investors.

“We create career learning,” VVM CEO Liz Roberts said. “Usually people come to us with some proprietary experience or knowledge, who found a way, or think they have a better way, to solve a problem for a lot of people. They come here looking for the missing pieces.”

Priefer said he’d heard about the VVM Accelerator program and thought it would be beneficial for both the refinement of the business and networking — and he was right. “We not only gained the financial reward, but we were able to refine our business pitch, and make some solid connections for potential future investments.”

Addressing Addiction

Akshaya Shanmugam, 29, was born and raised in India, where access to healthcare, she said, is “a privilege that not many people enjoy.” She hopes to change that.

“My goal in life is to address the challenges of healthcare that the developed and developing worlds face,” said Shanmugam, who received a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from UMass Amherst, and is an expert in the design of portable health monitoring, data analytics, and testing and validation.

She’s starting her quest with what she says is one of the most neglected diseases, addiction — specifically, smoking addiction.

Shanmugam is the program manager of Lumme Inc., a new business in Amherst that is developing technology to help people effectively quit smoking, by using what she calls “the ubiquitous power of smartphones.”

Lumme’s patented platform combines machine learning and wearable devices to automatically track activities and the context surrounding each activity. Based on that data, the platform can deliver personalized strategies on how to improve overall health. The group is also exploring the capability of using the platform to aid in the treatment of eating and obesity disorders, as well as alcohol addition.

Akshaya Shanmugam (right) and Abhinav Parate from Lumme Inc.,

Akshaya Shanmugam (right) and Abhinav Parate from Lumme Inc., which won $10,000 at the awards ceremony.

“Any role I can play in bringing this technology to the masses and to make a difference in the world is meaningful to me,” she said. “All the rich data that we can provide surrounding human behavior can help shift the focus from treatment to prevention of diseases.”

Shanmugam and her teammates — company CEO Christopher Salthouse; President Deepak Ganesan; Abhinav Parate, head of research and development; Sherry McKee, a behavior-change expert — received an award of $10,000 at the banquet, money that will help the fledgling company launch its pilot program. But the most beneficial part of the experience, she added, was the networking she and her team members were able to do.

“We had the opportunity to meet so many personally and professionally accomplished individuals,” she said. “These were top people in their fields who we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.”

To be eligible to participate in the Accelerator program, a company must have earned less than $250,000 in revenue in the last 12 calendar months, but must also “think big,” Roberts said. “We aren’t here to support people who want to open a dry-cleaning business; there’s a lot of small-business support out there. We’re looking for people who, for example, want to create a franchise of dry-cleaning stores. You have to have ambition to scale. We are creating high-capacity, high-growth companies.”

This year’s winners were selected from a cohort of 36 teams who participated in the boot camp, which runs each year from January to May. They, in turn, were selected from more than 200 applicants. While 60% to 70% of all participating startups come from within a two-hour drive of Springfield, others come from around the world, including as far away as Ghana and the United Kingdom.

“We want Western Massachusetts to be the next startup region,” Roberts said. “The way business works now, it’s global, and it’s international. If you want to be a place of innovation, and you want to draw and retain people to this area, that’s a really key thing.”

At the close of the boot camp, the 36 startups self-selected 12 finalists following a high-stakes pitch contest. On May 25, 15 judges (angel investors and venture capitalists from Western Mass., Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and as far away as Atlanta), were each allotted $10,000 to ‘invest’ in the companies; they heard the finalists’ pitches, interviewed them, looked at their product demos, and independently determined the amount each company would be awarded.

“This is not a consensus piece,” Roberts said. “It’s actually how investing works in real life.”

VVM receives funding for this and other programs from MassMutual, MassDevelopment, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, among other sponsors.

Big Picture

The folks at Valley Venture Mentors say they believe in setting big goals. Through its mentorship programs and its Accelerator Awards, VVM aims to create nothing short of an entrepreneurial renaissance in Western Mass. by building what Roberts calls an ecosystem, in which startup businesses can grow and flourish, both locally and globally.

“When Valley Venture Mentors was founded in 2011, there weren’t the entrepreneurship programs in colleges that there are now, and there certainly wasn’t the support of an ecosystem,” Roberts said. “It’s hard to get started on your own, in isolation. They don’t know what they don’t know before they come in — how to find your customers, who your customers are. Do you have the presentation model? Do you actually have a flawed business model? Through the process of this program, we help them with all that.”

The proof the companies’ success, Roberts says, is in the pudding. In 2016, VVM startups created $7.9 million in earnings and attracted $11.3 million in outside funding — everything from angel and venture-capital investments to prestigious federal research grants. VVM startups supported 227 full-time and 613 part-time and contract jobs, in addition to spending $2.45 million on service providers outside payroll.

It’s worth noting, Roberts says, that VVM’s startups are also diverse. While 63% of the companies in this year’s cohort were women-led, and more than 50% were led by people of color, the numbers for similar programs are much lower, nationally (23% led by women and 20% led by people of color), according the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which supports women and minority entrepreneurs.

“There’s something about the way we’re doing this — it’s on nights and weekends, we provide childcare, we do a founder-blind application process — that’s really different,” Roberts told BusinessWest. “I think it’s something that’s specific to Western Massachusetts, that is human-friendly. They can succeed here.”

With the aid of VVM’s Accelerator program, they’re gaining the resources to do just that — with rewards that go far beyond a dollar sign.

Entrepreneurship Sections

Growing the Future

Farms and farmers have long been among the region’s most important entrepreneurs. Now in its third year, the Local Farmer Awards program continues to help farmers welcome the growing season with funds to make infrastructure improvements to expand their businesses, compete in the marketplace, and continue to provide the health and environmental benefits of local farming.

The awards are possible due to the support of two partners: the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation and Big Y. Other community sponsors include HP Hood LLC, Baystate Health, Farm Credit East, MGM Springfield, Springfield Sheraton Monarch Place, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

In 2017, awards of up to $2,500 were given to 49 farmers, all members of Berkshire Grown or CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). Half of these award winners were newer farmers in business no more than 10 years.

“Western Massachusetts’ agricultural roots run deep, and we have long been known as one of the primary growing regions in New England,” said Charlie D’Amour, president and chief operating officer of Big Y. “Today, alongside families who have been farming for generations, a new crop of young farming families and entrepreneurs are continuing this fine tradition. At Big Y, we are pleased to continue our own 80-plus year tradition of supporting these farmer families by joining with the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation and other sponsors to provide grants and opportunities for this important part of our region’s economy and culture.”

We have long been known as one of the primary growing regions in New England. Today, alongside families who have been farming for generations, a new crop of young farming families and entrepreneurs are continuing this fine tradition.”

Farm Credit East is a new sponsor for 2017, and Vice President and Branch Manager Keith Stechschulte said the program is an important one. “A strong agriculture industry in our local communities is a connection to our past and a bridge to our future. Farm Credit East is proud to be a supporter of the Local Farmer Awards.”

The projects, soon underway, will provide support to farmers throughout the growing cycle. A highly motivated group, the farmers are paying, on average, more than 51% of the cost of the projects — and they are eager to move forward. The awards help fund everything from seeding, cleaning, storing, and packaging to sales. The variety of what is produced on the recipient farms — milk, vegetables, eggs, meat, maple syrup, and more — represents a slice of what is grown throughout the region.

The four counties of Western Mass. are abundant with farms; in fact, more than 800 farms in the region have sales greater than $10,000, a requirement for the award application. Recognizing that agriculture is such a strong regional force, Harold Grinspoon, founder of the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, launched the Local Farmer Awards in 2015. He understood that farmers do not typically ask for help, and that the awards would have a direct impact.

“I’m thrilled our partner, Big Y, and our sponsors have come together to help farmers make much-needed infrastructure improvements,” he said. “We all benefit from their success.”

A farmer-appreciation event will be held in late fall for more than 100 applicants and award recipients, to recognize farmers and promote the importance of local agriculture.

The 2017 recipients of the Local Farmer Awards include these 15 members of Berkshire Grown: Ayrhill Farms Inc., Brattle Farm, Caretaker Farm, Colfax Farm, Farm Girl Farm, Joshua’s Farm, Many Forks Farm LLC, New Leaf Farm, Raven & Boar Farm, Red Shirt Farm, Sky View Farm, Square Roots Farm, Wild & Cultivated Farm, Wildstone Farm, and Woven Roots Farm.

The 34 Local Farmer Award recipients from CISA include the Apple Place, Atlas Farm LLC, Bear Swamp Orchard and Cidery, Book & Plow Farm, Carr’s Ciderhouse, Dave’s Natural Garden, Ferrindino Farms, Fungi Ally, Henry and Edward Parsons d/b/a Mayval Farm, Hettie Belle Farm, Hickory Hill Farm, Just Roots Inc. (Greenfield Community Farm), Kenburn Orchards, the Kitchen Garden, Kosinski Farms, Leyden Glen Farm, Lyonsville Farm, Many Hands Farm Corps, Mapleline Farm, McCray’s Farm, Nasami Farm and New England Wild Flower Society, Natural Roots, New England Wild Edibles, Phoenix Fruit Farm, Queen’s Greens, Rooted, Seeds of Solidarity Farm, ServiceNet’s Prospect Meadow Farm, Shinglebrook Farm, Sidehill Farm, Sweet Birch Herbals, Sweet Morning Farm, Wakulima Cooperative, and Wild Rose Farm.

Entrepreneurship Sections

Pour Planning

sign

It’s one of the region’s most unlikely success stories — a brewery that doesn’t distribute its beers beyond the building where they’re crafted, yet has managed to amass a passionate following of enthusiasts who wait in long lines to buy that week’s selections. From humble beginnings in a Brimfield barn, Monson-based Tree House Brewing Co. will make its second big move later this year, into a 55,000-square-foot brewery in Charlton, which will dramatically expand its capacity, raise its profile, and put smiles on the faces of a lot more thirsty people.

It’s called Julius, and it’s a different type of IPA beer.

“Julius is a beer that is near and dear to our heart, both because we love it and because it is the embodiment of our identity: a brewery that makes carefully crafted, brightly flavored, contemplative, and pleasant-to-drink malt beverages,” said Nate Lanier, co-founder and head brewer at Tree House Brewing Co.

Describing it as robustly flavored, with notes of citrus, papaya, and mango, Lanier said Julius is typically available year-round at Tree House’s headquarters on Koran’s Farm in the rolling hills of Monson. “If you’re used to light-beer flavors, drinking a Julius will be a shock to the palate — in the most lovely way imaginable.”

No wonder, then, that the day BusinessWest visited, the line to purchase cans of Julius and other ales stretched a football field’s length from the door of the barn that currently houses the brewery’s entire production and retail space (but not for long; more on that later). In fact, fans surge into the farm’s parking lot and brave those sometimes hour-long lines every time the doors open to the public, like zealous fans who can’t find Tree House brews anywhere else.

Because they can’t.

“We’re 100% sold out of this building, and that is uncommon,” said Dean Rohan, one of the brewery’s three co-founders, along with Lanier and Damien Goudreau. But it’s not strictly by design, Rohan said.

“By Saturday, there is no beer left to put on a truck and bring somewhere. We brew 340 barrels of beer a week, and we sell every single drop of it every single week.”

beer
 

It was like nothing they’d had before. A lot of the guys out west were making big, hop-forward beers, and when Nate started brewing hop-forward beers, they were what we called ‘drinkable hops’ — they weren’t so bitter and in your face. People who don’t like IPAs say they like our beer.”

 

But the phenomenon wouldn’t exist were it not for Lanier’s wife, Lauren, who got him started in the craft of home brewing.

“He loved craft beer and would go on pilgrimages to his favorite breweries and stand in line,” Rohan said. “So she bought him a home-brewing kit as a gift. I call her the mother of this place; she started it all.”

The three knew each other through music — they’re all musicians who occasionally played together — but Tree House Brewing Co. was born from a different kind of gathering, when Lanier threw a craft-beer tasting party as his house. Everyone brought favorites, and Lanier tossed three of his own home brews into the mix; when attendees voted, his creations finished first, second, and third among some 25 selections.

That got the three of them talking about investing time and money into making beer together, which they did, in Goudreau’s backyard barn in Brimfield, after getting permission from his wife. In 2012, they applied for and received a license to sell to the public, filling growlers right from the barn.

Tree House Brewing Co. founders (from left) Damien Goudreau, Nate Lanier, and Dean Rohan

Tree House Brewing Co. founders (from left) Damien Goudreau, Nate Lanier, and Dean Rohan say the Charlton expansion will create opportunities for growth and perhaps broader distribution.

“Our business plan said maybe if we could get 25 people to come buy our beer, we’d be able to pay off the little loan we took to buy a 12-gallon, half-barrel system,” Rohan said. “Well, those 25 people came the first day, then 50, then 75. From the day we opened our doors, we had more people than we’d expected.”

That’s a story that would be repeated again and again, resulting in a move to Monson two years ago and the ongoing development today of a much larger brewing facility in Charlton. At its heart, it’s a story about the enthusiasm shared among folks who make beer, and those who seek it out and stand in long lines to buy it.

Word of Mouth

The initial response to that tiny brewery in Brimfield — and, really, much of the marketing ever since — was driven by social media, which has long been a fertile communications network for craft brewers. Beer enthusiasts like the idea of hunting down something new and different, and Lanier had already developed a reputation for his beer.

“It was like nothing they’d had before,” Rohan said. “A lot of the guys out west were making big, hop-forward beers, and when Nate started brewing hop-forward beers, they were what we called ‘drinkable hops’ — they weren’t so bitter and in your face. People who don’t like IPAs say they like our beer.”

Unable to meet the demand from people who were driving up to the barn, the partners quickly outgrew the 12-gallon system, and approached the bank for their first big loan. The funds helped purchase a five-barrel brewhouse — a 150-gallon system — from California.

“That was going to be it,” Rohan said. “We were going to be able to make enough beer in that little barn to keep people happy. But we couldn’t do it.”

Again, simply through word of mouth and social media, beer enthusiasts continued to cram into the Brimfield site. Clearly, it was time to find larger digs.

“After about a year and a half in that neighborhood, the neighbors decided it was getting to be too much, having 125 cars driving up their agricultural, residential road in Brimfield, and rightfully so. We didn’t have an inch to grow in that barn anyway, so we came here.”

The lines to buy beer at Tree House often stretch to an hour or more.

The lines to buy beer at Tree House often stretch to an hour or more.

The partners built the current brewery — a 7,000-square-foot building housing a 30-barrel brewhouse, which could pump out 13,000 barrels per year — at Koran’s Farm in Monson. During construction, they continued to sell beer out of a little red barn across the street.

“This is where we were going to retire,” Rohan said, adding that, at the very least, the farm would be the framework of a five-year plan. But, a year and a half into that plan, production still wasn’t keeping up with demand.

“We have these plans and goals for the future, and the future arrives much faster than we expect it to,” he went on. “Wait, that’s wrong — we actually expect it now.”

It was in Monson that the long-line phenomenon really took off, he added. “In the dead of winter, on days when the news people were saying, ‘coldest day of the year — stay home, don’t go out’ — we’d have 25 cars in the parking lot an hour or two before we opened.” So he started printing tickets with the line order and passing them out so people could stay warm in their cars and not lose their place.

There are benefits to selling on site only, starting with freshness, as everything patrons carry out has been very recently brewed. As the partners note on their website, people like the convenience of finding a favorite beer at the convenience store, but that convenience comes at a price. “The minute our beer leaves our loving hands, it is subjected to forces that seek to destroy it — temperature fluctuations, ultraviolet light, mistreatment, etc. These forces are especially destructive to the pale, hoppy beers we love so much.”

The no-distribution model hasn’t hindered the company’s recognition; Beer Advocate recently listed 14 of its offerings on a list of 100 favorite beers. Besides the ever-popular Julius, other brews in regular rotation include ‘That’s What She Said,’ a milk stout with elements of chocolate and coffee; ‘Sap,’ a piney IPA originally brewed as a Christmas beer; ‘Green,’ a citrus-heavy IPA with notes of pineapple, tangerine, and orange rind; and ‘Eureka,’ which boasts a delicate bouquet of passionfruit and a slight lemon flavor.

Nate Lanier crafts a brew at Tree House’s headquarters in Monson.

Nate Lanier crafts a brew at Tree House’s headquarters in Monson.

Occasional offerings may include ‘Tornado,’ which Lanier concocted in the aftermath of the June 2011 tornado that ripped through Monson and Brimfield, and features notes of pine, tropical fruit, and citrus; ‘Good Morning,’ which pours black in the glass with a creamy head and offers the flavors of milk chocolate, maple syrup, and coffee; and ‘Double Shot,’ a rich, decadent coffee stout.

Stay Awhile

Those beers and more will soon be brewed in Charlton — specifically, in a 55,000-square-foot brewery on a 68-acre parcel that was most recently considered for a Home Depot warehouse, and before that, a casino. Built with the help of a $7.7 million MassDevelopment bond, the facility will initially boast a 30,000-barrel annual capacity, with the potential to expand to 125,000 barrels. Customers will be able to sample beers, buy and fill growlers, and buy cans of Tree House beer.

“For the first time in our history, we will have a taproom where guests can enjoy pints and enjoy a self-guided tour from a mezzanine level of our new, state-of-the-art brewing facility,” Lanier said. “We were lucky to find an amazing property high on a hill off of Route 20 that will allow guests to explore the grounds and disconnect a bit from the world at large.”

The people who wait in line in Monson typically make their purchases and get back in their cars, as there’s no space inside for socializing. Lanier is excited that Charlton will provide that social space.

“Since our inception, we have never been able to make enough beer to keep up with demand. Charlton will solve that problem and allow us to focus more on curating a communal environment,” he said — a place where beer enthusiasts can sit, enjoy the selections, and pass time with friends.

With the much larger quantities Tree House will be able to produce in Charlton, it may be able to keep public hours every day, as opposed to the four days a week — and maybe 20 total hours — it keeps now. While the Monson facility will remain operational, both for testing new beers and probably a scaled-back retail presence, Charlton will become the main hub, potentially doubling the company’s 22 employees.

“Once we get up and running, we may even do a little bit of distribution,” Rohan said. “There are so many taps in Massachusetts that have been waiting for us to give them a keg since the first month we were open. We’d never be able to get kegs to all those bars and restaurants, and we wouldn’t be anything but hyper-local for the next five to seven years. The closer we keep the beer to us, the fresher it will be.”

He expects the long lines and early arrivals at the new facility as well, but said the phenomenon has grown to be endearing phenomenon. “We’re in awe that some people sit there for hours for no other reason than to be first or second in line.”

In a way, he told BusinessWest, customers have made themselves into a community and made new friendships over their shared passion for craft beer. “We’re seeing upwards of 5,000 people a week coming through the doors, and when I walk out and talk to the people in line — some of them have been here four or five times — I feel like we’re friends.”

equipment

It’s a vibe he, Lanier, and Goudreau try to maintain among their employees as well.

“We want to make sure everyone is happy and friendly and can answer questions and give people what they need. We want this to be more than just a place to come get beer — we want it to be an experience, and a good experience. That’s really important to us, and I think that started from the beginning, when they’d walk into the red barn in Brimfield, put a record on the record player, sit on the couch next to the pot-belly stove, and wait for their beer to get poured. I want to give everyone that vibe here, and I’m hoping that vibe comes back twofold or even tenfold in Charlton.”

Climbing Higher

When the founders first petitioned the state for a brewery license, they had to list a company name, and went through a few rustic-sounding options to match their surroundings.

“We thought maybe Red Barn Brewing, or Brimfield Brewing,” Rohan said. “Well, Damien had this beautiful treehouse in one of the trees right next to the brewery. We realized it had to be Tree House Brewing.”

The company’s logo — a treehouse stylized in a whimsical, flowing manner — has become a common sight on car bumpers throughout the Quaboag region, which he finds gratifying. “I can drive down the road and see the sticker in front of me and know they’re coming from the brewery or have been there. It’s recognizable.”

And it all started with a wife’s gift, a tasting party — and an idea.

“We’re riding a wave that is bigger than any of us imagined, for sure,” Lanier told BusinessWest. “We love Tree House — the beer, the community, the philosophy, and the brand — and our goal every day is to wake up and work our tails off to meet the very high standards we set for ourselves before we ever brewed a beer.”

In short, he concluded, “if the beer is good, and the attitude is right, everything else will fall into place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Business Is Blooming

Christine Adams

Christine Adams combined a long-time love of flowers, design expertise, and an entrepreneurial itch to create a success story in Florence.

 

Christine Adams tells of a trip she and her husband, Chip, took to the White Mountains in New Hampshire many years ago, and a sign that caught her attention along a scenic hike.

“We walked by this rickety old bridge, and I looked up and saw a sign that said ‘Badger’s Realty,’” she said, adding that the name struck her for some reason. “I said to Chip, ‘that’s going to be the name of my store someday.’ It wasn’t just the name — the look of the building was ratty, and I loved it. I just love rustic. And it just stuck with me.”

Fast-forward to Adams’ current business, Florence-based Badger’s Flowers & Co., where she creates floral arrangements for weddings and other events that are anything but ratty; in fact, she has won awards from WeddingWire and the Knot for her work with clients. But she took a circuitous route to entrepreneurship.

“I was a bookkeeper for an architecture firm in my single days,” she said. After she got married, her husband, a TV producer, wound up traveling quite a bit, and she stayed home with her two children. When they reached school age, she worked part-time — mother’s hours, as she put it — at a local florist for the better part of a decade.

“When the kids went off to college, it was time to reinvent myself,” Adams told BusinessWest, and she again looked to the world of flowers, but as her own boss this time. “I thought, why not try doing this? So, about three years ago, I had a website made, and a friend of a friend told a friend getting married, they called me, and it just slowly started trickling in.”

Helping clients decide on everything from bridal bouquets and boutonnieres to table centerpieces and outdoor arbors, in styles ranging from rustic to garden to classic elegance, Adams has taken her passion for design (she attended Rhode Island School of Design, and holds a degree in business management) and married it — pun intended — to a desire to provide brides and their families with what she calls ‘wow’ moments.

“I love the experience of meeting with people. I’ve had brides, grooms, moms, and dads spend hours here, chatting over coffee or wine,” she said, explaining that she takes on no more than one event per weekend, often traveling to New York or Boston during the week — as well as local flower farms — for some hard-to-find flower or specialty ribbon. “It’s a boutique style of business. I pride myself on bringing something with a specialty touch. I’m always looking at how I can make it a little different.”

Tech Savvier

Interestingly, it wasn’t the floral-design element of Adams’ business that challenged her at first. It was the decidedly 21st-century business models she had to get used to.

“It’s funny — at one point, I noticed I was getting nothing, so I hired a guy to take a look at my website. He said, ‘whoever did your website didn’t fill in your geographic information, so you’re located in New York.’ Since he tweaked it, I started getting hits again.

 

Flowers come easy for me. My learning curve has been social media and having to learn, at this point in my life, how Instagram works. I met with a marketing consultant, and as soon as I did what she suggested, my visibility doubled.”

 

“Learning technology and social media is so new to me, but it’s such an integral part of this business, because that’s where everyone goes for their information,” she went on. “Much of my demographic is out of state; I get calls from San Francisco, San Diego — people whose parents live here, or they went to college here, and they’re coming back to get married. I don’t feel like I’m competing with local businesses, with so much of my business coming from out of state.”

She did, however, recently join the Berkshire Wedding Collective, a group of wedding vendors that provides an online information portal for people seeking such services in Western Mass., and also got involved with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, through which she has taken classes in Google AdWords, Excel, and other business tools.

“Flowers come easy for me. My learning curve has been social media and having to learn, at this point in my life, how Instagram works,” she said, before opening up her account and scrolling through dozens of examples of her work that potential clients can peruse. “I met with a marketing consultant, and as soon as I did what she suggested, my visibility doubled. I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

Christine Adams makes effective use of Instagram

Christine Adams makes effective use of Instagram to display dozens of photos to inspire clients planning their own weddings.

As someone who was once very shy, business networking is new for her as well. “But at the same time, I can see the benefit, and I’m slowly growing more comfortable.”

It’s the one-on-one sessions with clients where she feels truly at ease, though. It’s in those discussions where she can formulate a vision. Sometimes the budget doesn’t match the wish list, but when everything comes together and the client gets that ‘wow’ feeling, it’s gratifying. “It’s a collaboration, and I want people to be happy.”

She told of a bride from San Diego coming back to Western Mass. to be married near her parents, who live in South Hadley. She loved patriotic colors, but didn’t want a bright, gaudy red, white, and blue design. Adams found a ribbon featuring a motif of American flag colors, but more subdued, and when she showed her the ribbon via Skype — and how it could match with ivory fabric — the client loved it.

That give and take is the heart of the business, but an element she wouldn’t have as much time for if she operated a storefront flower shop rather than working out of her home, a restored 1800s farmhouse that’s been in her husband’s family for five generations. “When you have a flower shop, you can’t take all this time with people.”

Bursting to Life

Adams delights in hard-to-find flowers to pepper arrangements of more traditional choices. “I might hit Boston or New York for those specialty stems that say, ‘wow.’ You don’t need a lot of them. Even few items like that gives it a special look, and really sets it apart.”

The challenge doesn’t always end with the order, however.

“It’s in my contract that Mother Nature is a variable,” she said, recalling one wedding where cafe au lait dahlias were a featured item. When she went to pick them from the wholesaler a few days before the wedding, inclement weather had rotted those particular flowers. But while her heart was racing, she called local farmers and ended up with smaller dahlias that were just as striking, and visited a market in Boston for some other unique pieces. “When I delivered them, there was a ‘wow,’” she said.

Indeed, weather that’s too hot, too wet, or too dry can mess with the best-laid plans, she said, but scrambling to replace an item and still coming up with something impressive is an oddly gratifying experience.

Adams’ satisfaction isn’t priority one, of course; her clients’ happiness is. And the comments on her website testify to that.

“She is truly a floral artist with an eye for design like I have never witnessed in my life,” one bride from Westfield wrote. “She is so extremely talented, but most importantly so extremely passionate about her work, and her clients. When I first saw her stunning work, I was truly taken back. I witnessed her hard work first-hand — the time, effort, and passion she put into every arrangement, like a piece of art.”

Reactions like that provide a ‘wow’ factor of their own.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

What’s the Big Idea?

 

Jill McCormick says TechSpring focuses on technology that’s practical, usable, and can be applied now to help Baystate Health succeed.

Jill McCormick says TechSpring focuses on technology that’s practical, usable, and can be applied now to help Baystate Health succeed.

When TechSpring opened two years ago in downtown Springfield, its leaders knew they were flying blind, at least at first. That’s how uncharted this territory was. But the concept — connecting technology companies, large and small, with the region’s largest health system to solve pressing problems — proved a compelling one, and today, TechSpring has numerous success stories to tell. It’s a conversation, they say, that needs to continue.

Eric Harry says genomics is one of those “sexy” areas of healthcare, and scientists are certainly engaged in exciting work to learn how genes influence disease.

“But we know for a fact,” he went on, “that zip code is a greater determiner of health outcomes than your genes. And we have a lot of high-risk patients at Baystate. There’s a lot of poverty here, a lot of patients at risk because of their zip code.”

Harry, community manager at TechSpring, Baystate Health’s technology innovation center in downtown Springfield, was talking with BusinessWest about a far different discipline than genomics: data analytics. When TechSpring opened two years ago, one of its partners, Dell, went to work in this area, trying to identify which patients are most at risk of becoming “high utilizers” of healthcare — or are, in other words, one major event from becoming very sick.

“What was their medical record like before they got sick, and who has those indicators now?” asked Jill McCormick, manager of the innovation center, adding that such studies are critical to the growing field of population health, which is critical at a time when hospitals must move away from the old, inefficient fee-for-service model into a value-based care model that seeks to keep people out of the hospital altogether.

“Our population will benefit if we make these changes,” she added — and analytics will be an important piece of the puzzle.

TechSpring, which opened two years ago in Springfield’s emerging downtown innovation district, matches private enterprises with partners and expertise from across the Baystate Health system to take on some of healthcare’s most difficult challenges. The goal is to create new technology solutions and products that could be used to improve health outcomes.

It’s a startup within a large health system, so you just have to start trying stuff. What works? What’s scalable? What can you do in that space?”

TechSpring owes its existence in large part to a $5.5 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, an investment agency charged with implementing then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s 10-year, $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative that supports life-sciences innovation, research, development, and commercialization.

TechSpring offers partners flexible space to work and the ability to collaborate directly with providers from Baystate Health on their projects, assessing the needs to be met in today’s healthcare environment, and testing potential responses to those needs.

“We work closely with Baystate Health to identify problem areas, or where they are investing in problems that need to be fixed,” McCormick said. “For example, where do they see population health going?”

Eric Harry

Eric Harry says TechSpring partners first learn what Baystate’s needs are and then develop technology-based solutions.

One possibility is working with organizations like Partners for a Healthier Community on how to incorporate data on poverty and housing issues into patients’ health records, so a doctor recognizes that the housing situation is contributing to the person’s health status.

The idea, she added, is to arm providers with the data they need to empower patients to take more control of their own lives. The fact that TechSpring is located in a demographically diverse region is one of its strengths.

“Springfield is geographically interesting, between New York and Boston,” she said. “It has a great mix of rural and urban, and it has interesting economic challenges, that made this the ideal proving ground for technology solutions that represent what the U.S. market looks like, versus your Cadillac medicine or high-tech areas.”

Actually, McCormick added, TechSpring leaders tend to shy away from the word ‘high tech,’ focusing on how technology can solve problems in areas like population health, rather than on what’s new and hot in technology itself.

“It’s really about what is practical and usable and can be applied now in helping the health system succeed,” she explained, “by addressing the needs of the population and helping patients achieve better health outcomes.”

Free Falling

When TechSpring opened in late 2014, it had already lined up a number of partners — companies that were proven and experienced in the industry, including IBM, Premier Inc., Cerner Corp., Dell, Medecision, and Mainline Information Systems. But the goals were still ambiguous.

“It’s a startup,” McCormick said. “It’s a startup within a large health system, so you just have to start trying stuff. What works? What’s scalable? What can you do in that space?

“What does it mean to change the industry?” she went on. “What does it mean to drive positive change? What are you working on, what is Baystate working on, and how do we bring you together to actually do something, and do it in a way that’s designed for learning and proving, rather than sales and acquisition?”

Harry compared the experience to jumping out of a plane for the first time, but McCormick amended the analogy. “Actually,” she said, “we’re building the plane while we’re flying it.”

Whatever the comparison, Harry said, TechSpring was a risky venture because nothing like it had been attempted in the region, and it demanded a total buy-in from Baystate and its partners to succeed.

There have been 22 such partners so far, including a handful of large companies, about five tiny startups, and a dozen or so companies in the middle, size-wise.

For example, a company called Praxify is working to help doctors balance efficiency and patient satisfaction in the era of electronic health records, or EHRs. “Oftentimes, documentation gets in the way of direct patient care,” McCormick said.

Other projects have involved remote patient monitoring — and how to get recorded outcomes into medical records so providers can make care decisions between patient visits — and advanced clinical decision support, or ACDS, which aims to turn medicine into more science than art by establishing, through hard data, the right course of action in various clinical situations.

Originally, potential partners were bringing ideas to Baystate, and the health system was trying to fit their ideas into its framework. That has changed, however, into what Harry called a “marketplace.”

“Now we’re going into Baystate and talking to providers and figuring out where the problems are, really defining those problems, and then we go out and look for innovators, telling them, ‘here are the problems we’ve defined. Can you solve them?’ We’re creating a match-making process. We have a list of problems, well-defined, already sourced, and innovators submit a statement of interest to solve those problems, as opposed to saying, ‘hey, I have this solution. Can I work with you at Baystate?’”

The partners, interestingly, are not being paid for their work; in fact, they pay to access Baystate’s resources and human capital through TechSpring. But if they get to a point where a solution works, they have a direct line to become a successful vendor at Baystate and beyond.

“They’re developing a true solution, solving a real problem, and if they can do that here, they can do it anywhere,” Harry said.

That setup works well for large partners with significant financial resources, but perhaps isn’t as ideal for early-stage startups, so TechSpring is working to develop a model to improve access to companies that can’t afford to pay up front.

Boston-based CarePort Health, one of TechSpring’s initial partners, specializes in helping providers optimize post-acute outcomes and costs by guiding patients across the care continuum and tracking their recovery in real time. “They earned a commercial customer relationship with Baystate and had broad market success from there,” McCormick said, adding that the company was recently purchased by Allscripts, a major EHR vendor.

“When you finish working with TechSpring,” McCormick said, “it should either put you in a position to receive additional funding or propel your solution toward broad market success.”

Happy Employees

Meanwhile, a TechSpring partner called Imprivata works on the security side of healthcare, developing products like a badge that employees swipe at their computers to enter any program they have access to, instead of having to remember passwords for each one. Another current project is a biometric palm-vein reader. Each scan is recorded in a database, and physicians can then swipe anyone entering the ER and immediately pull up their medical records.

“We have a nice pipeline with Imprivata; they’re already popular and well-received in the hospital, and we get to work on what’s next for them,” McCormick ssaid. “They look for intersections between convenience and patient security. When I bring these solutions to the health system, they’re psyched because they know Imprivata is going to make their lives easier.”

Such solutions, however, begin with conversations — between providers and TechSpring partners, and between the tech companies themselves — and that’s another area where the innovation center excels, Harry said. “We’re really driving ecosystem thinking within healthcare.”

To that end, TechSpring also offers co-working, office, and event space in flexible month-to-month memberships for anybody working at the intersection of technology and healthcare. Meanwhile, a monthly networking event called Tap into TechSpring features networking and content-rich speaker programs, so various stakeholders get a sense of what everyone is working on, and sometimes new collaborations form.

“I’d say a lot of people in the healthcare sector are cynical about this type of thinking. ‘Show me the money’ is their way of thinking,” Harry said. “We’re helping people understand there probably is money, and a way that everyone can benefit, but until we get together, that can’t happen.”

Added McCormick, “it’s not that we’re just dreaming about what the future of healthcare could be. We’re actually executing against what we think the future of healthcare can be.”

At the end of the day, Harry said, TechSpring is about solving health problems — at a time of great shifts in the way care is delivered — and, ultimately, changing lives.

“Can everyone win?” McCormick asked. “We think so. Our bet is they can. And we’re taking all these opportunities to prove that everyone can win — especially patients.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]