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Feats of Innovation

From left, Tatum Fahs and Jonathan Major of Bay Path University and Emmett DuPont

From left, Tatum Fahs and Jonathan Major of Bay Path University and Emmett DuPont of Hampshire College took the top three spots at the conference’s ‘idea jam,’ which featured more than 400 participants.

As the founder of FEAT Socks, Parker Burr sells hundreds of thousands of socks worldwide, and expects to top $2 million in sales next year. But one of his fondest memories is selling his cozy footwear, one pair at a time, from behind a table at an Amherst bus stop.

“The key is to go out and sell something,” he told an audience of young entrepreneurs this month at the 12th annual Grinspoon, Garvey & Young Entrepreneurship Conference. “Everyone wants to know how to get from zero to a hundred million dollars. But don’t be afraid of humble beginnings, because those are the best. Selling at a bus stop, to me, that was the most exciting time. So slow down, just sell one, then worry about selling two, then keep going.”

More than 400 students from 14 area colleges attended the event at the MassMutual Center, which included hands-on workshops and exhibits, networking, and what was billed as the world’s largest ‘idea jam,’ where participants pitched their entrepreneurial ideas to their peers in a bracket format, with votes determining who advanced to the next round, and the next, and so on.

Once the field was whittled down to the final 10, those students gave one-minute elevator pitches to the full assembly from the main stage, before Burr’s keynote address. Afterward, the top three vote-getters delivered final pitches. In the last round of voting, Jonathan Major of Bay Path University earned top honors — and a $100 check — for his product, which uses a car adapter to keep food warm on the go; he is working on adding keep-cold capabilities as well.

The other two finalists, nabbing $25 each, were Tatum Fahs of Bay Path, who conceptualized an infant stroller that allows for ‘tummy time’; and Emmett DuPont of Hampshire College, whose idea provides housing supports for transgender youth, a population with a lower life expectancy than most demographics due to drug addiction, suicide, and hate crimes, all of which are exacerbated by alienation from families.

Everyone wants to know how to get from zero to a hundred million dollars. But don’t be afraid of humble beginnings, because those are the best.”

“We’re always so impressed with the diversity and sheer number of students who come to downtown Springfield to attend this conference,” said Cari Carpenter, director of entrepreneurship initiatives at the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Initiative, which organizes the event along with the 14 colleges. “It really gives them validation that there’s a community of people supporting them, and it gives them some tools.”

For example, the day included breakout sessions on topics like “Pitch Like an Entrepreneurial Pro” and “Social Entrepreneurship Opportunity and Impact.”

“They were able to learn strategies for doing good pitches and other kinds of things about entrepreneurship,” Carpenter told BusinessWest. “It’s a goal of the conference to get people to network and meet each other, and really educate these students.”

No Magic Wand

The Entrepreneurship Conference is held annually with the goal of inspiring, motivating, and supporting college students who seek to turn ideas into businesses. Birton Cowden, who helped organize the idea jam, sees myriad benefits in such events.

“We do a lot of these kinds of things on campus,” said Cowden, associate director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst. “We’ve done idea jams with 70 to 100 people. Here, we had to recraft it for 400 people; that’s why we did the bracketed system.

“There are a lot of stakeholders who feel this is important,” he went on, “starting with the students, who come together and find a community of other people like them. They say, ‘I thought I was crazy, but these are my people.’ Everyone always says they’re energized and encouraged to actually do something with that idea. It gives them confidence.”

At the same time, however, they understand that a new enterprise takes work and commitment, Cowden told BusinessWest. “They learn, ‘people like me are nothing special. There’s no pixie dust here — just things I can do.’”

Burr attested to that fact in his address, which tracked the evolution of FEAT Socks from a small enterprise, selling a few dozen pairs of socks on the UMass Amherst campus as recently as 2014, into a lifestyle brand with a worldwide reach, producing and selling wool socks, dress socks, athletic socks, and more. Most recently, the company signed Massachusetts native and Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, and launched her line. Ever-nimble, FEAT just released a limited-edition pair for Cubs fans, with one foot sporting ‘1908’ and other ‘2016.’

“The company has just skyrocketed,” said Burr, whose enterprise is now based in California. “We’re just now becoming true sock people and sock experts, after we sold so many. All this has taught me that you don’t have to know everything; you don’t have to be an expert at anything in order to start building something great. If I had waited until I felt I was a sock expert, I would never have been able to get where I am. I just started. That was the important thing.”

Students at the conference — which included American International College, Amherst College, Bay Path University, Elms College, Greenfield Community College, Hampshire College, Holyoke Community College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Western New England University, and Westfield State University — no doubt took that message to heart as they returned to campus to decide how to proceed with their own big ideas.

“Work hard. Do something,” Burr concluded. “Throw yourself into every situation possible, and let serendipity take over.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Entrepreneurship Sections

Land of Opportunity

Gokul Budathoki and Mena Tiwari

After years in a Nepalese refugee camp, Gokul Budathoki and Mena Tiwari found a new life — and business — in Springfield.

If all Ascentria Care Alliance did for refugees was help them get established in the U.S. and find jobs, it would be important work. But, thanks to an initiative launched in 2010 called the Microenterprise Development Program, Ascentria is actually putting many of its clients on the road to business ownership, through education, assistance with permitting and other hurdles, and small loans. The result, so far, is a patchwork of intriguing startups across the Pioneer Valley owned by people who truly appreciate their new opportunity, and have their sights set on continued growth.

Mena Tiwari’s story begins much like that of many refugees.

She was born in Bhutan, but, at age 2, her family fled that country’s inter-ethnic conflict, and she wound up in a refugee camp in Nepal, where she spent the next two decades.

While growing up there, owning a business — in the United States, no less — was the furthest thing from her mind.

“Back in the refugee camp, we didn’t get the chance to do anything like that,” Tiwari said, noting that her family ran a little shop in the camp, but it resembled in no way the complexity of opening a store in the U.S.

“Basically, we had a lot of love, but we didn’t have money,” she said, recalling how people would work with their hands — carving sandalwood into sticks for incense, for example — to make a little profit, and if they were able to scrape up enough for, say, a picnic outing, they appreciated it. “I always look for happiness in the little things. They made me happy because I worked for it.”

Tiwari met Gokul Budathoki in the camp, and after they immigrated to the U.S. — she in 2009, staying with family in Buffalo, N.Y., and he to New Hampshire in 2011 — they reconnected, and eventually married in late 2011; a year later, to the day, their son was born.

Tiwari worked in a salon as a hairdresser before moving to New Hampshire after the wedding, and Budathoki had been working at a Walmart, gaining a knowledge of retail he would put to use when the couple started talking about opening a business.

“Nobody was here to support us; her parents were in Buffalo, and my parents were back in country, so we had to support ourselves,” said Budathoki, who eventually enrolled at a community college and landed a new job with a mental-health nonprofit. “We said, ‘why don’t we open our own thing?’ So, after the baby was born, we put him in the carseat and drove around the countryside, looking.”

What they found was a new life in the Pioneer Valley — as proud owners of Interstate Mart near the ‘X’ in Springfield — with the help of the Microenterprise Development Program at Ascentria Care Alliance.

“We’re a resettlement agency,” Emil Farjo said of ACA, which has offices in Westfield and Worcester and was previously known as Lutheran Social Services. “We have refugees come from overseas, and we help them get an apartment, furniture, their first IDs, benefits from welfare and MassHealth, Social Security numbers, and ESL classes.”

Beyond those basic services, however, is the microenterprise program, which was created in partnership with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2010, with the goal of helping refugees launch businesses and reach economic self-sufficiency.

Nazar al Khaled

Nazar al Khaled was a famous singer in Iraq; now he hawks his wife’s authentic cuisine in West Springfield.

Farjo was hired to lead the program in 2012, leveraging his education, background in computer science, and experience as a business owner in Iraq, where he’d owned three very different enterprises, in engineering and HVAC, food distribution, and wholesale.

After fleeing Iraq in 2004 for the safety of his family and spending six years in Syria, he immigrated to the U.S. and connected with what was then Lutheran Social Services, working with other refugees on computer classes, vocational training, and other skills before being tapped to lead the business-startup program.

“I was very successful in my business, but when we fled our country, we left everything behind,” he told BusinessWest. “My experiences help me understand how these people think. I can be a bridge from their former country to the American system. This is my passion. I find everyone’s success is my success. I love what I’m doing, and I want to help them make their dreams come true.”

First Steps

The microenterprise program provides business planning, financing, and training to refugees in the Bay State. Applicants receive guidance in budgeting, marketing, finance, and obtaining permits and licenses. Typically, refugees lack sufficient credit history or loan collateral to receive traditional business loans, so the program provides small startup loans, typically in the range of $500 to $15,000.

To date, the program has helped spawn 32 businesses in Greater Springfield and 12 more in Worcester, ranging from child care to cleaning services; web-based services to landscaping and farming; delivery services to auto repair. Most owners are Iraqi or Bhutanese, with a smattering of refugees from Liberia, Lithuania, and Burundi.

“They’re new to the system, so we provide classes in financial literacy and money management, how to write a business plan, how to budget,” Farjo said. “We’re also a microlender; we don’t ask for credit, we just want them to take their first steps in business loans, and prepare them for the next step, which is traditional loans from traditional lenders.”

Mike Garjian, a serial entrepreneur who has been working with Farjo in the program, added that these classes tend to be full. “There’s a thirst for knowledge; they’re fully engaged. And that translates to business success.”

Farjo also works one on one with participants on hurdles such as site selection, licensing, and permitting. “They would be lost without us. We’re dealing with surrounding cities, and each city is different. It’s a hassle for them.”

For Tiwari and Budathoki, the hassles since opening almost 10 months ago have been worth it. Their store sells both American and ethnic food products, as well as an impressive array of Bhutanese clothing. Their customer base has been steadily growing, and they’re looking to establish a space for community gatherings in additional space at the back of the store.

“It began with a little stress,” Tiwari said, “but we can say we are happy.”

Nazar al Khaled is also pleased with his new business. He was a famous Iraqi singer — “very famous, not normal famous,” he noted — whose life, like that of so many countrymen, was turned upside down after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He caught a bit of a break when the New York Times and other sources reported him dead in an airstrike in 2004, as some Muslim groups that rose up after Saddam’s fall were targeting singers and other artists, and the report took some of the pressure off.

In 2009, he arrived in the U.S. with his family and stayed for a couple of years in New York before moving to Western Mass. in 2011 for a quieter lifestyle.

program director at Ascentria

From left, Mohammed Najeeb, program director at Ascentria, with Emil Farjo and Mike Garjian.

Recently — recognizing the culinary skills of his wife, Asmaa Mohammed, and wishing to go into business for himself — al Khaled connected with Farjo and opened Ahalna Foods on Main Street in West Springfield, a multi-ethnic neighborhood where eight of Ascentria’s refugee clients have launched enterprises. To hear him tell it, he definitely needed Farjo’s help.

“In America, there are many ways to start work, but no one tells you the right way,” he said of his earlier dealings with banks and municipal officials. “There are many rules, and nobody answers you, nobody smiles at you, nobody does anything for you. I say, ‘I want to open this business.’ They say, ‘OK, come back next month.’”

Ascentria, on the other hand, “brings us together and teaches us how to work with the banks, how to start a business,” he went on. “Any license or anything else we need, they help us with that.”

Iraqi cuisine, al Khaled said, is based on tradition that extends back 8,000 years, adding that his wife’s creations — which lean heavily on beef, lamb, and chicken — are meant to be savored by all the senses and demand the diner’s entire focus, as opposed to American “technology food” (his term for heavily processed fare) swallowed quickly in front of the TV.

Currently, Ahalna prepares meals for takeout, but also caters events, and aims to eventually move into wholesale distribution. So far, his clientele is mainly people who have already experienced and enjoy Iraqi fare, but he hopes to attract Americans who seek an authentic culinary experience.

“Americans don’t want to change,” he said, “but some Iraqi families have friends and neighbors, and when they bring them our food, they give it a taste and find it’s something different, and after that, they come here to buy it.”

Untapped Potential

Garjian believes Ascentria’s success helping refugees launch businesses should receive more attention than it does.

“This is a sector that’s been really invisible, but it’s a very powerful and interesting component to the region’s economic vitality,” he said. “They are competent, highly energized people.”

He recalled hiring a Vietnamese refugee from Lutheran Services 20 years ago for one of his businesses. She had been a mathematician in her homeland, but had never worked with computers. After he introduced her to one and showed her how to operate Excel, she was quickly running complex equations. What Ascentria’s microenterprise program does, he noted, is help people with these types of skills — or at least the potential to quickly attain them — achieve business success in a very different environment from where they began.

Take the three Iraqi refugees who operate Chicopee Auto Service & Sales Center on Front Street, for example. “We did not want to work for anybody,” said Ahmed Mustafa, who partnered with his brother, Abraheem Mustafa, and a friend, Omar Abdul Razzak, to establish the business early in 2015. They arrived in the U.S. by way of Syria after fleeing their homeland a few years after the invasion.

Chicopee Auto Service & Sales Center

From left, Abraheem Mustafa, Ahmed Mustafa, and Omar Abdul Razzak are partners at Chicopee Auto Service & Sales Center.

“It was the war,” Ahmed Mustafa said when asked why they left. “It’s always the war.”

But he credited Ascentria and Farjo for helping the partners navigate the permitting process to launch the business, on the site of a former, then-closed used-car dealership. They started with 13 cars for sale and now have 25 on the lot, and typically service about 15 cars at any given time. They recently installed a second repair bay to conduct alignments, and do state safety inspections as well.

Mustafa said there are challenges to starting a business, but he welcomes some of them, like the gradually growing presence of other auto-related businesses in the Chicopee Falls neighborhood. “Having more than one dealer is better for the business that has better prices and better quality,” he said, already speaking the language of a businessman who embraces competition.

Growing the business will bring other benefits as well, he added, not the least of which is being able to hire other immigrants, especially those who struggle with the English language and, therefore, find it challenging to land a job.

Farjo has high hopes for all the businesses his agency helps launch, but he always cautions against overly optimistic expectations.

“They need to be patient. They might not be successful right when they open. Taking a risk is not easy. Starting a business is not easy, even for Americans,” he said. “But when they find someone who will speak with them as a person, someone who cares, that makes a difference. I just want to go the extra mile to see these people be successful, and at the end of the day, they thank me for helping them out.”

Credit Where It’s Due

Budathoki and Tiwari say they have qualities that complement each other: his fortitude and her business mind, for starters. But both say Ascentria was a key element in their success.

“I cannot thank them enough,” Tiwari said. “We wanted to find a way to find success and feed our family, but we went to City Hall and and so many places before we met with Emil. Back in my country, I didn’t know the meaning of a business plan.”

But Farjo says his agency is merely helping them open doors. “They have our support, but it’s their skills and ambition and effort that makes them succeed.”

In a country that accepts some 70,000 refugees a year, Garjian said the microenterprise program serves a social purpose even beyond raising the standard of living for its handful of participants and boosting economic development region-wide. At a time when so many Americans look suspiciously at immigrants and refugees, these small-business owners (who are, like anyone who receives Ascentria’s services, thoroughly vetted and screened) might well be changing a few perceptions.

“Many of them are coming from areas of tyranny and loss of hope,” Garjian told BusinessWest. “To them, each breath is a gift. I’ve seen people walk off the elevators here and take their first breath of freedom. That’s so profound to me.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Passion Meets Purpose

Oliver and Emily Rich

Oliver and Emily Rich are proud of their business and trying to get people to view tea differently than they have in the past.

 

Oliver Rich carefully prepares a tray of ingredients that he will use to make unusual beverages, then pours generous servings of hot, frothy maple sugar black latte tea from a pitcher; micronized matcha mint tea with steamed milk from a sports drink-style shaker; and a sparkling chilled beverage made with strawberry, kiwi, and apple tea concentrate.

The scents and tastes are complex, and reflect just a few of the more than 120  blends of teas Rich has created since he launched Tea Guys LLC in 2002. Each tea has three flavors, and many people try several free samples in the Whately Tasting Room and Factory and learn new ways to prepare tea before making a purchase.

Indeed, it’s almost necessary because the array of choices is amazing: there are teas blended with chocolate, ginger, and bourbon; caramel, sea salt, and molasses; hibiscus, raspberry, and currant; as well as traditional varieties such as bergamot (Earl Grey) with lavender and vanilla.

The tea can be purchased in loose leaf form, specially created biodegradable bags which allow more flavor to escape and contain 200% more tea than an ordinary bag, K-Cups, micronized powder that provides additional health benefits, and liquid bags of concentrate that can be mixed by the spoonful with hot and cold water and milk or used to make cocktails or add flavor to food before or after it is cooked.

Creating this complex line of products was no small feat and has taken Rich years to master.

“There are more varieties of tea in China than grapes in France,” he said, as he shared information about the thousands of types of tea that stem from the Camellia sinensis plant and how growing it under different conditions produces different tastes.

“It took me years and years to perfect our tea, but we’re finally at the peak,” he went on. “We’re changing what it means to be a tea company and trying to change the way people view tea, consume it, and prepare it.”

Rich grew up in a family where food was very important, and cooked alongside his mother from the time he was a young child.

“I always liked creating things, but a lot of what I do is going back to basics,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his Swedish and Italian grandparents made everything by hand.

It’s a method that has always been part of his business, and he recalled a time when he stayed up for 24 hours to fill an order for tea bags from his kitchen, punching holes in tags, cutting strings, and heat-sealing them to the bags.

Today, Rich and his wife Emily, who has been part of the business from the beginning and left a full-time job to join him as operations manager in 2007, can still be found in their Whately factory at all hours doing things by hand, where blends are crafted daily in small batches.

Kathleen Rhine

Kathleen Rhine carefully measures tea into packages at Tea Guys in Whately, where a lot of the production is done by hand.

“This is truly a labor of love,” she said. “There are limited options for premium tea products that are interesting, but we bring something different to the table and are trying to expand the ways people use tea as well as their experience with it.”

That strategy, combined with a smorgasbord of offerings, has led to success, and Emily says people have come to the tasting room with a spouse who isn’t partial to tea, but has a much different outlook by the time they leave the room.

Trial and Error

The inspiration to start this venture came during a meeting between Oliver Rich and a friend who had gotten together at a tea shop in Cambridge to talk about ideas for starting a business.

Rich noticed a salesperson measuring out rote grutze tea, which he knew was named after a German dessert, and it sparked what he called “an epiphany.”

“I had never seen this type of tea, and realized I could not only make tea differently than anyone else, but could make it better by putting different ingredients into it,” he said, adding that the majority of grocery stores at the time stocked only mass-produced tea bags that are filled with tea dust, or fannings, that don’t have much flavor.

His friend was highly skeptical of the idea, and the feeling was mirrored by others who told Oliver he was crazy, but after conducting research, visiting tea shops throughout New England, talking to suppliers, and going to Asian markets to find unusual ingredients, he began creating new blends in his kitchen, and his friend agreed to partner with him.

Rich’s focus was on quality, and he began to line up customers, which increased in number when a family member who sold soap to bed-and-breakfast operations shared a list of contacts.

But because Rich’s business partner lived in Cambridge and he and Emily were doing everything by hand, the business took a long time to get off the ground.

“We were so ahead of the market that customers weren’t willing to pay for what we were making,” he told BusinessWest.

In 2003 Tea Guys moved into Eastworks in Easthampton, and a website was launched, which marked a turning point and led to new wholesale customers, which have long accounted for the bulk of their sales.

Rich’s partner eventually left, but he and Emily worked tirelessly and continued to experiment by mixing teas with freshly ground ingredients to create unique flavor combinations.

Tea Guys moved from Easthampton to Florence, and when the recession hit, Rich downsized into a 3,300-square-foot space in Hatfield. But the customer base has continued to grow, especially in recent years. Sales doubled in 2014 and 2015, and the company is on track to do $5 million in business this year.

Oliver Rich

Oliver Rich says the Tea Guys Tasting Room and Factory Store in Whately allows customers to sample varieties before making a purchase.

Two years ago, Rich and Emily took a leap of faith and moved into their current, 10,000-square-foot location in Whately, but he had to take out a large loan to buy equipment and hire more staff.

Although he tends to be risk-averse, the move has paid off, and today the business boasts 18 employees. But he continues to serve as the so-called master blender, using teas from China, Sri Lanka, Japan, and India, and ingredients that are fresh and exotic, including cocoa from Ecuador and Guatemala and maple syrup and chunks of maple sugar from a nearby sugaring farm.

“Most companies just add flavor to a base, but I look at the vast varieties and have added more than 300 ingredients to about 30 teas that I matched to complement their flavors,” Rich noted.

The company’s biggest break was realized two years ago when Big Y World Class Supermarkets placed Tea Guys products in its Fresh Acres store in Springfield. The conversation with Big Y had started in 2007 with Bill Eichorn, who championed the products, and helped the company develop a whole-leaf tea program that has expanded into 13 of their stores and continues to grow.

“We’re still an unknown, but it shows we are at the tipping point,” Rich said, noting that large displays at Big Y contain bins of whole-leaf tea that allow people to experience the complex aromas that seep into the taste of the 40 blends that Big Y carries.

And since this type of tea is a new experience for many, Tea Guys offers individual tea bags for $1.49 so people can sample different flavors.

Expanding Market

The company has come a long way over the last 14 years, and its products are used in frozen yogurts and served by restaurants, colleges and universities, and bed-and-breakfast operations. They are also a mainstay for national and international entrepreneurs who make their living selling the tea or holding tea parties.

“There has never been a mass market for our tea, but every second of every day somewhere in the world, someone is drinking it. It’s an affordable luxury,” Rich said.

“Tea is one of the products our country was founded on, but most people don’t fully appreciate the time and devotion that goes into planting, picking, and blending it,” he went on. “We have reinvented it, and were the first to combine different varieties of tea with ingredients like chocolate, nuts, and popcorn that you can see in the tea,” he continued. “But it took heart and passion to do so.”

It also took persistence and a belief that a quality product from the heart of New England would become something people could and would enjoy every day. And that’s exactly what has happened, one delightful cup at a time.

Entrepreneurship Sections

Clean and Green

Terra Missildine

Terra Missildine, owner of Beloved Earth

Terra Missildine has always had a passion for sustainable living, and after learning, a decade ago, about the health issues some people have with harsh chemical cleaners, she and her husband, David, launched a ‘green’ cleaning company that uses only products that are safe for people and the environment. Ten years later, that startup, Beloved Earth, has significantly grown its clientele and employee roster. Meanwhile, she’s turned her focus to another type of sustainable living — the challenge of raising young children while running a business — and has some ideas to help parents balance both.

Terra Missildine says she had a passion for sustainable living long before she heard that phrase or knew what it meant.

“I had a nature-based childhood,” she told BusinessWest. “My dad and mom had a family campground in upstate New Hampshire — completely off the grid, no running water. It was an old trapping cabin from the early 1900s with an outhouse and gravity-fed plumbing; we had to hike down and grab spring water to fill the tank.

“I had a lot of respect and admiration for my parents, and I was always interested in natural ways of things,” she went on, adding that she and her father later launched a project raising heritage breed sheep. “It occurred to me, as I became more and more interested in healthy and humane care of animals, why shouldn’t I be just as concerned about people?”

That question led her, a decade ago, to study sustainable living at UMass Amherst, where she learned about the chemical sensitivity and allergies many people have to harsh household cleaning products, which can cause them severe health reactions. So she and her newlywed husband, David — who had experience with a cleaning company — had an entrepreneurial idea. And that’s how Northampton-based Beloved Earth began in 2005.

“We’d only been married a couple of months, and we were looking for something we could do together,” Missildine explained. “We combined his experience with my passion for sustainable living — and the creating organic movement in the area — and launched the first ‘green’ cleaning company in Western Massachusetts; the only other one in the state at the time was in Cambridge.”

Unfortunately, at the time, there were few commercial products available for people who suffer from such sensitivities, and the ones that did exist were prohibitively expensive. So the couple made their own from items like lemon oil, vinegar, Borax, and baking soda.

“They work, but they often take a lot of elbow grease,” she laughed. “We were coming in with alternatives that didn’t exist yet in the beginning. Really, the green aspect of our business was a value-added service to people who just needed cleaning. We were competitive pricewise, very friendly, and passionate about what we were offering. In the beginning, part of our job was to educate people as to why green was better.”

Customers liked what they heard, and Beloved Earth took off — first mostly in homes, but soon in the commercial arena as well, which now accounts for about 60% of the company’s clientele –— and grew to 12 employees and counting.

“We didn’t even have competition in green cleaning until 2008, maybe 2009,” Missildine said, noting that others have since jumped on the trend. “I love the idea of tons of competition in this area; it means everyone is making better choices, and all boats rise with it. I would rather all companies were choosing green practices.”

Indeed, she noted, “there are a lot of great, efficient, green cleaning products now,” to complement the ones she makes. “Really, there’s no reason to use conventional, toxic alternatives.”

And while businesses need to employ professional cleaning services, plenty of families appreciate what Beloved Earth brings to their home as well. “As people get busier, their families are growing, they may be working two jobs, it’s difficult to keep up with things like housework,” she added. “It’s easier to delegate household tasks and free up time for other things you’re better at or feel more passionate about.”

It’s clear where Missildine’s passion lies — and she’s turning it into a noteworthy success story in the Valley.

Sustaining Success

Missildine likes to break that passion for sustainability down to three Ps, what she calls here “triple bottom line”: People, planet, and profit.

Beloved EarthObviously, being exclusively a green, sustainable cleaning company, we only choose things that are good for the planet — organic, not chemically fragranced — and we also choose to back companies with our purchasing dollars which make better choices for the environment and have a commitment to sustainability, rather than purchase the ‘green’ line of products from Clorox,” she explained. “So we purchase from companies like Shaklee or Seventh Generation, which have committed to the environment and aren’t just capitalizing on the wave of sustainability.”

But her belief in sustainable living extends far beyond cleaning supplies.

“We really try to practice it at the bottom line,” she said, noting that Beloved Earth pays its workers 30% to 50% higher than the industry norm. “Our employees are not disposable commodities for us. We compensate them very well. We value them and recognize them. We don’t necessarily compete on price in order to be sustainable in other ways. We need to make money and compete on quality, and the people coming into homes and businesses are happy, loyal, well-paid, and well taken care of. That’s one of our core values.”

The company hasn’t gone out of its way to market that fact, she went on, stressing that the green aspect of Beloved Earth is really its calling card and strength when it comes to search-engine presence. “We don’t do it as a marketing tool. But as customers have conversations with our staff, find out they make very good wages, they feel like they’re respected and taken care of, and it’s definitely a loyalty-building piece of information.”

But growing a staff for the long term has been an often-challenging process.

“Because we like to have super-high-quality, loyal, long-term staff, it’s harder to fill those positions than for some of my competitors who just consider it a cost of doing business to have high employee turnover; they pay minimum wage, expect three to six months from each employee, and constantly funnel them in and out,” Missildine said.

“We are the opposite model; we really want to incentivize and attract people to be with us long-term. One of our challenges is keeping our staffing on pace with the demand for our services. I do employ a professional business strategist to help figure this out, and we have a waiting list of clients who want to work with us. We’re getting there as we staff up and train the right people to match up with them.”

Still, she considers herself fortunate to have become a regional innovator in green cleaning at the right time, just as awareness of green cleaning began to pick up.

“We came in at the perfect time,” she said. “It was a very quickly growing movement, and we started having enough client support to spend more capital on products, which were very expensive; now there are a lot of other, more affordable products. We did ride the wave of the green movement; it was very good timing, with awareness of green living in general just skyrocketing, and products to help people make those choices becoming more readily available.”

Bring the Kids

In short, things were humming along smoothly for Missildine and her husband, as they were able to pour all their time and energy into this entrepreneurial venture.

But then, last year, baby made three. And the birth of their daughter got Missildine thinking about another aspect of sustainable living — specifically, how to balance a successful business with equally successful parenting.

To that end, she has been working with SPARK, the Holyoke-based economic-development organization, to create a co-working space in that city with integrated child care, so that startup entrepreneurs, remote workers, and others in need of a workspace could share space, resources, and brainpower — and bring their preschoolers along, to a day-care center staffed by an early-childhood specialist.


Click here to download a PDF chart of Area Resources for Entrepreneurs


“I have a toddler myself, 18 months old, but before that, I was a full-time, driven entrepreneur, and that side of you never shuts off,” she told BusinessWest. “I was available 24 hours a day for the business before starting a family and trying to become the mother I want to be and, with my husband, the couple we want to be.

“So I took on the challenge of creating a space with shared resources and collaboration with other people in the similar stage of life, a place you could bring your child and get uninterrupted work time,” she went on. “Paying for full-time child care is very cost-prohibitive for a lot of workers. Even worse, some people feel like they can’t work out of their homes, so they have to pay for child care and pay for a professional work space. Hopefully, this will mitigate that for a lot of people with kids. They’ll have a lot more amenities, a lot more resources, and also be able to cross-collaborate with other professionals.”

Many details are still being discussed, including where the space would be located, and whether to package the child-care component and collaborate with an existing co-working space in the area or launch a new entity. What it won’t be, Missildine emphasized, is a padded room where kids are dumped off to play safely but mindlessly. Rather, it will be a creative, enriching, curriculum-driven program “so your child can feel just as good about you going to work as you do. And during your downtime, after getting your work done, you can actually spend lunch with your baby.

“I’m committed by the end of the year to having something available for these folks,” she added. “I know I don’t want to be away from my daughter all day; I want pockets of time to be super productive, but other times, I want to be there. My baby will only be my baby for a short time. The driving force behind this is, I don’t think it’s acceptable to make people choose between having a thriving business and having a happy family life. You shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. This is an epidemically underserved portion of life that no one is thinking about.”

Beloved Idea

Until her co-working plan comes to fruition, Missildine will have to be content with growing a successful business that began with a simple idea and a lot of passion — the type of story, in other words, that is becoming much more common across the Pioneer Valley’s burgeoning entrepreneurial culture.

And, in a region rife with resources for entrepreneurs, assisting with everything from funding to staffing to training, she encourages others to do the same.

“My words of advice are to go with the flow, go with where your inspiration is, and remember, you don’t have to quit your day job to start something new,” she said. “If you have a decent job that can pay the bills while try something new on the side, then you can test the water without all the risk, without jumping in all or nothing.

“Entrepreneurship is very rarely easy,” she added. “The times you see someone’s meteoric rise and have no idea how it happened, there was usually a lot of personal sacrifice to get to that, quote-unquote, ‘overnight success’ — a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.”

And, sometimes, a lot of non-toxic cleaning supplies.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Covering the Basics

Gary Stone, left, and Jim White, right, are seen here with Central High School Principal Tad Tokarz

Gary Stone, left, and Jim White, right, are seen here with Central High School Principal Tad Tokarz in the school’s cafeteria, one of many rooms they’ve wrapped.

Jim White says it was about 18 months ago — or just after BusinessWest published a story on the Business Growth Center, to be precise — when he and partner Gary Stone decided they needed some help and would seek it out.

When asked to be more specific, he said Go Graphix, the specialty graphics company the two had started more than a decade earlier, while doing fairly well, certainly wasn’t where they wanted it to be by that juncture. And the root of the problem, he went on, was that they couldn’t, by themselves, draw a road map to get there — or even pinpoint what there was or should be.

So they turned to the Business Growth Center (BGC), housed, sort of, in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, and its director, Marla Michael, for some assistance. Michel assembled an advisory panel that met with White and Stone early and often, providing assistance on several levels.

Invited to sum it all up, White said the group, comprised of business veterans across several sectors, implored them to focus — on what they did well, what separated them from their various forms of competition, and where the growth potential was.

In this case, said White, that meant the company’s niche in specialty wrapping, of not only vehicles but also school and business hallways, windows, cafeterias, floors, and a host of other surfaces. The industry term is ‘architectural graphics,’ he said, and while there are many companies that can simply install such products, there weren’t many, at the time, that could partner with clients to create a vision and then make it reality.

“Our customers are looking for the whole package,” White explained. “And these are the areas for which the advisory team said, ‘no one’s there right now; go after it; this is one; make your name there; go for it; be the first.’”

To make a somewhat long story short, the company has followed that advice and, in the process of doing so, seen a roughly 50% rise in revenues over the past year.

The story scripted by Go Graphix is one that Mike Vann and Paul Stelzer want to replicate as they continue to write what would be considered the next chapter for the Business Growth Center.

Michel, a loaned executive from UMass Amherst, has left the center as she returns to the university as a full-time administrator, focusing on the school’s many initiatives in and around Springfield. But Stelzer, a principal with Appleton Corp., which manages the Tech Park, and Vann, a member of the BGC’s advisory board and principal with the business-consulting firm the Vann Group, want to continue the work Michel was orchestrating with many of the region’s smaller businesses.

Mike Vann

Mike Vann, left, says there are many companies in the region can be benefit from the services of the Business Growth Center, which helped the principals of Go Graphix sharpen their business focus.

Vann said there are many companies at or near the same stage as Go Graphix — with the owners deciding where they want to be and how to get there — and also many more that are facing the thorny issues of succession, or soon will be. And they can benefit from the center, which is more of a service provider than a physical location, although it is technically that as well — the Scibelli Enterprise Center, named after the retired STCC president who conceptualized it.

He added that the BGC’s advisory and mentorship programs will likely dovetail nicely with initiatives carried out by Valley Venture Mentors, which focuses mostly on startups and other groups that are part of what’s being increasingly referred to as an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Stelzer agreed, noting that, while many pieces still to fall into place for what might be called the new Business Growth Center — everything from funding to a board of directors to a timetable for officially getting started — the picture is coming into focus.

“The Business Growth Center is a program of the Technology Park,” he explained, “and we very much want to continue that program as part of our board’s mission to not simply lease space, but encourage and mentor entrepreneurs and assist small businesses.”

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at the early planning initiatives for this new BGC, and how the organization could become a key element in that aforementioned ecosystem.

The Writing’s on the Wall

Rather than talk about what they do — and, as mentioned, are now firmly focused on — White and Stone decided to show BusinessWest instead.

For that exercise, they decided that a tour of Springfield’s Central High School was in order. There, upon being joined by principal Tad Tokarz, they showed off a number of specific projects undertaken at that sprawling facility.

These include the circular logo incorporated onto the floor at the main entrance — complete with the golden eagle that is the school’s image and nickname — the auditorium and walls outside it, covered over with images depicting the arts; the cafeteria, where one wall features what Tokarz calls the “roadmap to graduation” that the school’s students follow; and the music room, where several walls and doors are covered with genre-specific images.

On the way out, the partners pointed to the bare, wooden press box above the stands at the football stadium, which will soon be done over with similar ‘golden eagle’ imagery.

Go Graphix has done similar work at a number of schools, colleges (Bay Path University is among its many good customers), and businesses across the region and beyond, and orders continue to pour in, said White, adding that this is part of an intriguing niche with considerable growth potential.

Fully exploiting this niche became the simple mission imparted on the partners by a team of mentors through the BGC’s Growth Advisory Program. And along with the words of wisdom came an accompanying — and much needed — dose of accountability, he went on.

“Being held responsible has made a tremendous difference,” White told BusinessWest. “We’re following the plan they helped us put together, and we’re really serious about it.”

There are many companies across the region that could benefit from similar assistance, said Vann, who works with companies of all sizes and across many sectors as a business consultant. And because this need exists, those involved with the BGC want to serve the region by meeting it.

Elaborating, he said the center, which will serve both tenants at the SEC and non-tenants, will be focused on two primary issues — scalability and what he called ‘survivability,’ meaning succession, in whatever form it may take.

There is considerable call for both, he went on, adding that, while entrepreneurs are obviously good at what they do, meaning their specific product or service, they often lack experience when it comes to managing a business and strategically planning for its future. Meanwhile, they also lack the time and capital required to address issues ranging from marketing to mergers and acquisitions.

Go Graphix project at Central High School

Go Graphix project at Central High School

“The company may be successful and have money, but it may not necessarily have the resources in its budget to be able to do these things fully and in the right way,” he explained, adding that the advisory-panel model is designed specifically to fill these voids.

Stelzer agreed, and summoned an often-used phrase to describe what the BGC is ultimately designed to do.

“We want to help people work on their business, not in their business,” he explained, adding that many companies that that have passed the startup phase and are looking to get to the next level (or at least determine what that should be) are certainly challenged in their efforts to do that.


 Click here to download a PDF chart of Area Resources for Entrepreneurs


Such was the case with White and Stone in the spring of 2014, when they approached Michel with a request for some assistance.

It came in the form of an advisory panel that not only asked hard questions, but made it clear to the principals that they would not be provided with the answers — they would have to come up those themselves.

“We would come together every six weeks and talk about very specific goals and tasks,” White explained. “We looked at the numbers, how we utilized our resources, staffing — where we’re staffed and how we’re staffed — and other matters.

“And after they really got to know us and understand our business, they helped us put together a strategic plan,” he went on. “We’re experiencing growth, accelerated growth, and much of that, we think, came about because we were able to work on our business.”

Elaborating, he said the advisory panel effectively inspired the partners to abandon, or move on from, a loose strategy of trying to be all things to all forms of customers and instead put the focus firmly on the areas that are most profitable and have the highest ceiling, growth-wise.

“They spent a lot of time helping us determine where the focus should be — where our drive is, what our passion is, and where we actually have good profit,” White noted. “That has helped us get out of certain areas and really double down on those areas that we want to get into — where there’s an opportunity in the marketplace, and where there’s profitability.”

That’s a Wrap

Referencing that entrepreneurial ecosystem once again, Vann and Stelzer said many groups, such as VVM, are designed to focus on businesses that are in what would be considered their youth.

The Business Growth Center — meaning, again, the organization, not merely the physical structure — is concerned with what amount to business “teenagers,” they went on, acknowledging that, as anyone who has lived through those years can testify, they are fraught with challenges.

The answers don’t come easy, as White and Stone can attest, but with support and that aforementioned measure of accountability, businesses can navigate those difficult years.

And that’s why Stelzer, Vann, and others involved with the Business Growth Center have determined that it must continue its work.

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

Cover Story Entrepreneurship Sections
VVM Accelerator Participants Continue the Quest for Traction

Jessica Lauren with some of her Olive Natural Beauty products.

Jessica Lauren with some of her Olive Natural Beauty products.

Traction.

Webster has many definitions for that noun, including ‘the adhesive friction of a body on the surface on which it moves’ — and that’s why it’s used frequently, and often with accompanying adjectives, by companies selling tires.

That’s also, although more loosely, why it’s part of the lexicon among those who launch new businesses — and, perhaps more importantly, those who sometimes help finance them.

Indeed, traction is a precious and often hard-to-calculate commodity in business. It is an inexact measure of how effectively a product or service is gaining acceptance, credibility, and, yes, sales.

So, in many ways, the first annual Accelerator Awards, staged recently by Valley Venture Mentors, represented a highly competitive contest of traction — which of the 30 companies in the first cohort of VVM’s Accelerator Program had it, and which ones could gain a lot more of it if they had some more capital to work with.

If the numbers written on the ceremonial checks handed out at the awards ceremony on April 30 are any indication — and most involved would say they are — then Jessica Lauren has certainly achieved some traction with Olive Natural Beauty Inc.

This is a venture that boasts a growing line of products that, as the name suggests, uses olive oil as its base ingredient, but separates itself from others that do the same by the all-natural quality of every item on the ingredient list.

Lauren won a check for $35,000, the largest amount handed out that night by a panel of judges, each of whom had, in essence, $20,000 to apportion and were free to dispense it any way they chose. Lauren intends to stretch those dollars about as far as humanly possible, allocating them for everything from more aggressive marketing programs to building inventory to taking on a strategic partner, as she seeks to take her company to the proverbial next stage.

“It costs money to run a business, and anything would really help push us to the next level,” she said, adding quickly that the amount on her check constitutes far more than ‘anything.’ “This is going to be huge for us.”

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked at length with Lauren and others from that first cohort who successfully communicated a level of traction for their businesses to both their peers and those aforementioned judges.

Dave Waymouth, for example, took home a $32,500 check to advance his veture, PetSimpl, which markets a device — one he believes is a vast improvement over anything currently available — that can help pet owners keep track of their furry loved ones.

Lightspeed Manufacturing in Haverhill is now producing the so-called Pip, named after Waymouth’s terrier mix, which in many ways inspired this business (more on that story later).

Waymouth is taking orders, and he expects his product to officially hit the market this summer and be in several outlets in time for the holidays.

Meanwhile, Jake Mazar and his partner, Soham Bhatt, hit their highly competitive market with Artifact Cider roughly a year ago. They now have their product in 40 liquor stores and eight bars along the I-91 corridor, and intend to use the $20,000 they won to help pay for a part-time salesperson to increase their cider’s reach and strengthen its brand.

The accelerator project’s first cohort has 27 more stories like these. They are all different, but there are many common denominators, especially that quest for traction.

Getting a Grip

‘I love you guys, but … no way.’

That’s one of the qualitative assessments used in conjunction with actual numbers (1-9) on the score sheets employed by so-called ‘herds’ within that first accelerator cohort as the entrepreneurs judged their peers and fellow competitors in one of the early phases of the process that decided who received checks on April and how big they were.

Dave Waymouth

Dave Waymouth says his ‘Pip’ device, which helps pet owners find lost loved ones, is a vast improvement over what currently exists on the market.

That phrase obviously pertained to someone who would score a ‘1’ or ‘2,’ and thus it wasn’t used often, if at all, said Paul Silva, executive director of VVM, as he noted that the 30 companies chosen to be in that first cohort were clearly among the more promising startup ventures in this region — and well beyond, as things turned out.

Other assessments, used far more often, included ‘weak story and not enough customer validation,’ ‘somewhat agree/you got me onto the right side of the fence,’ ‘believable story but not enough customer validation,’ and ‘a rare unicorn of perfection,’ which would constitute a ‘9.’

The unicorn has become the unofficial symbol of VVM, and it was on display prominently at the awards ceremony. It represents an ambitious goal, something rare, but also (at least in the VVM universe) something real.

Finding a unicorn is the unstated mission of all the entrepreneurs involved with the accelerator program, said Silva, noting that these individuals went through a rugged period of learning and assessment designed to provide tough love, mentoring, and, for several ventures, very-much-needed cold, hard cash.

Those aforementioned herds were comprised of five entrepreneurs each, and the herds did not judge those in their own group, said Silva, adding that they gathered scores to six questions (statements, actually) — ranging from ‘the company has proven, in-depth understanding of their customers and the customers’ pains’ to ‘the company has a proven revenue model, logical pricing, and has an accurate handle on all applicable costs; they know what can kill them!’ — to effectively narrow the field to 12 finalists.

This smaller field was then assessed by the group of 14 judges, who are also investors, who heard 10-minute presentations from the finalists and then could follow up with more questions and input during a trade-show period before the awards presentation.

Lauren obviously impressed those judges, with both what she’s accomplished to date and the potential to soar much higher.

Like the others we spoke with, Lauren said her venture was born through a mix of necessity and both experience with other products on the market and frustration with them.

“Growing up in an Italian family, olive oil was an important part of our lifestyle in terms of being healthy and taking care of yourself and your skin,” she explained. “And when I went to college, I went to work for an apothecary, and that experience really opened my eyes to the cosmetics industry in the U.S., because there are literally no regulations — there are tons of ingredients that go into cosmetic products that are not regulated or tested or approved by the FDA or any other organization.”

What evolved over time, then, was a business focused on the many beneficial properties of olive oil and featuring the transparency and natural ingredients missing from most products made in the U.S.

She started with a lab in her kitchen, testing various products and providing them to friends and relatives, who started asking for more. And, as she said herself, “the rest is history.”

Explaining in more detail, she said olive oil has become, in many respects, a gourmet product. She is riding that wave, certainly, but in a unique way.

Her products have achieved traction in a number of ways, she said, noting that she’s sold more than 400,000 units to date (like a true entrepreneur, she got more precise, offering the number 404,000). The products are sold through 30 retailers in the U.S. and Canada, and Lauren is in serious negotiations with a major chain she opted not to name that will greatly improve that number if all goes well.

Perhaps most importantly, she’s getting some solid reviews, which are crucial because of the sheer volume of competition.

For example, Michelle Phan, founder of the website ipsy.com, which helps consumers wade through the myriad products on the market through reviews and recommendations, tried some of Lauren’s lip balm and discussed it glowingly in one of her online videos.

As part of that PR and marketing push toward which Lauren wants to direct some of her winnings, she’s striving to win some exposure in People, Good Housekeeping, and other publications with a strong focus on health and beauty and that feature companies making such products.

If all goes as planned — and she expects it will — sales volume, currently around $250,000, should eclipse $1 million in 2016.

A Breed Apart

Waymouth said Pip, his terrier mix, went missing early one evening a few years ago. As anyone who’s been through such an ordeal would understand, this was quite a traumatic experience.

“We live near busy roads, and he sees every car as something with a friend in it,” he explained, adding that, fortunately, the dog was found just a few hours later.

But the experience left Waymouth frustrated by the pet-protection products available on the market — and determined to build the proverbial better mousetrap. He calls it a “LoJack for your pet,” a reference to the vehicle-tracking system designed to help police recover stolen vehicles.

“I’m a big tech guy, so I assumed there were GPS trackers that did this,” he said of his thought process after Pip — now the company’s ‘spokesdog’ and the face of the venture, pictured on the business cards and website — was found safe. “But when I looked, everything was too big for him, or it had horrible battery life.”

At the time, he was enrolled in the MBA program at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and decided to enter a business-pitch competition and make his case for a more effective product. He finished third in that contest and then went through several more rounds where he flushed out the business model and came up with a way to make the product smaller and with longer battery life.

He eventually prevailed in the extended competition, winning a total of $30,000 to build a prototype. He was then accepted into MassChallenge, which helped create connections to Verizon and other strategic partners and make the concept reality.

The Pip uses mostly the same cutting-edge technology found in a smartphone to send a text message to the pet owner when the animal in question leaves a so-called ‘safe zone’ — the owner’s home and area around it, as well as a several-foot-wide area around the pet while it’s being taken for a walk, for example. With the press of a button, the owner gets turn-by-turn directions to locate the animal. When the pet is in that safe zone, the device stays in a low-power mode, Waymouth explained, thus greatly extending battery life.

The first manufacturing run will be for 1,000 of the devices, he said, adding that many orders came in through a Kickstarter campaign, and others continue to trickle in through the website. That will be followed by a run of 5,000 and perhaps another of that size if demand warrants.

The Pip will soon be available on Amazon, and Waymouth is expecting that it will become an in-demand item for the upcoming holiday season. The current sticker price is $99, with a $5 month charge for the cellular connection, or $199 for the ‘unlimited option.’ Over time, and as the technology improves, he expects those price points to come down.

While getting ready for the Christmas season, Waymouth is also in hard pursuit of capital for the venture, and is finding many interested parties.

“I’ve gotten more interest than I can really deal with, which is a great problem to have,” he explained, noting that negotiations continue on a first round of financing he expects will approach or exceed $500,000.

One of those interested parties is the Springfield Venture Fund, he said, adding that its participation will require him to move his headquarters from Northampton to Springfield (that’s one of the conditions of the fund, backed by MassMutual). Either way, the company fully expects to stay within the 413 area code.

“We’re planning on staying in this region,” he said. “We want to be a Western Mass. success story.”

Core Business

Those same sentiments were echoed by Mazar, who said his aptly named product is fast gaining that all-important traction in this area.

Elaborating, he gave a rather loose definition of an ‘artifact’ as something created by man, and from another era, that’s been discovered or rediscovered. Hard cider, he went on, was a popular and potent potable in New England a few centuries ago, primarily because the soil here was more suitable for growing apples than it was for cultivating the hops needed for beer.

Dave Mazar says Artifact Cider

Dave Mazar says Artifact Cider is establishing itself within the fastest-growing segment of the alcoholic-beverage market.

And cider remained popular until Prohibition, when many of the apple trees planted more than 100 years earlier were cut down, and in the time it took to grow new ones, many Americans had switched allegiance to beer, he said, continuing the history lesson. But over the past five years or so, hard cider has made a comeback, with a number of products occupying package-store shelves.

The Artifact Cider Project, as it’s formally known, is part of the wave, said Mazar, but the product differentiates itself in what is now the fastest-growing segment of the liquor market by the way it’s made — with local apples and unique blends.

The story begins, sort of, several years ago, when Mazar was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease of the small intestine caused by a reaction to gluten, which is found in wheat and similar crops, including hops.

“I couldn’t have beer, so, prompted by that diagnosis, I discovered cider,” he said, adding that this interest was shared by Bhatt, a friend since middle school whose aptitude in science, engineering, and culinary arts has effectively complemented Mazar’s background in business — he was a consultant for several years — and, most recently, farming.

“Local agriculture is my passion in life, so Artifact is a combination of our respective professional backgrounds,” he noted, adding that the venture was launched on a virtual shoestring in 2013, and the first cider was introduced in June 2014.

Today, the company has three brands, or blends: ‘New World,’ the first product; ‘Wild Thing,’ described as a “supremely tart, sessionable” cider; and ‘Colrain,’ named after the Franklin County town where the apples used to make it grow.

They come in kegs and 22-ounce bottles, or “bombers,” said Mazar, adding that the obvious goal moving forward is to sell more of them, and the $20,000 won through the accelerator program will certainly help with that assignment.

“One of the things we want to do with the money we received through Valley Venture Mentors is hire a part-time salesperson to help build the brand,” he explained. “We’re mostly focused on our existing accounts; we’re not trying to grow too quickly.

“Eventually, we’d like to get our cider into Eastern Mass. and Boston, but we’re really focused on the Pioneer Valley as our home base,” Mazar went on. “We want to be successful here before we expand too broadly.”

Two marketing interns, one from Smith College, the other from Mount Holyoke, will be working for the company this summer, he noted, adding that they’ll be handling, among other things, cider tastings and other events to introduce or reintroduce people to cider and the Artifact label.

Money Talks

Speaking for all those who took home ceremonial checks from VVM, Mazar said the money comes at an important time and provides needed fuel as the company looks to grow its brand.

“We’re a small company, so getting capital at this stage is going to change things quite a bit for us,” he noted. “We really bootstrapped this company — we started it with our own personal finances, and we’ve done everything on the cheap. We’ve made the money we started with go quite a long way.”

Such is life for the startup business owner looking to take an idea from drawing board to reality — and gain that precious commodity called traction.

The companies in this first cohort all have some of it. The challenge — and the mission — is to earn more.


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

Entrepreneurship Sections
Katie Stebbins Brings Unique Perspective to State Leadership Position

Katie Stebbins

Katie Stebbins says she brings the perspective of an entrepreneur to her state leadership position.

When Katie Stebbins talks with those involved in efforts across the state to create and expand what are coming to be known as ‘entrepreneurial ecosystems,’ she speaks with a good deal of perspective — and experience.
Indeed, the Commonwealth’s recently named assistant secretary for Technology, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, within the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development, was intricately involved with one such effort as project manager for the Holyoke Innovation District. Meanwhile, she often worked to promote the interests of small-business owners, both individually and collectively, during her 10 years of service to the city of Springfield in planning and economic development.
But Stebbins says she can do more than speak the language of individuals working to inspire and cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship. She’s also lived the life of an entrepreneur trying to get a concept off the ground, and she counts that as perhaps the most valuable experience she takes to her new post every day.
“I have a deep, deep core appreciation for what it takes to be an entrepreneur and just how hard it is,” said Stebbins, who cashed in her municipal retirement account when she turned 40 four years ago to launch Your Friend in Springfield Consulting, a private economic-development and project-management consulting firm that later won the Holyoke contract. “And I think that’s something that’s really helping me in this job — a lot. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, I don’t think I’d be as successful a bureaucrat as I can potentially be right now.”
In her new role with the state, Stebbins is tasked with assisting those providing services and various forms of support to those taking the same kind of leap she did. She works directly with those involved in such endeavors as co-working spaces, incubators, and accelerators, and also with those in higher education, to facilitate technology transfers and encourage and nurture entrepreneurship.
Summing it all up, she said the broad goal involves taking the explosion in innovation and entrepreneurship (much of it technology-related) that has altered the landscape in Boston and Cambridge in dramatic fashion, and essentially making it a statewide phenomenon.
Fulfilling that extensive job description has taken her to communities she’s had to look up on the map, and to initiatives that provide ample evidence that there is entrepreneurial energy on a potentially unprecedented level — and it is evident in virtually every corner of the state.
Over just the past few weeks or so, for example, Stebbins has been in Amesbury on the North Shore to visit that community’s innovation center and meet with the leader of an Israeli company interested in locating in Massachusetts; in Beverly to meet with administrators of something called the North Shore Innoventures Center, a clean-tech and life-sciences incubator space; in Waltham for a visit to the Verizon Innovation Center, which encourages new technologies to help people connect wirelessly; in Boston to meet with 10 leaders of that city’s startup ecosystem; and in Springfield to deliver one of the keynote addresses at Valley Venture Mentors’ first annual Accelerator Awards program (see story, page 20).
She said she came away from each stop smarter than when she arrived, inspired by what she’d seen and heard, and more determined to create more success stories.
For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked at length with Stebbins about her leadership position, the wave of innovation and entrepreneurship now washing over the Commonwealth, and her efforts to enable more communities and individuals to ride that wave.

State of Things
‘Tech, Trep, Inno.’
It doesn’t say that on Stebbins’ new business card, the one with the state seal in the upper left corner. But that’s the phrase some of her colleagues have started using to sum up what is printed there.
That’s bureaucratic shorthand for ‘technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation,’ and it doesn’t even cover everything in the job description, she said, adding the broad realm known as the ‘creative economy’ also falls under her jurisdiction — and all that definitely wouldn’t fit on the card.
Stebbins said she’s the first administrator to take on that long title — her predecessor, Eric Nakajima, was assistant secretary for Innovation Policy and was not heavily involved with startup ventures — and there is reason for all those additional words.
Indeed, she broadened the job description herself, with the blessing of her new boss, Jay Ashe, secretary of Housing & Economic Development, to reflect her talents and experience.
As she talked about her job description, she returned to that unofficial mission of replicating what’s happened in Boston, Cambridge, and Waltham throughout the state.
In many respects, that work is already well underway, with Springfield evolving into a perfect example of this movement through the work of Valley Venture Mentors and related organizations and facilities, such as TechSpring, devoted to promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring small-business owners. Holyoke is another success story, she went on, adding that there are many others that have mostly been flying under the radar.
“What I found in Holyoke is that innovation is happening everywhere, and entrepreneurship is happening everywhere,” she said. “And innovators and the entrepreneurs are using technology to advance themselves everywhere; part of my job involves developing ways we [the state] can be supportive to these lesser-known ecosystems and help them grow.
“We can tell a better story as a whole state if we know about more of these stories, and not just about what’s happening in the Boston ecosystem,” she went on. “The Boston story is amazing, and it’s one being watched around the world. But to make it a statewide story is even more powerful.”
As mentioned earlier, Stebbins brings a diverse résumé to the job now listed on the top line of that document; over the years, she’s been featured in BusinessWest for involvement in endeavors ranging from revitalization of Main Street in Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood to amateur roller derby (she’s since retired from that sport).
She hasn’t retired from economic-development consulting work, necessarily, but has put it aside to seize an opportunity she said she simply couldn’t pass up — one she considers entrepreneurial in a somewhat non-traditional way, but in keeping with her character.
“I’m disposed to being an entrepreneur — even when I worked for city government, I was always the one inventing the new program or applying for the next grant or thinking up the next idea,” she explained. “So, for me, this is another experience; it’s jumping off another ledge into the unknown. And that’s OK — I don’t have a risk aversion to those kinds of chances.”
She met Ashe, the man who invited her to take this latest leap, while they were both involved with the Working Cities Challenge initiative launched by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston — Stebbins with Holyoke, and Ashe with Chelsea, which he was serving as city manager.
They both led successful efforts to win grants through the program — Stebbins secured $250,000 for the SPARK (Stimulating Potential, Assessing Resource Knowledge) initiative — and, through those experiences, came away impressed with each other’s leadership abilities.
“Jay Ashe, to me, had always been this incredible politician and great city manager whom I just wanted to know more about,” she explained. “The opportunity to learn from him and be mentored by him was a big part of the reason why I couldn’t turn down this opportunity.”

Making It Happen
Stebbins told BusinessWest that there are many aspects to her new leadership position, one she describes as fast-paced.
In many respects, she noted, she acts as a liaison between the state and the business community, keeping the lines of communication between the often-disparate entities open and functioning properly.
“I work to make sure that the private sector feels supported and listened to, and that the government is well-informed of the challenges,” she explained. “Those are two really big worlds, and we don’t necessarily have efficient communication structures between the two.
“Before I got there, Boston had been working really hard on making that happen,” she went on, “and I’m fortunate to continue these efforts.”
As she mentioned, this work is providing her with lessons on state geography and quickly familiarizing her with the Commonwealth’s main transportation arteries, including Routes 495, 95, 2, and 128. More importantly, though, it is introducing her to more of those stories involving entrepreneurial ecosystems and the challenges they face moving forward.
Stebbins said considerable progress has been made in efforts to replicate the success of Boston and Cambridge in other cities and regions within the state, but there is a steep learning curve with such ecosystems, and many of those involved are still getting an education.
“Many mayors and local leaders are still catching up to what a startup economy looks like, what it needs, and how it can be supported,” she noted. “It’s a new model of economic development, and it has a high failure rate. But in that high failure rate, it has enormous amounts of creativity and entrepreneurship that you support, because what we find is that the businesses that might not succeed go right back at it and start something else. So you’re cultivating the person, and not necessarily the business.”
Springfield is moving toward the head of the class with respect to this learning curve, Stebbins told BusinessWest, and its recent successes with building an entrepreneurial infrastructure are being noticed — and recounted — in the State House and elsewhere in Boston.
“Springfield’s moving at a good pace — it’s growing this startup economy at a pace that’s sustainable,” she noted. “It’s building slowly, and it’s scaling at a sustainable rate, which any entrepreneur would do with their own business. When you look around the state, it’s definitely a bright spot.”
But there are many such bright spots, she added quickly, noting that Holyoke is making great strides, as are Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford, Fall River, and others.
Each community is different, but there are many common denominators, said Stebbins, who referred to what she called the ‘continuum,’ the journey a venture — or a group of them — takes from startup stage to being a mature company, and the need to support businesses at each step.
“You have lots of points in between these spaces that need to be supported,” she explained, “so I’m constantly looking for ways we, the state, can support these various stages of the continuum, and make sure that continuum is supported across the state.”

Work in Progress
Stebbins, whose husband is a member of the Mass. Gaming Commission, said she now commutes with him to the Hub a few days each week. Other times, she’ll go in herself, often on a 5:30 a.m. Peter Pan bus.
Through all that traveling, she has a new appreciation for just how long the Mass Pike is.
And while it is not her official job description, she said her role is to shorten the distance to Boston — not literally, and not in terms of highway miles, but in terms of the path to emulating that city’s historic success with stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship.
This job, as she said, is a bit of an entrepreneurial leap, but one that, given her background, she’s certainly not afraid to take.

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

Entrepreneurship Sections
Grinspoon Foundation Inspires Students’ Entrepreneurial Dreams

Bill Goldfarb and his wife, Melissa

Bill Goldfarb and his wife, Melissa, display products from Lefty’s Brewery at a Grinspoon conference.

Five years ago, Bill Goldfarb was a college student with an interest in making beer.

“I was going to Greenfield Community College, taking business classes,” Goldfarb said. “While I was there, a professor recommended I apply for a Grinspoon Foundation award, so we put together a presentation, and I was picked for a grant. That was the first funding I received for my company, and that helped me get my first set of brewing equipment. That was huge.”

These days, as Lefty’s Brewery celebrates its fifth anniversary, the Bernardston-based enterprise boasts 10 employees and about 250 clients — and can trace its success back to that one initial award from the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, the arm of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that supports entrepreneurship efforts among young adults.

But the value of that $1,000 award went well beyond a dollar figure, he added.

“Obviously, the financial part was extremely helpful,” he told BusinessWest, “but just the encouragement from my professors, and the encouragement through the Grinspoon Foundation for student entrepreneurs, helped me lay the groundwork for a lot of business planning, as well as giving me the incentive that this was something I could do. It was my incentive to get the ball rolling.”

And roll it has. Lefty’s Brewery crafted 128 barrels in its first year; it’s on track for 2,000 barrels this year. “I’d say that’s decent growth, to say the least,” Goldfarb said. “Things are moving right along for us.”

His is not an isolated story.

Indeed, since launching his entrepreneurship programs in 2003, Grinspoon and his staff have supported more than 525 college students with more than $500,000 in grants, through a series of tiered programs aimed at different stages of the startup process.

“Harold’s vision is for college students to understand that entrepreneurship is not only a viable option, but also a prestigious one,” said Cari Carpenter, director of entrepreneurship initiatives at the Grinspoon Charitable Foundation.

“Over the past 12 years, we have engaged all 14 colleges in the Valley in an endeavor to collaborate to really support students exploring those career options,” she added. “I really think the fact that we have this intercollegiate collaboration, where each college has a faculty-member liaison on campus, and they encourage students to participate in our high-profile events, encourages business creation in the Pioneer Valley.”

Cari Carpenter

Cari Carpenter says the foundation encourages students to see entrepreneurship as a viable, even prestigious, career option.

For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest explores the many ways in which the Grinspoon Foundation and its programs are encouraging young men and women to turn their ideas and passions into viable businesses and gratifying careers — and, at the same time, give a boost to an emerging, and important, sector of the region’s economy.

From Idea to Reality

The foundation actually offers four types of awards each year, each aimed at a different stage of the startup experience: elevator-pitch awards for compelling ideas, concept awards for startups in the pre-revenue stage, Entrepreneurial Spirit awards for companies that have begun to generate revenue, and alumni awards for later-stage successes.

The foundation’s annual spring banquet — this year slated for April 22 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, with keynote speaker Aaron St. John, co-founder of HitPoint Studios — attracts about 600 attendees, including budding entrepreneurs from all 14 colleges and universities. The event features the presentation of the Spirit awards and the elevator-pitch competition, which is financially supported by local banks and judged by commercial bankers.

Meanwhile, an annual fall event, typically drawing about 500 people, is positioned more as an educational program, with speakers and breakout sessions giving students an opportunity to learn more about entrepreneurship. “In many cases,” Carpenter said, “it’s their first professional conference.”

Parker Burr was one beneficiary of a Spirit Award, earning $1,000 last spring after being nominated by a professor at UMass Amherst. Combined with $200 he had won in a class competition, Burr put the funds toward his first piece of equipment — a hot-iron press — for a sock-making enterprise he calls Feat Socks.

“Feat Socks are printed by hand right here in Amherst,” he explained. “I’m basically trying to create a sock for every shoe; we don’t want to sell you a running sock, a dress sock, a business sock … we want your sock to go with any shoe. Our patterns and designs are a little more unique than the next company because we’re not printing hundreds of the same sock. These are handmade in Western Mass.”

Like Goldfarb, he said the Grinspoon award was critical to simply getting production rolling. “I’m still using the equipment I bought to print today. That’s what really got me going.”

Carpenter cited, as another example, Marcie Muehlke, who won an award several years ago that helped her launch Celia Grace, an Amherst-based company that sells fair-trade wedding dresses.

“She got married and couldn’t find anything in the parameters of fair-trade wedding gowns,” Carpenter explained, adding that Muehlke began working with seamstresses in Cambodia and India whose shops abide by safe working conditions, pay a living wage, and prohibit child labor. “Again, she called her award a vote of confidence that allowed her to get started.”

Many of the startups that benefit from Grinspoon’s programs were similarly born from a passion or an interest — everything from supporting overseas labor standards, as Muehlke does, to installing custom beer taps in bars, restaurants, and ‘man caves,’ as Audra Quintin decided to do as an MBA student at Bay Path University. Today, Wilbraham-based East Coast Taps continues to expand right along with the ever-growing craft-beer market.

“When I asked her how the Spirit Award helped her,” Carpenter recalled, “she said, ‘this really was one of the first votes of confidence in our idea. It allowed me to purchase some materials and make the first prototype and buy some marketing materials and really start to expand.’”

She returned to the concept of a ‘vote of confidence’ several times while talking with BusinessWest. “I think that’s a huge aspect of this. And when we do these high-profile events, and when students at the early stage of business see other students at the early stage, it’s very contagious to be part of all that energy.”

Reason to Believe

Lauren Way agreed.

“It’s not only money, but support,” said Way, director of the master’s program in Higher Education Administration at Bay Path University, who also advises students in Grinspoon entrepreneurship initiatives. “That money says people believe in you, and that alone has an emotional underpinning — ‘yes, this is real, what you’re doing is real, and we support it and applaud it, and we’ll give you money to advance it.’”

That’s a critical part of the foundation’s entrepreneurship initiatives, Carpenter said. “Mr. Grinspoon wants to reward them, not only with financial awards, but with public recognition.”

Not all ideas will be successful, of course, and some young entrepreneurs don’t find a winner with long-term potential until their third or fourth different attempt, she noted. And not every startup has designs on explosive growth.

“Lots of students have done less-scalable types of businesses — custom greeting cards, woodworking, we’ve had students start landscaping businesses … it just runs the gamut. When we go to events, we see the breadth of their ideas.”

Way said the Grinspoon programs have helped to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship on campuses and collaboration among them.

Parker Burr

Parker Burr shows off some of the hand-printed offerings of Feat Socks.

“It’s a catalyst for the schools to work together in ways they otherwise wouldn’t work together and share best practices,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s also a catalyst for schools to make more of an impact on the community than they could do individually. Finally, it brings students together at these events in large numbers, where they get to know each other’s work as well as compete with each other.”

Way noted that grant applicants aren’t just young 20-somethings, but many are older adults with past business experience or startups well past the initial stages. She recalled one whose business was on track to make $1 million in its first year. “The [award] money doesn’t matter to her. But she really wanted that award.”

The reasons for such enthusiasm are varied. “Winning means you can put the recognition on your website and in press releases. You can call yourself an award-winning business. It’s huge. So, I feel like the foundation helps us reach students at both ends of the spectrum.”

At a time when local economic-development leaders are emphasizing the importance of entrepreneurship to the region’s vitality, Carpenter said, the collaborations being encouraged by these initatives is especially valuable.

“We feel like a critical part of this ecosystem. We are very closely tied into other initiatives and programs in the region,” she noted, making a point of crediting Valley Venture Mentors for its accelerator program, offering incubator support to burgeoning startups.

“College students have very developed mentoring programs, but once they graduate, once their businesses get to a certain stage, there isn’t a lot for them,” she went on. “[VVM] has created this mentoring program, and we have been a feeder with some of our awardees going into their mentoring programs, into their accelerator. They’ve been very supportive.”

VVM has also opened its doors to college students to work internships with companies in its accelerator — a win-win for the students to gain business experience, and the startups to gain low-cost assistance in taking their enterprises to the next level, Carpenter added. “We have a very nice relationship with them; they’re so supportive, and what they’re doing is so important.”

Dance Fever

Carpenter told BusinessWest how Grinspoon, after the spring banquet a few years ago, told her to add a dance competition. He wasn’t joking.

“So we give $100 awards for the 10 best dancers,” she said. “He was thinking, there’s so much positive energy at this event, and it dissipates when people walk out the door. So he wanted to capture that fun and energy. It’s really fun; the students love it.”

The exuberance of the spring event finds a counterpart in the nitty-gritty of the fall seminar, Way said, and together, they inspire and educate potential entrepreneurs — two ways of encouraging the next generation of business successes. “They come together with students from other schools, and say, ‘wow, this is a viable career path for me.’”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections
Institute for Applied Life Sciences Bridges Academia, Industry

Peter Reinhart

Peter Reinhart says the mission at the IALS is to accelerate life-science research and advance collaboration with industry.

Peter Reinhart acknowledged that the acronym IALS (pronounced ‘aisles’), short for the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, hasn’t yet become part of the national or even the regional lexicon.

And it’s an unofficial component of his job description to change that.

Reinhart, a veteran biopharmaceutical executive and researcher, was recently named founding director of the institute, which was created in 2013 with $150 million in capital funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and additional contributions from the university. Its mission is to accelerate life-science research and advance collaboration with industry to effectively shorten the gap between scientific innovation and technological advancement.

And Reinhart, a native of Australia whose résumé includes a number of intriguing stops, most of them in the sector now known as ‘large pharma,’ is excited about this latest career opportunity and bullish about its prospects for carrying out that assignment.

“This is really intriguing to me; professionally, this is really what I want to do — take innovative ideas and turn them into meaningful products, things that people can use,” he said, adding that the ultimate goal is to create a pipeline of leading-edge products at various stages of development.

The IALS will do this through the creation of three translational centers:

• The Center for Models to Medicine, which identifies and validates new therapeutic pathways and clinical development candidates, focused on areas of expertise such as protein homeostatis;

• The Center for Bioactive Delivery, which seeks to discover a new paradigm for the discovery of optimized delivery vehicles for drugs and nutriceutical compounds; and

• The Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, which is developing nanotechnology and large-dataset management to improve healthcare through low-cost, wearable, wireless sensors that analyze patient data continuously in real time.

Reinhart comes to the university from Alzehon, a Lexington, Mass. company where he most recently was the head of corporate development and new products for the firm, which is focused on brain health, memory, and aging and development of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Prior to that, he was chief scientific officer and then president at Proteostasis Therapeutics, and head of neurodegeneration at Wyeth/Pfizer. He has also been an adjunct associate professor of Neuroscience at the Duke University Medical Center for the past decade and was a tenured professor at the center for nearly 13 years prior to that.

He told BusinessWest that he became interested in leading the IALS because he considered it a logical next step in a career that has blended academia, cutting-edge industrial-biomedical research, development of startup companies, and work with major pharmaceutical corporations.

“Having spent significant time in large pharma, biotechnology companies, as well as academia allows me to understand the strengths and needs of each of these organizations,” he said. “This experience will be useful both in advancing alliances across the UMass campuses to combine assets and capabilities and in utilizing such assets to develop industry partnerships.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Reinhart about the IALS, its ambitious goals, and how he intends to meet them.

Down to a Science

As he discussed the circumstances that brought him to the Amherst campus and, more specifically, its new Life Sciences Laboratories, Reinhart referenced one of a series of talks (this one was in Boston) he gave while he was at Pfizer.

“These talks were about how to combine the best aspects of academic innovation with the ability of industry to take an idea and turn it into a product on a timeline and on a budget,” he told BusinessWest. “While I was at Boston, someone from UMass contacted me and said, ‘I heard you give this talk … and we’re about to start something fairly similar in this space; it’s called the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, and the vision really is to have a more product-focused, outward-looking directionality to some of the basic research we’re doing, with the idea that this would become a number of translational programs that could partner with industry, which would lead to creation of a local infrastructure surrounding UMass.’

“And I thought ‘this is amazing — this is exactly what I pitched to the CEO at Pfizer,’” he recalled. “The difference is, I pitched it with the idea that we could run this within large pharma and reach out to academia. And what UMass was doing is exactly the same concept, but they were running it from within academia and reaching out to industry. And I could easily see that you could run this concept from either side.”

Fast-forward through several rounds of interviews and visits to the campus with his wife, who soon became sold on the university and Amherst in general, and Reinhart is now one of the point people in the Commonwealth’s ambitious, $1 billion initiative to become even more of a national and global leader in the life sciences.

He started on Oct. 1 and is still in the process of fitting out his office (his printer arrived he day he talked with BusinessWest), hiring staff, and meeting with representatives of many constituencies who will be involved with the center.

As he talked about its prospects moving forward, Reinhart said he thought all the ingredients were in place to translate that concept he discussed while giving those talks for Pfizer into reality.

Listing these ingredients, he mentioned everything from the faculty at UMass, which he said had the willingness (generally not common in academia) to embrace something new and fundamentally different, to the infrastructure at UMass, meaning both the physical facilities and the leadership team, to a firm vision for what those involved want to accomplish.

And when he looked at how those ingredients might come together, he decided that this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Elaborating, he said the IALS represents a unique concept within the broad life-sciences universe, something that he’s excited about bringing to fruition.

“On paper, there are other institutes that call themselves translational,” he explained. “But translational is a word that has many different meanings depending on who’s using it. And in the way I see translational — where you’re combining the best of academic innovation and industry know-how, I don’t think there’s another facility like this.”

Not Lost in Translation

Reinhart said some of his initial projects at the IALS include creation of a strategic plan for the facility — there exists a broad concept, but he wants something more detailed and comprehensive — as well as development of both an operational structure and an operational philosophy.

Overall, he wants to take the team approach that is so common, and successful, in industry and incorporate it on the academic and research sides, where it is far less prevalent.

“Industrial science, by definition, is a team sport, because once industry engages on a project, there are more than 50 people working on it, and the way you get real progress in a short period of time is to have people with different expertises coming together and working together,” he explained. “This is something that I want to achieve in the institute; it wouldn’t be individual programs run by single PIs (principal investigators) that advance a concept, but rather groups of people coming together that have related, but not overlapping, areas of expertise working together on a project to advance it toward commercialization and toward commercial partnerships.

“What I’m really trying to do is have multiple different laboratories and, frankly, even other sites, such as UMass Medical Center, participate in specific projects,” he went on.

Elaborating, he said he envisions the institute working in a way similar to a large technology company or large pharmaceutical corporation, with a number of initiatives ongoing at the same time, with the goal of creating that aforementioned pipeline of innovative products.

“Some of these are closer to commercialization, and others are further away,” he said. “We have some that are much closer to commercialization today — exactly how close is still to be determined — and, of course, we have others that are more embryonic and earlier-stage. But the concept is to develop a pipeline, the leading edge of which should start creating products and partnerships with academic entities in a three- to five-year time frame.”

Referencing the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring specifically, Reinhart said there are several products in or approaching the prototype phase, and some may be ready for potential development in a few years, giving the institute an opportunity to play a lead role in a rapidly emerging sector within the life-sciences industry.

“The world is realizing that wearable devices and electronic monitoring is a real growth area,” he explained. “Right now, it’s either at the stage of small entrepreneurial companies or, occasionally, large enterprises such as Google, which is becoming more and more interested in areas like that; they’re pushing the envelope in this area.

“There are not very many, if any, academic centers that are trying to combine the innovation coming out of individual research labs with an ability to translate that into a device or monitoring equipment or a compound that can be advanced into the clinic,” he went on. “Bringing these concepts together within an academic setting is something quite novel.”

And if this novel facility can become successful at providing a steady flow of products through that pipeline, then Rinehart shouldn’t have any trouble making IALS an acronym known across the region, and perhaps around the world.

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