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Daily News

WEST SPRINGFIELD — As part of its community partnership with Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts, the United Bank Foundation Massachusetts announced it unanimously approved a $5,000 sponsorship of JA’s 100th-anniversary gala, “The Roaring ’20s Are Back!” The Great Gatsby-themed event will be held on Saturday, May 4 from 5:30 to 10 p.m. at MGM Springfield.

In addition to the $5,000 sponsorship of the centennial gala, United Bank’s Massachusetts charitable foundation approved a total of $15,000 in recent years to bring financial literacy, work readiness, and entrepreneurial programs to K-12 students in Western Mass. The programs teach students concepts related to budgeting, saving, and money management with the intent of promoting good financial habits.

Also, United Bank employees have been longtime active volunteers in Junior Achievement, enthusiastically investing their time and expertise to help teach financial literacy in area schools.

“Over the years, United Bank and our employees have been dedicated partners in helping JA of Western Mass. make a real and meaningful difference in the financial well-being of so many young people and their families,” said Dan Flynn, president of the United Bank Foundation Massachusetts and executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wholesale Banking at United. “Our $5,000 sponsorship of JA’s centennial celebration on May 4 is just another way of joining so many other generous individual and corporate supporters in honoring, recognizing, celebrating, and sustaining 100 years of empowering youth in Western Mass.”

Daily News

NORTHAMPTON — Coldwell Banker Upton-Massamont Realtors announced the addition of Realtor Melissa Brunt to its roster of professional real-estate agents in its Main Street, Northampton office.

Brunt, who grew up in Brimfield, currently resides in Southampton, where she has lived for the past 18 years. “I fell in love with the beauty of the landscape and the kindness of the people in the Valley,” she said. After working in the hospitality industry for a number of years, she decided to make the switch to residential real-estate sales.

“I am pleased to have Melissa on our team of Realtors in our Northampton office,” said Coldwell Banker Upton-Massamont Realtors broker Christine Aubrey. “Her background in hospitality has always made customer service her first priority, and her career in real estate will be no different. She is focused on giving her clients the very best experience.”

Brunt is a member of the Realtor Assoc. of the Pioneer Valley, the National Assoc. of Realtors, and the Massachusetts Assoc. of Realtors. As a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Upton-Massamont Realtors, her primary focus will be residential real estate in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV) is now accepting applications for enrollment in the LEAP class of 2020, a nine-month, regional leadership-development program that engages the Pioneer Valley’s most promising emerging leaders through learning and exploration. Participants are trained in leadership skills by experts in a classroom setting. They also attend in-depth field experiences across the region where they meet with local leaders and explore the region’s economy and culture. The LEAP program runs September through May.

In its seven years, nearly 300 individuals representing more than 90 companies, organizations, and municipalities have participated. The program has filled a critical need for a leadership program that builds a network of emerging leaders to address the challenges and opportunities of the region. Fifty-three percent of alumni have a new leadership role at work, 64% have joined a new board of directors, and 99% made new meaningful connections.

“It’s exciting to see the growth of the individuals during the course of the LEAP program,” said Lora Wondolowski, executive director of LPV. “Our program continues to grow to meet the needs of the community, and we are super excited for the new class.”

LPV is seeking applicants all over the Pioneer Valley, including Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties in different sectors. The program is made for those in nonprofits, businesses, and government who are eager to increase their leadership skills and take action to better the region.

Applicants are considered in a competitive application process that prioritizes diversity by employment sector, geography, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Emerging leaders, mid-career professionals with leadership potential, and those looking to better the Pioneer Valley should consider applying. Those who apply by June 1 will be eligible for $100 off of their personal tuition, and companies with three or more applicants by June 1 will receive 50% off one participant. The deadline for LPV class of 2020 applications is July 1. Applications and further information can be found at www.leadershippv.org.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Christopher Johnson, chair of the Springfield Technical Community College board of trustees, will be the featured speaker at STCC’s 52nd commencement on Thursday, May 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the MassMutual Center.

Johnson, a lawyer, currently serves as president of the Agawam City Council. He served as the town’s first mayor from 1989 to 2000 and as Agawam city solicitor in 2008 and 2009.

Born and raised in Agawam, Johnson is a graduate of the Agawam Public Schools, American International College, and the Western New England University School of Law. He initially practiced law in Northampton with Wilhelm, Hamilton & King. He currently is a partner with Johnson, Sclafani & Moriarty in West Springfield.

Johnson was appointed to the STCC board of trustees in 2006. His term is set to expire in 2019, making him one of the longest-serving community-college trustees in the Commonwealth.

“We are grateful to Chris Johnson for the many years of leadership, dedication, and outstanding service he has given to Springfield Technical Community College,” said STCC President John Cook. “With his keen insight of public higher education, including affordability considerations and the STCC mission, Chair Johnson truly has made a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of so many students.”

Added Johnson, “I am both honored and thrilled to speak at the STCC commencement. The Greater Springfield area is fortunate to have such an outstanding place of learning. STCC truly transforms the lives of its students, both the traditional college-transfer students and those taking advantage of our fantastic technology and health programs.”

40 Under 40 Cover Story The Class of 2019

Announcing the Honorees of the 13th Annual 40 Under Forty

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A panel of judges was kept quite busy over the past few weeks, reading, evaluating, and eventually scoring nearly 200 nominations for the 40 Under Forty Class of 2019.

Yes, that’s a record, and it’s a clear indication of how coveted that designation ‘BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree’ has become within the 413 — and how much young talent this region boasts.

2019 Event Information:

Date: Thursday, June 20, 2019
Time: 5:30  p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Where: The Log Cabin, 500 Easthampton Rd, Holyoke, MA 01040
Ticket Price: $75 Standing-Room Only Tickets


40 Under Forty Class of 2019

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

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The Stars Were Aligned

A high-resolution image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as M87.

A high-resolution image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as M87.

The image of the black hole in the center of the galaxy known as M87 that was released earlier this month was a groundbreaking development in many respects. It was the first direct visual evidence of a black hole, and it validated Einstein’s century-old theories of relativity. But it also put the spotlight on astronomers at UMass Amherst and a telescope, known as the LMT, that the university operates in partnership with the Mexican government.

Gopal Narayanan wasn’t totally sure, but he recalls that his gut told him “that we had … something.”

‘We’ is the collective that Narayanan, a research Astronomy professor at UMass Amherst, used to describe both his team stationed in April 2017 at the LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) erected atop a 15,000-foot-high volcano in southern Mexico, and teams at seven other telescopes around the world. And the ‘something,’ as the world now knows, was what would become the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

Indeed, after a series of new conferences staged around the world announced the breakthrough on April 10, media outlets published what many would call a ‘photograph’ (see above) of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, or M87, as it’s called, a massive galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster, some 55 million light years from Earth.

It’s not a photograph in the traditional sense of the word, said Narayanan, but rather, as he’ll explain later, what amounts to a mathematical interpretation of data retrieved from those eight radio telescopes, known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, a name that denotes the point at which light, matter, and other energy fall into a black hole.

From left: Aleks Popsefanija, Gopal Narayanan, and Peter Schloerb, members of the team at UMass Amherst that helped capture that first image of a black hole.

From left: Aleks Popsefanija, Gopal Narayanan, and Peter Schloerb, members of the team at UMass Amherst that helped capture that first image of a black hole.

While most of the world’s focus has been on that image, what it shows, and what it means — essentially validation of Einstein’s theories of relatively forged nearly a century ago — the collaborative effort that produced that image is an equally compelling and far-less-known story.

As is the large contribution made by UMass Amherst astronomers and the LMT, a facility the university operates jointly with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE).

The LMT, at 50 meters in diameter, more than half a football field, is the world’s largest single-dish, steerable, millimeter-wavelength telescope in the world, said Peter Schloerb, UMass Amherst’s LMT principal investigator professor, and early on, those working to create the EHT recognized that it could play a vital role in those efforts.

Specifically, an initiative to create what would be become, in effect, a telescope the size of the planet, Schloerb went on, adding that, by combining results from large telescopes scattered across the globe, those searching for a black hole could create a virtual telescope some 9,000 kilometers in diameter.

“It’s quite rare to get eight telescopes scattered around the world in completely different geographic locations — northern and southern hemispheres, east and west — to all have good weather for a stretch of several days, which we did. And you also need to have all the telescopes working technically well, which we did. It took a lot of doing, and there was a lot of preparatory work that had to be done for this campaign.”

“Such a telescope would have the resolution power to detect an orange on the surface of the moon or read the words on a quarter held up in Los Angeles — from Washington, D.C.,” said Schloerb, adding that getting this global telescope network in sync is a huge feat.

Narayanan agreed, noting that, to eventually create that image broadcast to the world earlier this month — nearly two years after the data was actually collected — all eight telescopes had to be operating in perfect weather and with all instrumentation functioning properly, a difficult assignment, especially for the four-day window that was needed.

“It’s quite rare to get eight telescopes scattered around the world in completely different geographic locations — northern and southern hemispheres, east and west — to all have good weather for a stretch of several days, which we did,” he explained. “And you also need to have all the telescopes working technically well, which we did. It took a lot of doing, and there was a lot of preparatory work that had to be done for this campaign.”

In many ways, the image of the M87 black hole justifies decades of hard work at the LMT, a facility located in a challenging environment that has seen its share of struggles over the years, noted Narayanan, adding that the project puts the full potential of the facility on display.

“This is a fantastic validation of all the effort we have put in on the LMT,” he said. “It shows that the telescope works and that it can do ground-breaking science.”

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico is operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Óptica y Electrónica.

And the LMT will certainly play a large role in what will hopefully happen next when it comes to capturing images of black holes, said Narayanan. This includes attaining similar images of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as Sagittarius A* — data is still being collected on it — and it might also include what he called a movie of a black hole — again, not one in the traditional sense (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Narayanan, Schloerb, and astronomy graduate student Aleks Popsefanija about the black-hole project and what will likely come next.

It’s All Relative

Returning to the subject of those observations captured by the EHT, Narayanan said they reveal the image of a black hole and the event horizon surrounding it.

The bright yellow and gold colors seen in the bright ring, which results from the incredible pull the black hole exerts on nearby matter, are not real, he told BusinessWest. They were chosen to convey the intensity of the emissions.

“Typically, astronomers use orangish-red hues to show when things are hot,” he explained. “These are super-hot objects around the black hole.”

This image has been literally decades in the making, he went on, adding that, while scientists have long coveted visual proof of a black hole to validate long-held theories on these mysterious and massively powerful objects, until recently, attaining one was merely a pipe dream.

The key to making it reality is the EHT and an earth-sized telescope it creates, said Popsefanija, an Amherst native who told BusinessWest that, after earning a degree in physics at Carnegie Mellon University in 2014, he was looking for a job, and his search took him the Astronomy department at UMass Amherst. Just a few years later, he would be part of the team at the LMT that made history.

And part of a larger team that would work in sync to gather and coordinate the data from those eight telescopes, which was, as noted, as almost herculean feat.

At the heart of it all is a 1-millimeter-length receiver built for the LMT that would be used to collect the EHT data. Essentially, this receiver, what Narayanan called a “super-conducting mixer” not built specifically for this purpose, takes signals from the black hole, brings them to lower frequencies, digitizes the signals, and sends them on to data recorders.

This same work was being done at the other seven telescopes simultaneously, he went on, adding that synchronizing the telescope network was an exercise in extreme precision, to say the least.

The engineering team responsible for building the 1-millimeter receiver that was installed on the LMT and used for the EHT campaign

The engineering team responsible for building the 1-millimeter receiver that was installed on the LMT and used for the EHT campaign. From left to right, Joe Crowley (MIT Haystack), Gopal Narayanan (UMass), and Ron Grosslein (UMass).

“We had to have very accurate timing in the collection of data,” he explained. “We had to know when the signals arrived at each telescope to a precision of a nanosecond, which is one-billionth of a second.”

So, to get the image that was eventually shared with the world earlier this month, the stars have to be aligned, in every sense of that phrase, said Narayanan, from the weather to the instrumentation. And those weren’t the only challenges to be faced.

Indeed, at 15,000 feet, the view from the LMT is spectacular — for telescopes, as well as the people working at one — but it’s difficult working at that altitude, said Narayanan, adding that one can remain at that elevation for maybe a dozen hours because there is far less oxygen than there is at sea level.

“Every step you take is hard, and thinking is hard, because your brain lacks oxygen,” he explained, adding that these conditions necessitated the need for two teams that would work in shifts at the telescope. “You always question any action you take, and it’s very strenuous work. At the same time, driving up the mountain and seeing the entire world beneath you, seeing the clouds beneath you, is a wonderful and emotional experience as well.”

Through all of that, Narayanan had that gut feeling that the teams working at those telescopes around the globe had ‘something.’

“I had a great deal of confidence that we had collected great data,” he explained, adding that this data then had to be analyzed and vetted, a lengthy, nearly two-year-long process during which astronomers had to keep quiet about their groundbreaking discovery.

Coming into Focus

With that, Narayanan explained how the image was attained. As for what it shows — that asymmetric ring-like structure around a central dark region — this is equally groundbreaking.

Indeed, the findings, as laid out in six papers published in a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, essentially support Einstein’s theories of relativity and confirm what scientists have long theorized about black holes without actually ever seeing one.

“Professor Einstein’s work has stood the test of time,” he said. “It’s been nearly 100 years since he came up with the two relativity theories — a special theory of relativity dealing with traveling near the speed of light and a general theory of relativity to do with gravitation. Black holes are direct predictions from his GR, general relativity theory, and multiple experiments show the theory works, and works in extreme regimes.

“But this particular regime, a 6-million-solar-mass black hole, was thought to be a place that would really test the limits of that theory,” he went on. “Our big hope was that we would obtain an image that would conclusively prove there is a black hole, and that was without a doubt the case, and that’s the sweet part of this.”

Part of the team in front of the LMT. From left, Gopal Narayanan, Aleks Popstefanija, Sandra Bustamante, Antonio Hernandez (Crya, Morelia, Mexico), David Sanchez, and Lindy Blackburn.

Part of the team in front of the LMT. From left, Gopal Narayanan, Aleks Popstefanija, Sandra Bustamante, Antonio Hernandez (Crya, Morelia, Mexico), David Sanchez, and Lindy Blackburn.

This is uplifting in many respects, said Narayanan, before adding quickly that he would likely have been equally excited, if not more so, if the evidence didn’t support those long-held theories.

“Perhaps if we had found something that violated the predictions of Einstein’s theories of relativity, we would come up in new, uncharted territory that makes us rethink the theories,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s the way we basically make progress.

“You make a model of the universe and go out and observe to see if that model can be validated by actual observations, which is reality,” he went on. “And then you find out that the theory is not quite right because the observations belie the earlier predictions; that’s how you make progress. That’s not to say we didn’t make any progress — we made a lot of progress.”

And in a many different ways, he said, adding that the M87 project has certainly laid the groundwork for further developments in the search for — and study of — black holes.

And also in the emergence of the LMT. UMass has been involved with that facility for 20 years now, said Narayanan, who offered a quick history lesson.

He said UMass was one of the birthplaces of the pioneering field known as millimeter-wave astronomy back in the 1970s. As part of that effort, the university’s Astronomy department built a 14-millimeter radio telescope just north of the Quabbin Reservoir called the Five College Radioastronomy Observatory, which it operated until roughly 10 years ago, providing training for a few generations of students.

Years ago, it became apparent that the department had achieved about all it could with a facility of that size and commenced a search for a larger telescope. That search led to a partnership with the Mexican government and specifically the INAOE, and eventually the construction of the LMT, which saw what the industry calls ‘first light’ in 2010.

The first receiver built onto it was designed not to look at black holes, but rather the first galaxies to be created after the Big Bang.

The chosen site, the Sierra Negra volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, brings many benefits, including location (close to the equator), that made it a pivotal piece of the EMT puzzle, said Narayanan, adding that its performance in that project bodes well for the future.

And that includes more work on black holes, including the one in Sagittarius A*, a much smaller black hole than that at M87, with a 4 million solar mass. Astronomers are still collecting data on that object, said Narayanan, adding that there many additional challenges (on top of those already mentioned) when it comes to observing and studying a black hole in the center of our galaxy.

“It’s a smaller black hole, so things move around faster,” he explained. “Also, looking through our galaxy itself produces some scattering of the light coming from the center of our galaxy. But we’re working through the data, and we should produce some results soon.”

As for that movie he mentioned, that may also become a reality through efforts to expand and enhance the EHT process through additional telescopes and other additions.

“We can make multiple images and stack them together to make a movie, as it were, of how things vary around a black hole,” he explained. “And that has fantastic scientific implications that will tell us a lot of things about black holes and the structure of our universe.”

Bottom Line

The image of the black hole at M87 that sped across the globe soon became the star of the show when it came to the groundbreaking discovery — pun intended.

But, in reality, there were many stars, including the teams of astronomers who collaborated on the project, and the LMT itself, a facility that, as Narayanan noted, has put its full talents on display.

Moving forward, the challenge — and the opportunity — lies in building on this breakthrough.

And the stars seem aligned for that to happen as well.

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

Berkshire County

Creating Impact

An aerial shot of the sprawling, 26-building campus of MASS MoCA.

An aerial shot of the sprawling, 26-building campus of MASS MoCA.

Anyone who hasn’t been to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the past decade might be surprised at how different it is from its early days. From a near-doubling of art space to a growing array of long-term exhibits to a robust music, theater, and festival business, MASS MoCA has become a true driver of Berkshire County’s creative economy — and that’s by design.

Jodi Joseph understands the challenges of drawing visitors to a museum in — well, it’s not the middle of nowhere, exactly, but it’s also a far cry from Boston or Manhattan.

“We have 13,000 residents in town. We bring over 200,000 people to the galleries every year. That’s a hard thing to do,” said Joseph, director of Communications at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, in North Adams.

But it’s an important thing, she added — not just for the museum, but for the entire region’s creative economy.

“People from 75 miles or more from here know this is a place to see art. Within 75 miles, more people know us as a place to see music and performing arts,” she told BusinessWest during a recent visit. “We are finding more ways to draw connections between the performing and visual arts — to let those visual-arts people know we have this dynamic performing-arts program year-round, and get our performing-arts audience into the galleries to see everything here.”

That’s because more time spent here means more money spent in the northwestern corner of the state.

“Overnight visitors spend six times as much money as day visitors,” Joseph went on. “Part of our economic-development agenda is getting people to understand there’s so much to do at MASS MoCA, and we’re just one of several institutions up here. So if you want to come see us and the Clark [in nearby Williamstown], you’re going to have to spend a night, maybe two nights, to get it all in. Every admission here is good for two days. So stay awhile — there’s so much to see.”

Jodi Joseph, director of Communications at the museum.

Jodi Joseph, director of Communications at the museum.

Much more, in fact, than when the museum opened 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, for that matter. Growth has been a constant in MASS MoCA’s second decade, with the addition of a robust performing-arts and festival business and a massive expansion of floor space to accommodate something unheard of in the early years: permanent exhibits.

Much credit for the former goes to the Chicago-based rock band Wilco, which, a decade ago, became enamored of Western Mass. and saw it as a place to establish a residency and work on side projects. They couldn’t make a connection with Tanglewood work, but when they visited MASS MoCA, they knew they had something. In 2010, the museum launched Wilco’s first-ever Solid Sound festival, a celebration of music and art now held every other summer.

“Thus began MASS MoCA’s foray into a pretty serious concert-festival business,” Joseph said. “It opened the idea of MASS MoCA, this campus, being a destination for music. It was such an exceptional marriage — the fanbase their music attracts was our target audience. There are many other bands we could say that about, but certainly Wilco is in the top 10.”

Today, MASS MoCA presents more than 75 performances year-round, including contemporary dance, alternative cabaret, world-music dance parties, indie rock, outdoor silent films with live music, documentaries, avant-garde theater, and an annual bluegrass festival known as Fresh Grass.

But the museum’s calling card is still modern art — in particular, large-scale, immersive ‘installation art’ that would be difficult to house in conventional museums. The unconventional works form an intriguing counterpoint to the century-old, high-ceilinged mill buildings that house them, which have retained their raw, industrial character over the years, with plenty of exposed brick, ductwork, and concrete floors.

Joseph said visitors appreciate the palpable sense of history they offer — even as MASS MoCA hurtles into its third decade of challenging the status quo.

Maker Space

The 16 acres of the MASS MoCA’s campus — 26 buildings occupying nearly one-third of the city’s downtown business district — form an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passageways, bridges and viaducts; a floor-to-ceiling window in one building overlooks the confluence of two branches of the Hoosic River.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, businesses at or near the site included shoe manufacturers, a brickyard, a sawmill, cabinetmakers, hat manufacturers, machine shops for the construction of mill machines, marble works, wagon and sleigh makers, and an ironworks.

“Overnight visitors spend six times as much money as day visitors. Part of our economic-development agenda is getting people to understand there’s so much to do at MASS MoCA, and we’re just one of several institutions up here.”

In 1860, O. Arnold and Co. installed the latest equipment for printing cloth; large government contracts to supply fabric for the Union Army swelled business, and over the next four decades, Arnold Print Works became the largest employer in North Adams. By the end of the 1890s, 25 of the 26 buildings in the present-day MASS MoCA complex had been constructed, and by 1905, Arnold Print Works was one of the leading producers of printed textiles in the world, employing some 3,200 people.

In 1942, after a period of decline for Arnold, Sprague Electric Co. bought the site, converting the textile mill into an electronics plant, where physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and technicians were called upon by the U.S. government during World War II to design and manufacture crucial components of some of its most advanced high-tech weapons systems, including the atomic bomb. After the war, Sprague’s products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers. But, again, sales eventually declined, and in 1985, the company closed its North Adams operations.

“This campus has always made things,” Joseph said. “Now, what we make is art — performing arts as well as visual art.”

Indeed, when North Adams leaders began discussing a new use for the campus, the Williams College Museum of Art was seeking space to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries — and the idea of creating a contemporary arts center in North Adams began to take shape. With funding from both public and private sources, MASS MoCA opened in 1999.

Banners promote current, temporary exhibits

Banners promote current, temporary exhibits, but MASS MoCA has developed an array of long-term exhibits by prominent artists as well.

The ‘maker’ spirit of the complex extends to putting up the installations, many of which are not as simple as hanging a painting. The museum typically doesn’t hide the process, which can take several weeks, but instead embraces it.

“Because of the way our galleries are situated, we can’t help but put ourselves on view when installing an artist,” Joseph explained. “You might walk through and observe someone charging through the gallery with a forklift. This time of year, we’re moving from one gallery to the next, installing new art, and all that activity is usually on view to the public, in addition to everything that’s already installed in the galleries.”

She said the complex, for most of its history, has been home to a constant flow of humanity and industry, and the act of creation is as important — and worthy of viewing — as the static display of art.

“Even if you’re not a contemporary-art person, there’s so much to see in the architecture,” she told BusinessWest. “The buildings themselves are art. The fact that we fill them with art and ideas, and made these buildings accessible to the public, is a joyful experience. My grandparents worked here. My mom worked here. That’s real. I love coming to work every day and being in this site where I know my family history looms large.”

Even the performing-arts elements of the museum embrace the process as much as the outcome. For instance, in 2012, rock icon David Byrne teamed up with director Alex Timbers to create a theatrical piece called Here Lies Love — and, rather than perform it only as a finished product, presented it to audiences as a work in progress.

Similarly, just this year, actor Jon Hamm, director Danielle Agami, and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche led a team that developed a piece called Fishing, also performing it as an evolving work to audiences who were then invited to talk about what worked and what didn’t for them.

“It’s a phenomenal exchange — audiences love it,” Joseph said. “In this culture-drenched region, people get really excited about the creative process. Even if you are not the creator, you get to be involved.”

Permanence in Change

The process of developing and expanding an artistic idea has also taken shape on a macro level over the past decade on the MASS MoCA grounds. In 2008, the museum opened its first long-term exhibition, a three-story space housing about 100 works by famed large-scale wall artist Sol Lewitt — a display the Los Angeles Times once called “America’s Sistine Chapel.”

In 2013, the campus opened a previously unused building for a long-term exhibit by painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. And in 2017, the museum activated more buildings, almost doubling the previous gallery space from 135,000 square feet to 250,000, and installing permanent works by neoconceptual artist Jenny Holzer, multi-media artist Laurie Anderson (who makes use of virtual reality in her gallery), and James Turrell, whose interactive works make intriguing use of light and space, just to name a few.

The museum installed this floor-to-ceiling window

The museum installed this floor-to-ceiling window to give visitors a view of North Adams and, in particular, the point where two branches of the Hoosic River join up.

“Part of the joy of going to a museum is seeing the permanent collection,” Joseph said. “You might return time and again and see new exhibitions, but you can also visit old works in the collection like they are old friends to you. We never had that at MASS MoCA because we only had rotating exhibitions.

“But in 2008,” she went on, “people started to think about MASS MoCA not just as a pilgrimage site for Sol Lewitt fans, but also as a place where visitors could return and find something new at the galleries, but also have this body of work, this artist’s life work, where they were suddenly becoming experts. MASS MoCA members probably know more about Sol Lewitt than many Sol Lewitt scholars.”

The museum has expanded its community connections as well, such as an educational program that brings in 2,500 students from local public schools several times a year. Partner schools develop a curriculum of class projects based on what the students see at MASS MoCA. An invitational program for promising teenagers actually displays their artwork on the museum walls and provides grants to their teachers to stock their classrooms. One area teacher used the grant to purchase a kiln so students can create pottery.

“For these kids, she added, “seeing their art on the walls beside Sol Lewitt kind of raises the stakes for them.”

Another program, called the Studios at MASS MoCA, has hosted more than 500 artists and writers for residencies up to 10 weeks. Hosted by the museum’s Assets for Artists program, selected artists receive private studio space on campus, in addition to housing, free access to the museum’s galleries throughout the residency, optional financial and business coaching from Assets for Artists staff, and a daily group meal.

As part of its examination of the regional creative economy, the Berkshire Blueprint 2.0, a county-wide economic-development plan, recommended expanding the Studios program throughout Berkshire County, she noted. “I’m not sure how that would work, but it’s a great concept.”

And an exciting one, as MASS MoCA has long been a draw to this small city near the New York and Vermont lines — and from that destination status comes myriad ripple effects.

“We were founded with a two-headed mission,” Joseph said. “One was to present the best art of our time, and the second was to be an economic catalyst.”

It does that by leveraging all this activity — not just the performance and display of art, but its very creation — to develop new markets for artists, spur job creation, strengthen community identity, and even boost property values, all of which Joseph has witnessed and hopes to see continue.

“We’re in one of the most robust real-estate moments in North Adams in my adult life,” she said. “We’re happy to contribute to it — even if it’s one by one.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing

Scaling Up

CEO Bill Bither

CEO Bill Bither

Over the past five years, Machine Metrics, a company that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers, has been scaling up its operation. But with an infusion of $11.3 million in venture capital last fall, this process enters a new and dynamic phase. The company has nearly doubled its workforce, expanded with a new office in Boston, and become much more aggressive in efforts to educate potential clients about its game-changing software.

Bill Bither was asked where he wanted to take Machine Metrics, the five-year-old startup he co-founded that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers.

He paused for a second or two, and then, in a voice that brimmed with confidence and conveyed the sentiment that he’d been asked this question — and given this answer — before, said simply and almost matter-of-factly, “we’re really looking to build a billion-dollar company.”

That’s not a phrase you hear often from entrepreneurs based in the 413, but Bither, who launched this venture with Eric Fogg and Jacob Lazier and serves as its CEO, believes that stated goal is certainly attainable. And those who have watched this company grow quickly and profoundly since it first gained attention as a member of one of Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator classes would certainly agree.

The company develops software systems that measure manufacturing productivity. To be more specific, these systems analyze performance in real time and send out alerts to clients when production falls behind.

Clients generally see a 20% improvement in efficiency, and the phrase most often used in relation to the software and its overall impact within a given shop is ‘game changer.’

There are now more than 100 manufacturers around the world using the company’s products, and Bither expects that number to climb steadily as awareness of the software, its capabilities, and the results it has generated for customers grows.

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier, says Machine Metrics is adding clients across the country and overseas.

“What we’ve discovered since 2015 is that the market that we’re in is really large, and that industrial technologies are moving very quickly,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a really high demand for companies to digitize their factories, and the key missing component to doing that is getting data from the factory floor; that’s the first step in digitizing a factory, and that’s what we do very well.”

To continue to do this well on a much larger scale, the company needed to move quickly on a number of fronts — from expanding its customer base beyond this region and this country to greatly expanding its team of engineers, salespeople, and marketers, to being far more aggressive when it comes to getting the word out.

And it has moved forward on all those fronts thanks in large part to an an infusion of $11.3 million in capital late last year.

The company has put that money to work to expand its data-science and product-development teams while accelerating global sales, said Bither, adding that, while the company has been scaling up on an ongoing basis over the past five years, that process has essentially entered a new, more dynamic phase.

“Last year, we grew about 200%, and this year we’ll probably be around that same number,” he explained, adding that this is now a truly global company that continues to expand geographically and in all other ways.

Now headquartered on Pleasant Street in Northampton — a move necessitated by the growth of its workforce — Machine Metrics has also opened an office in Cambridge, and now employs roughly 50 people, a number that has almost doubled since the company announced that infusion of capital.

“What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

“We’ve doubled the size of our executive team, we’ve almost doubled the size of the workforce, and our customer count is now over 100,” said Bither. “What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bither about the process of scaling up one of the most-watched startups in this region — and about the roadmap to becoming a billion-dollar company.

The Light Is Green

When he talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, Bither was in Toronto on vacation visiting family. Well, sort of.

“I have back-to-back meetings with clients today, which is what usually happens,” he explained. “A vacation trip turns into a work trip.”

There have been a number of work trips and vacations doubling as work trips for Bither and his partners over the past years, as they continue to bring awareness to a product that represents pioneering on a number of levels.

Indeed, while there have been production-monitoring software products on the market for some time, the software systems the company is now offering represent a huge step forward in what’s known as industrial IoT (Internet of Things) technology.

For clients, it has meant adding the phrase ‘being in the green’ to their lexicon. That’s the color that shows up on the dashboards, or large display boards, when machines are operating at or above the desired performance levels. An orange color means they are operating slightly below that level, and red means there’s trouble.

But beyond letting companies know how machines — or shifts of employees — are performing, the software can also predict when errors will occur and machines will fail, thus enabling manufacturers to avoid costly breakdowns that greatly impact overall productivity.

And as productivity improves, companies are better able to navigate what has long been the manufacturing sector’s most pressing — and perplexing — problem: a deep talent shortage that shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

All this explains why that phrase ‘game changer’ is being used so often by those who now have these systems operating in their plants. And it’s being heard both in this region — VSS CNC Inc. in Greenfield, Marox Corp. in Holyoke, and others are on the client list — and well outside it.

“We’re spread out across North America — I think we’re in roughly 40 states now,” he said. “And we’re starting to see some growth in Europe and South America. There’s still so much opportunity in this country, though, and that’s where we’re focusing most of our efforts.”

Bither, when pushed to guesstimate just how big the market is for industrial IoT technology, put the number at $85 billion, and said the mission moving forward, obviously, is to garner as large a share of that market as possible.

To do that, the company knew it had to expand its workforce, adding people in a number in a number of areas, but especially engineers in the field working with customers to digitize their factory floors.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Bither admitted he’d actually lost track of just how big the workforce was at that moment, a clear indication of how fast things are changing and how many people have joined the team.

“We’ve hired software developers, and we’ve added to our marketing team, our sales team, and our customer-success team,” he said, adding that the company has also brought on a chief financial officer, a vice president of Product, a vice president of Business Development, and a vice president of Sales, taking Machine Metrics and its leadership team to a much higher plane.

Meanwhile, the company has also opened an office in Boston, a step taken to not only better serve customers in that area, but also take advantage of the extremely deep pool of IT talent inside the 128 corridor.

“At the rate that we’re growing, it’s difficult to hire enough really skilled people in Western Mass. quickly enough,” he explained. “We’re combining the best manufacturing talent with the best software talent, and Boston really has a heavy concentration of software executives.”

Bither, who has been through the scaling-up process before — he grew the software company Atalasoft to 25 people before he sold it — said this experience at Machine Metrics is different in many ways, primarily because the company is a venture capital (VC)-backed enterprise.

“Therefore, the focus is on growing fast, not about being profitable — that’s the life of a VC-backed technology company,” he explained. “You’re really measured in growth and cash, more so than profits, and that’s different from what I’m used to.”

Moving forward, he said one key to continued growth and effective scaling of this venture is effective website content marketing, an approach designed to help educate and hopefully inspire movement within a sector, manufacturing, that has traditionally been slow to embrace new technologies and different ways of doing things.

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters, and it found them in the old Post Office building on Pleasant Street in Northampton.

“We’ve been able to build quite a presence in this space without spending too much money because we’ve been able to build out content on our website and write a number of articles and blogs,” he explained. “And because of that, we’ve been able to bring in a lot of interested buyers that come through our website; our sales team will then talk to them, and a certain percentage of them will actually close.”

Another important marketing vehicle has been industry trade shows, such as the EASTEC show slated for next month at the Big E, but also the recent event in Hanover, Germany (the company’s first international show), where Machine Metrics had a large presence and was able to introduce itself and its software to new audiences.

“It was interesting because we were able to see what the landscape looks like in Europe,” he explained, adding that the company partnered with Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon that provides on-demand cloud-computing platforms to individuals, companies, and governments, and thus gained considerable attention at the show.

The company also takes part in the International Manufacturing Technology Show, staged every other year in Chicago, and will be in Las Vegas in a few weeks for another large industry event, said Bither, adding that this exposure is critical to those scaling-up efforts.

Getting Things in Gear

Bither did not want to disclose current revenue figures for Machine Metrics, but he hinted strongly, not that he had to, that this venture is a long way from being a billion-dollar company.

But it seems to be on a path that would make that number more than a fantasy or pipe dream. This is a fast track greased by obvious need among manufacturers large and small to be able to track their performance in real-time analytics, and not rely on guesswork.

Whether the company can get to that magical milestone — or when, obviously — remains to be seen, but the scaling-up process continues, and like those clients it serves, this intriguing startup is certainly operating in the green — figuratively, if not literally.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

While the city will miss out on opportunities from its full ban on cannabis-related ventures, Mayor Will Reichelt says, there are new businesses of many kinds coming to the community.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt recalls that, after his community’s City Council voted in the spring of 2018 to place a ban on any and all cannabis-related businesses, he received some texts from his counterparts in Holyoke and Westfield.

He doesn’t remember the exact wording of either one, but he told BusinessWest that they amounted to thank-you notes, as in — and he’s paraphrasing here, obviously — ‘thank you for the tax revenue that might be coming to our cities because it won’t be coming to yours.’

More than a year after that vote and those texts, Reichelt feels confident in saying that the full ban, while obviously well-intentioned, amounts to some missed opportunities for this community, for both the short and long term.

Indeed, West Springfield exists at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 (quite literally), and therefore, in many respects, it is the retail center of this region — complete with dozens of big-box stores, car dealerships, restaurants, and more — and draws people from across the region. But this retail hub will not include any cannabis dispensaries, despite a number of ideal sites for such facilities, resulting in, as those mayors pointed out in their texts, tax revenue that will go elsewhere.

But in Reichelt’s view, the ban has potentially deeper ramifications.

“A lot of our tax revenue comes from retail, most of it on Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue; it’s car sales, it’s big-box stores — that’s a large portion of our commercial tax revenue,” he said. “And to not be open to new discussions, new ideas, and new businesses is going to hurt us in the long run because retail is changing; Amazon is coming, and not everyone is going to want to shop in Riverdale Plaza.

“If things change, we’re really going to struggle,” he went on, quickly adding that things certainly won’t change overnight or even over the next few years. “If we’re looking out 25 to 50 years, and West Springfield gets a name for itself that it’s not into these somewhat controversial but new and innovative business ideas, and the communities around us are, it will be easy to pass West Springfield by.”

Fortunately, at present, most traditional retailers, and consumers, have no intention of passing this community by. In fact, many retailers want in — and in a big way, for those reasons (and because of those roads) listed earlier. As an example, the mayor related the story of how Starbucks is very interested in landing a spot on Riverdale Street — specifically that very popular stretch south of I-91 — and how it will certainly be challenged to find one.

So while West Side won’t be entering the high-stakes competition for cannabis-related businesses any time soon, Reichelt and his administration will be focused on doing what this community has long been able to do — take advantage of its ideal location, already-deep portfolio of retail outlets, and heavy volume of traffic to attract more new businesses.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

And it is enjoying success in this realm, as we’ll see later, with developments ranging from a new hotel on Riverdale Street to a new life for an old landmark just off Memorial Avenue, to the community’s first brewery just down that street.

Meanwhile, beyond those two main retail corridors, there are other intriguing prospects for development. One involves the property known to most as the United Bank building on Elm Street. That’s not its official name, but the bank has long occupied it and is therefore associated with it.

But United has all but moved out, and there us now a huge ‘for sale’ sign on the side of the property.

As the mayor gestured toward it while walking downtown with BusinessWest, he noted that, years ago, there were a number of a small storefronts within that footprint along the street. Turning back the clock and creating a new generation of destinations along that block would help build on growing momentum in that area of the city, he said.

Meanwhile, a former mill property along the Westfield River just over the line from Agawam is being gifted to the city by Neenah Paper, the manufacturer soon to vacate the property, said the mayor, adding that a number of new uses, including some residential options, are being explored.

These are just a few of the intriguing developments unfolding in West Side, a city that won’t be entering the intense competition for cannabis-related ventures anytime soon, but still has a host of other emerging business and economic-development stories.

Ale’s Well

Reichelt laughed heartily as he recalled the e-mail that is at the heart of a story he’s now told more times than he can count.

It was from his city planner, and typed onto the subject line was the phrase ‘Two Weeks Notice.’ Upon further reading, the alarmed mayor learned that this was not a reference to another job opportunity seized, but rather an update on the plans for an intriguing new business coming to the community.

“After that, I said, ‘can we just put ‘brewery’ in the subject line?’” said Reichelt, noting that the Two Weeks Notice Brewing Co., located in the former Angie’s Tortellinis facility since late last year, makes some nice IPAs, and has become a solid addition to the business landscape in West Side.

And it is just one of several of those over the past several months, including a new name over a familiar door.

That would be 1105 Main, an address, but also the name of a new eatery at the site of what would have to be considered a West Side landmark — the old Hofbrahaus restaurant.

Joe Stevens, who owned and operated that German restaurant with his wife, Liz, for decades, closed it roughly a year ago. The couple thought they had the building sold, but the deal fell through, prompting a reassessment of their plans.

“We starting talking about a theme restaurant,” said Joe, adding that what eventually emerged is a true family affair, involving sons Eric Waldman, who had been sous chef at a restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y. and was looking for a new and different challenge, and Alex Waldman.

Joe told BusinessWest they are calling this “an American eatery,” offering “familiar food with a twist.” As an example, he cited the lasagna, which is pan fried after it’s baked and includes a wild boar and bison bolognese.

The property at 1105 Main St. was substantially renovated for this makeover. The bar area, popular with regulars then and now, has a fresh look, as does the dining room, which has a brighter atmosphere and a hardwood floor, found underneath an inch of carpet glue after the old flooring had been ripped out.

The new eatery is drawing a mix of families and business people, said Joe, and it even complements another new business just across the street — Hot Brass, a firearm and bow range that shares space with Guns Inc., a seller of firearms.

“We like to say, ‘after you’re done shooting, come in for a shot and a beer,’” said Stevens, adding that a number of people have done just that, thus bringing still more vibrancy to the Memorial Avenue area that has changed dramatically over the past several years.

Indeed, the face of the street — home, of course, to the Big E — has been altered by the addition of Fathers & Sons’ new Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, as well a new retail plaza featuring a Florence Savings Bank branch and new stores in the Century Plaza.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

Memorial Avenue, like the city’s other main retail corridor, is in a seemingly constant state of change, said Reichelt, adding that still more change is likely as new tenants are sought for two locations across from the Big E — the former Monte Carlo restaurant and the former Debbie Wong eatery.

Still further down the road is more property in flux, the former Medallion Motel and the vacant lot next to it, formerly the site of an auto-repair shop. Redevelopment of those parcels will likely have to wait for another day, said Reichelt, because they sit in the shadow of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which crosses the Westfield River and connects West Side with Agawam and is still in the early stages of what is expected to a four-year reconstruction and widening project.

Traffic is often backed up at the site, which is why developers are unlikely to do anything in that area for some time, said the mayor, adding, as his counterpart in Agawam did a few months ago in this space, that the goal is to minimize the disruptions from the bridge project, especially during the 17 days of the Big E, and try to incentivize construction crews to reduce that four-year timetable for this initiative.

Forward Progress

Back on Riverdale Street, a new Marriott Courtyard is set to open later this spring, one of several new developments on or around that busy retail corridor, which, like Memorial Avenue, is in a seemingly constant state of the change.

Others include a gas station at the Costco in the Riverdale Shops, a project expected to commence later this year; the opening of a 1.5-mile bike path behind those shops, due to open in May; and a $21 expansion of the Agri-Mark facility on Riverdale Street, completed last fall.

Looking down the road, Reichelt said the site of now-closed Bertucci’s, located along that stretch south of I-91, is still awaiting new development, and he’s optimistic one will come because properties don’t generally remain vacant for long on that stretch of road.

Meanwhile, as noted, there are developments unfolding outside of those two main retail corridors that could have important ramifications for the community. This is especially true of the United Bank property on Elm Street.

“That used to be a collection of small stores,” he said of the facility, adding that it was renovated to house a bank branch and several of the institution’s departments. “There was a nice bookstore and coffee shop, a restaurant … it was a real destination.”

It can be that again, he went on, adding that his vision includes the community petitioning the state for additional liquor licenses and perhaps transforming the property into a home for a number of hospitality-related businesses that would complement those already thriving in that area, such as the Majestic Theater (located on that same block) and bNapoli restaurant.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to section that property back off again,” he said. “If we can get two more restaurants down there, a coffee shop or bagel place, and businesses like that, we could get a lot more life in the downtown, creating a real destination.

“Everyone always talks about how they’d like to have a mini-Northampton,” he went on. “That’s never going to happen if you don’t have stuff for people to do. This [property] represents a huge opportunity for us to create more things to do.”

And while hopefully generating more things to do with that downtown project, another initiative may well create more places to live.

The Neehah Paper Co. has donated the 100,000-square-foot mill property (formerly Strathmore Paper and then Fibermark) to the city, said the mayor, adding that residential is perhaps the best reuse option, be it elderly housing, affordable housing, or perhaps some combination, although other opportunities for development exist.

“We’ve run some breweries through it, and there’s been some interest,” he explained. “But we can’t really do much until we own it. This represents a great opportunity because we’re going to an actual section of riverfront property, which we don’t have in town.”

Location, Location, Location

Returning to the matter of cannabis-related ventures and the ban that covers the full spectrum of such businesses, Reichelt reiterated his concern that this goes well beyond lost commercial tax revenue.

“Councilors like to say that we’re business-friendly,” he told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘well, no, you’re not; you just completely wiped out an entire industry from coming to town.’”

This makes West Side an island of sorts when it comes to the cannabis trade, he went on, adding that there is still a lot of business activity happening on that island, with the promise of more to come in the months and years ahead.

The great location and easy access to major highways that would make West Side a perfect host for marijuana-related businesses also make it ideal for most any type of retail and hospitality-related venture.

And, as it has for decades, the city will continue to make of the most of all that it has to offer.

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