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Entrepreneurship

Stout Measures

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark at the company’s beer garden in Tower Square Park.

Ray Berry said he recently delivered what amounted to the commencement address for the most recent accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

When asked for a synopsis of that speech, Berry, founder and general manager of Springfield-based White Lion Brewing Co., said he talked to the fledgling business owners about the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship — the ups and downs, successes, failures, and inevitable pivots.

“They’re traveling the same journey I traveled,” he said of his time working with Valley Venture Mentors and taking part in its accelerator program. “I talked about what worked and what didn’t work, what I would do if I had the opportunity to change something, and how, at the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

He was speaking, of course, from experience — lots of wave riding, in fact, as he’s taken White Lion from a part-time pursuit, a concept he launched while working for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, to a full-time passion.

“At the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the casual observer might not be aware of those turns, dips, challenging times, and pivots, but there have been many of each on this ride, which started in 2011.

“A lot of people see what’s on the surface, but they rarely get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes,” he explained. “The late nights, a lot of conversation, a lot of strategy … and during that process, there are some wins, and there are some losses. In our business, it’s about sales, and through that journey, you gain accounts, and you lose some accounts.”

For White Lion, the journey has come to an intriguing place — one where the venture is taking dramatic steps to expand its footprint geographically, while also increasing its presence in the region and playing an ever-larger role in the ongoing renaissance in Springfield.

These efforts take several forms, especially the ongoing plans to create a brewery and taproom in Tower Square, specifically at the long-vacant site of the former Spaghetti Freddy’s restaurant.

Berry and other partners recently appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. to talk about their plans and what they might mean for the city and Tower Square, and in a few weeks they’ll do the same before the City Council, which must grant a special permit for the project to move forward.

Meanwhile, the company has moved forward with plans for a beer garden in Tower Square Park, the small park across Main Street from the office/retail complex. Actually, Berry likes to call this “an outdoor beer, music, food, and family venue,” a phrase that certainly captures what it’s all about.

Indeed, there’s White Lion on tap, but there’s also music — the Standing Bear Band and the Buddy McEarns Band were among the first acts booked — as well as rotating food trucks and other food providers, and activities for the entire family.

The venture is a logical extension of the White Lion Wednesdays pop-up beer gardens that drew a popular response, said Ashley Clark, a cash-management officer at Berkshire Bank, part of the White Lion team for several years, and now a managing partner. And it is an important step forward as the company works to build its brand while also being part of the efforts to bring more vibrancy to Springfield and its central business district.

“The White Lion Wednesdays were created so that everyone could leave work, stop, have a beer, hang out for a little bit, and be on their way,” said Clark. “Now, with the beer garden stationary in one place, the event is created not just for people leaving work, but also for families.”

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

Combined, these ambitious steps add up to a critical moment in the company’s brief history and represent an intriguing new chapter in the story.

“We’re at a pivotal stage of growth — we have strong programming, we have strong community engagement, we’re in the midst of building a brewery, and we’re clearly growing by way of volume and the amount of sales that are hitting the market,” Berry said, adding that, once the downtown brewery opens, the company will add another six to 12 employees, taking growth to another, much higher plane.

For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Berry and Clark about White Lion and the latest strategic initiatives in its business plan — but also about those basic tenets of business that Berry passed on in his recent address — especially the part about riding that wave of experience.

Lager Than Life

Returning to that address at the SPARK EforAll event, Berry said he spent a good deal of time talking about pivoting, how natural it is, and how important it is.

“I talked about how people in business often get stuck in their lane — we don’t want to venture out, for whatever reason,” he explained. “So I was very strong in touching on fear of failure, the risk quotient, the need to pivot, the need to listen … but how also, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the decisions you make, and you have to live by them.

“To change course is a natural part of a growing business,” he went on. “And sometimes, those forces are financial, demand, supply, government regulation, and more, so you always have to be aware of all of those fronts.”

Listening, pivoting, and moving out of the lane pretty much sum up what is approaching a decade of business for White Lion, a brand that now boasts several different labels and has made the White Lion imagery part of the landscape in Springfield — and beyond.

But none of it has been easy, said Berry, who cited his plans — first envisioned several years ago — for building a brewery downtown as a solid example.

“It’s been a journey, and we’ve really come full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “From day one, we wanted the brewery to be part of the downtown fabric; we wanted to be in the heart of what was being called a renaissance, a resurgence in downtown Springfield.”

While many breweries are located in more rural areas, in old mills along rivers and streams, Berry said some have set up shop in the central business district and been part of downtown revitalization efforts.

He noted Brooklyn Brewery — a venture that has played an important role in the meteoric rise of that New York borough in recent years — as an example he’s in many ways trying to emulate.

“They took it upon themselves to invest in a highly dilapidated area in Brooklyn,” he said. “And since that investment, that entire area has been redeveloped, and it’s become a destination.

“White Lion is anchored in the heart of a metropolitan area,” he went on, adding that he was determined to build a brewery somewhere downtown.

But the search became more complex than he could have anticipated.

“I think that, in the beginning, I might have been a little naïve, feeling right from the onset that there would be a lot of opportunity, and space, for a brewery, and that was just not the case,” he said, adding that it soon became clear that the company was going to have to fit, or “mold,” itself into a suitable location downtown.

He looked at a number of options, including the old Rain nightclub building in Stearns Square, a property in Market Place that was eventually deemed more expensive to rehab than new construction, and 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, before the focus shifted to Tower Square.

Actually, it was the new ownership of that landmark property that approached him.

White Lion partners

White Lion partners Ashley Clark and Ray Berry with brand ambassadors Scott Freniere, second from left, and Jeremy Eickelberg at the beer garden.

“They wanted us to be part of their plans to make Tower Square a destination of its own,” he said. “We were intrigued and felt very comfortable in those discussions.”

One of the new owners of Tower Square, Vid Mitta, has also become an equity partner in White Lion, said Berry, adding that the ownership team has expanded in recent months and now includes several managing partners, including Clark and brewer Mike Yates.

What’s on Tap?

It was this expanded team that appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. last week, and is slated to make its case to the City Council later this month (they certainly believe they have a strong one).

If all goes as planned — and the brewing equipment has already been moved in — roughly 98% of production will take place in downtown Springfield, said Berry, adding that the remaining 2% — the bottles supplied to MGM Springfield (the rest are cans) — will be contracted out.

And while pressing on with the plans for the brewery, the owners are taking bold steps to build the brand and expand its footprint.

The beer garden is one of these steps, said Clark, adding that a permanent location for the beer garden and an expansion from Wednesdays to Wednesday through Saturday was a logical progression, and one that made this a family event.

“We’ve created an environment where, if you’re a mother and father with two young kids, everyone can come down on Saturday afternoon or Friday night and listen to some music and play games, and all have a good time,” she said, adding that the garden is open from 4 to 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, outside the city, the brand, which self-distributes, has now extended its reach across the state to Cape Cod and continues to look for new growth opportunities, said Berry, adding that it now has more than 750 accounts — and counting.

“We’ve been able to grow in Central and Eastern Mass. through hard work and forging relationships,” said Berry, who credits another fairly recent addition to the team, Blair Landry, a veteran of the craft-beer industry who had already forged a number of relationships on the distribution side within the industry with another label, and has been re-engaging with the White Lion brand. “Locally, it’s a much cleaner and clearer conversation because we’re local. Through the relationships that all of us have, we’ve been able to onboard a number of accounts that have enabled us to grow considerably over the past two years.”

He said the decision to self-distribute, while somewhat unusual, is a pivot— again, one of many — that has benefited the company in a number of ways.

“Early on, we relied too heavily on distribution partners,” he explained. “Those distribution partners can open doors, but they’re also managing another 100 to 150 brands, and that led us to make a pivot; we felt we could have a stronger level of engagement by doing it on our own, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that by opening up many more accounts and strengthening our outlook going forward.”

He acknowledged there is a tremendous amount of competition within the craft-beer industry, and new brands enter the market seemingly every week. But he said this competition provides both challenges and opportunities, with the latter coming to those willing to put in the work and make their brand stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“Craft is about local; craft is about conversation and fostering relationships,” he explained. “If you can engage and foster relationships and have good beer and be true to your word, you’re going to be able to open some doors, and we’ve done that.”

Hip Hops

Berry told BusinessWest that, if all goes smoothly — and what he told the accelerator graduates at commencement is that things certainly don’t always go smoothly — the first can of White Lion will be rolling off the line at the facility in Tower Square late this summer.

It will be an important moment for the company given the stage in its development and the location of the brewery — the heart of downtown Springfield.

But, in reality, it’s just the latest in a number of big moments, with many more likely to come as the team at White Lion continues to ride that wave of experience and continue its remarkable journey.

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

Entrepreneurship

Becoming a Resource

Robyn Caody, left, and Samalid Hogan are working to take Innovate413 to the next level as a resource to the region.

Robyn Caody, left, and Samalid Hogan are working to take Innovate413 to the next level as a resource to the region.

Samalid Hogan says that, when the website Innovate413 was launched roughly four years ago, it was with a desire to not only promote entrepreneurship and innovation in the region, but to inspire more of both.

And when she agreed to essentially take over the initiative early last year, she admitted the original goal was just to “keep it going,” as she put it, because she could clearly see the value it represented.

But rather than just keep it going, she has committed herself to taking its mission, and its offerings, to a much higher level. And with the help of a growing team that includes Robyn Caody, a business-culture and brand strategist who relocated to the region from New York City, Hogan, best known as director of the Western Mass. Small Business Development Center and winner of BusinessWest’s Continued Excellence Award last year, is doing just that.

Indeed, Innovate 413, or Inno413, for short, has become a multi-platform initiative, with a website (www.innovate413) as well as a monthly newsletter and comprehensive calendar of events related to entrepreneurship, professional development, and business management.

In addition to publishing original content, Innovate413 also aggregates and links to entrepreneurial news from outside sources, provides resources for entrepreneurs in the Pioneer Valley, and encourages its partner organizations to submit their own content highlighting innovative trends within their businesses.

The broad goals, said Hogan, are to educate and motivate the audience and also promote the region and all that’s happening within it, especially when it comes to a steadily growing startup community.

“There’s a big start-up culture here, a culture of creativity — I could sense that. But since I moved here, it’s been hard to find these people; I know they’re here, but where’s the community hub? How can I find out what people are doing? Innovate413 is a way to make that more obvious.”

“When I took it over, the goal was to just keep it alive and post items on the site,” she explained. “But now we’re actively engaged in taking this to the next level and making it much more of a resource.”

Caody agreed. She said she relocated to this region partly because of the large amounts of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that exist here, and a desire to be part of all that. She joined Innovate413 to help shed some light on all that’s going on.

“There’s a big startup culture here, a culture of creativity — I could sense that,” she explained. “But since I moved here, it’s been hard to find these people; I know they’re here, but where’s the community hub? How can I find out what people are doing? Innovate413 is a way to make that more obvious.”

The content currently on the site provides an effective snapshot of the mission and how it’s carried out. There are several stories from the pages of BusinessWest — including those highlighting agencies such as TechSpring, Valley Venture Mentors, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, 1Berkshire, and others — and other media outlets. But there is more original content, such as a piece on the upcoming Demo Day, written by Paul Silva, president of Launch413, and short stories on individual businesses.

The site prints articles from agencies like TechSpring (one of the original founders of the site, along with Click Workspace and PixelEdge), Greentown Labs, and others, and submissions from individual entrepreneurs looking to help educate others or just tell their own story.

Headlines on educational stories currently on the site range from “Five Signs You Might Have Second-stage Business” to “Should You Get a Business Certification?” Meanwhile, there are profiles (again, many from BusinessWest) on agencies and businesses ranging from Happier Valley Comedy to Central Rock Gym.

The team at Innovate413 now includes Hogan; Caody, serving as chief Development officer; and Mychal Connolly Sr., an entrepreneur (he founded the venture Stinky Cakes), author, and speaker who serves as chief Marketing officer.

Together, they’re working to make the initiative more of a resource for area entrepreneurs — and the region as a whole — and an ever-more-important part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here because a lot of organizations that are not really innovative have found themselves wanting to innovate. And we can really be a resource to these agencies.”

The goal moving forward, said Hogan, is to create more original content, build a subscriber base for the monthly newsletter — there are currently a few hundred, and the goal is 1,000 — and continually build the calendar, which is becoming a popular and valuable resource,

Indeed, the calendar posts events being staged by 16 different area organizations within the ecosystem, and organizers do the hard work by pulling the items off those agencies’ websites.

“We post anything that helps entrepreneurs,” said Hogan. “That includes training and educational programs such as those on how to start a business, networking events, pitch competitions, leadership programs, things like Demo Day, blockchain-technology meetups … anything that helps educate entrepreneurs.”

And, looking down the road, those at Innovate413 have a vision of perhaps creating events to help promote entrepreneurship. As with the startups it spotlights, the initiative’s business plan is evolving, said Caody.

“Ultimately, we want to create a community of entrepreneurs and small-business owners,” she said, adding that there is a considerable amount of momentum building within the startup community and the ecosystem that supports it, and Innovate413 wants to tap that energy and use it to fuel additional growth.

Like any business in this region, Innovate413 has the broad goal to be sustainable, said both Hogan and Caody, adding that the initiative is laying a solid foundation that will enable it to do just that.

“There’s a gap when it comes to this kind of service in this region, and we’re filling it, slowly but surely,” said Hogan. “We’re getting there.”

Caody agreed. “There’s a lot of opportunity here because a lot of organizations that are not really innovative have found themselves wanting to innovate,” she explained. “And we can really be a resource to these agencies.”

—George O’Brien

Entrepreneurship

Accelerating the Process

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

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


WeThrive

Venture Provides an Entrepreneurial Practice Field for Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Breaking Through

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mully agreed.

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

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

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


ACEA

Kyle Kahveci

Kyle Kahveci

Venture Sets a New Standard for Continuing Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

The ‘Connections’ Business

Adam Rodrigues

Adam Rodrigues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Introductions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Progress

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Reed, seen here in the Toner Plastics lobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peerless Precision in Westfield

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

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

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

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

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

Prototype for Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

Planting Seeds

Steve Rosenkrantz

Steve Rosenkrantz

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

Steve Rosenkrantz has a simple way of explaining his job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put Me In, Coach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Alone

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Venturing Forth

Paul Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Good Company

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

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

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

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

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

Such as the broad mission of Launch413.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transition Game

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

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

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

 

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

Whatever It Takes

Kate Putnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—George O’Brien

Entrepreneurship Sections

Sweet Smell of Success

Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator Awards

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

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

 

By Kathleen Mellen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding their check for $25,000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addressing Addiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

Growing the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrepreneurship Sections

Pour Planning

sign

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

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

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

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

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

Because they can’t.

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

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

beer
 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word of Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Awhile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

equipment

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

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

Climbing Higher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

Business Is Blooming

Christine Adams

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Savvier

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Christine Adams makes effective use of Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

Bursting to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

What’s the Big Idea?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Harry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Falling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Employees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections

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]

Entrepreneurship Sections
MassMutual Invests in Springfield’s Entrepreneurial Future

Nick Fyntrilakis

Nick Fyntrilakis says economic growth in Western Mass. is more likely to spring from a culture of startups than by attracting large employers.

Nick Fyntrilakis says economic growth in Western Mass. is more likely to spring from a culture of startups than by attracting large employers.
[/caption]It’s not inconceivable, said Nick Fyntrilakis, for a company to set down roots in Springfield and advertise for 300 or 400 jobs. It’s just not likely.

“When you look around here, the idea of getting one company to show up with 300 jobs, that’s an old notion,” Fyntrilakis, vice president of Community Responsibility at MassMutual, told BusinessWest. “That’s gone, at least somewhat, the way of the dinosaur, although I hope it’s not totally gone.”

Rather, he said, “the economy is being driven by small businesses, grass-roots growth, and entrepreneurialism — not 300 people at one firm, but maybe 30 10-person firms.”

But even if that is the new paradigm in Western Mass., communities can’t sit around waiting for those companies to spring up, he added, which is why MassMutual, the region’s largest employer, is investing $6.5 million into efforts to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurial success stories.

MassMutual is pouring $5 million of that money into the creation of the Springfield Venture Fund, attempting to cultivate high-potential startups in Springfield. Over the next five years, the fund will invest in startups with business operations currently located in or willing to relocate to Springfield. Target companies will have a defined product or service, be no more than three years old, and boast strong management teams, well-defined and scalable business plans, and high growth potential.

In addition, MassMutual will invest more than $1.5 million over the next three years in a startup accelerator managed by Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), an entrepreneur-mentoring network based in Springfield. The first class of the accelerator will feature 30 startups to be selected through a competitive application process later this summer. DevelopSpringfield, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the city, has been tasked with building out the physical location for the accelerator in the Tower Square building downtown.

“We’re building off a mentorship program that we’ve been running now for three and a half years,” said Scott Foster, an attorney with Bulkley Richardson and president of VVM. More than 45 startups have gone through that program, and more than 350 established entrepreneurs, business owners, and professionals have volunteered as mentors at its monthly meetings.

“We had 25 people at the first meeting, and 150 at the most recent one,” he added, noting that the gathering began in a conference room at his law firm but soon had to relocate to the Tower Square food court. “We’ve really built a great community of mentors and people supporting entrepreneurship. The accelerator is just a natural extension of what we’re already doing.”

For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talks to Fyntrilakis and Foster about why MassMutual’s investment makes sense in the long term, and why they believe the Springfield Venture Fund and the VVM accelerator will generate some needed energy and forward momentum in the City of Homes.

Driving Growth

MassMutual’s decision to invest $6.5 million in efforts to nurture entrepreneurship didn’t come about overnight, Fyntrilakis said, but after many conversations with Valley Venture Mentors, River Valley Investors, and other regional organizations dedicated to giving startups the resources they need to succeed.

“I was really excited to learn how much they had achieved, really organically,” he said of VVM. “They started in some vacant office space and grew this thing into a successful operation in which more than 150 people show up once a month, either to participate themselves or be a mentor — or sometimes just listen in and learn.”

Impressed, MassMutual provided a small grant to VVM, but didn’t stop there. “We started having more robust conversations over time, and I started to learn more and more about the entrepreneurial community that exists in this region, and other folks, like River Valley Investors, who are out there making investments in companies,” Fyntrilakis said.

“One thing that struck me is that you could dictate geography based on angel investments,” he added. “You could drive growth to a particular region based on the capital being there. That was exciting.”

With that in mind, the Springfield Venture Fund will target companies that will either locate or relocate in Springfield, he said. “We want them to plant roots here. It’s about being in the city of Springfield.”

Although the nuts and bolts of distributing $5 million over several years is still being worked out, Fyntrilakis said MassMutual doesn’t envision a traditional application process, but a more organic effort to connect with, and receive referrals from, the existing entrepreneurial community, which includes entities like VVM as well as large, for-profit companies.

“As for criteria, the startup has to have some infrastructure in place, a proven product or service, and a scalable market. This is that initial seed capital that can really get them off the ground and up to the next level,” he explained, adding that, if the fund is successful, MassMutual might have conversations down the road about continuing and increasing the investment.

Scott Foster

Scott Foster joins other entrepreneurship and economic-development leaders during Gov. Deval Patrick’s visit to the new accelerator space.

Meanwhile, the accelerator will accept applications from mid-August through September. The 30 accepted startups will be notified in November, and will operate from January through April in a co-working space being developed at the former Mad Maggies pool hall in Tower Square.

At the end of the four months, VVM will award $200,000 to the six startups that have shown the greatest success, judged according to how well they met their goals — and how ambitious those goals were to begin with. “There’s a degree-of-difficulty factor,” Foster said. Several startups will be invited to continue using the accelerator space rent-free for the rest of 2015.

He noted that the accelerator draws plenty of inspiration from MassChallenge, an annual, Boston-based startup competition and accelerator program. “There had been a discussion among business people here to have some kind of business-plan competition, some kind of program to help out new businesses in this area. Once MassChallenge started having success, people saw the economic impact on Massachusetts.

“We’re unabashedly copying what MassChallenge has done,” he added. “We’ve even reached out to MassChallenge, they’re very excited about what we’re doing.”

Foster stressed that the accelerator program will be “industry-agnostic” when considering applicants.

“We know there are strengths in this area; precision manufacturing, healthcare, and financial services are fairly strong,” he said. “But we don’t want to pre-emptively discourage anyone from applying. Teams that come through our mentorship program really run the gamut, from food-based companies to tech firms to Internet companies moving to a more bricks-and-mortar type of service. We’ve seen a wide variety of companies on the mentorship side, and we expect similar variety in the accelerator.”

Meanwhile, nonprofits are just as eligible to apply as for-profit enterprises.

“MassChallenge emphasizes diversity of ideas, diversity of talent, diversity of perspectives,” he noted. “It just adds to the strength and creative ideas there. If you only hang out with people who act like you, think like you, and agree with you, it can be a recipe for disaster.”

Buzz Words

The give-and-take cultivated in a vibrant accelerator creates a buzz that shouldn’t be underestimated, Foster said.

“It creates an energy. People want to be in the space, or want to be involved as mentors,” he said, noting that he expects participants to reflect a similar demographic mix as VVM’s mentorship program, which attracts entrepreneurs from their 20s to their 50s.

And mentors don’t have to be industry-specific, he added. “They have private-sector experience with things all startups need — how to make connections with customers, how to deal with employee issues, how to divide up equity with partners … these are common themes across all businesses.”

No matter how big or small, Fyntrilakis said.

“This really is where job growth is coming from; growth in the economy is coming from the entrepreneurial sector and small-business sector; it’s not coming from the old-line companies adding thousands of employees. Even beyond this region, it’s mostly smaller firms.

“We wanted to capitalize on that, so we’re helping them with capital, helping them with mentoring,” he continued. “Our hope is that, in the next five years, we’ll create at least 100 jobs as a result of this capital being available. In addition to that, we want to support Valley Venture Mentors in their work.”

Foster said MassMutual’s major investment is further validation of what the organization and others like it have been doing. “It reminds people of the importance and reward of supporting entrepreneurs. They’re seeing VVM as a very positive force in this area, something they want to support.

“It also gives us a much bigger megaphone to announce our support of entrepreneurs here in the Pioneer Valley as a whole, and to encourage more and more people to explore their dreams and ideas, see if they can launch them and grow them. It’s pretty darn exciting.”

Smiling, Fyntrilakis laid out a vision of teams of entrepreneurs clustered downtown, working all hours of the night, drinking coffee, and creating something new — and perhaps providing a lift to further economic development in Springfield’s center.

“I think the accelerator can be an epicenter, stimulating other activities, like a chicken-and-egg thing, whether it’s restaurants or retail shops,” he said. “Hopefully we get enough chickens and eggs.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections
Click Workspace Puts Members on Collision Courses

Randall Smith, left, and Chris Landry

Randall Smith, left, and Chris Landry connected at Click Workspace and are now collaborating on a project.

‘Collisions.’

That’s the term Paul Silva absolutely wore out as he talked about what happens when entrepreneurs — or ‘crazy people,’ as he calls them — as well as creative types, such as writers, editors, musicians, and website designers, get together in close quarters.

“There are collisions — and lots of them,” said Silva, adding quickly that these developments take many forms, such as individuals collaborating on an idea that becomes a business concept. Or an entrepreneur finding an angel investor that can provide the capital to get an idea off the ground. Or a writer making the acquaintance of a social-media expert who has some suggestions on how she can better communicate with her readers.

All these scenarios and countless others have played out at a unique facility in Northampton called Click Workspace, or simply ‘Click,’ as most members call it. It is one of the more recent manifestations of a trend toward coworking, a style of work that involves a shared environment, said Silva, the nonprofit facility’s president, noting that it was inspired by much larger projects such as the Cambridge Innovation Center and the Innovation Pavilion in Colorado, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Ali Usman, who would later help start Click.

The basic concept behind coworking is simple. Create a work space where people can share a table or an office, provide fast Internet service, charge modest fees or rent, create a critical mass of those crazy people and creative professionals (who are also entrepreneurs), and wait — and not for long — for collisions to happen.

Like the one involving Randall Smith and Chris Landry.

Paul Silva

Paul Silva says collisions are at the heart of the mission at Click.

Smith is a digital strategist and founder of a venture called PowerLabs, which helps organizations use the Internet to recruit supporters and raise money by integrating data-driven digital strategies into their work. Landry is the founder of Landry Communications, a branding company that works with businesses, foundations, and non-government agencies to get their stories out.

The two came to Click Workspace primarily because they often found it better, for various reasons, than working at home, although they do that, too. The two started talking, then collaborating, and eventually wound up responding as a team to a request for proposals issued by the Chorus Foundation in Boston, which has a stated mission to end the extraction, export, and use of fossil fuels in the U.S.

“I got this RFP and instantly thought, ‘I need Randall on this job,’” said Landry. “Here’s a guy I probably wouldn’t have met if we hadn’t been working here; he’s the perfect person, and he helped us land the contract.”

Smith had similar observations.

“This wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t here,” he said of the Chorus work, which included a recent trip to Kentucky, where the foundation was presenting funds to several groups. “The biggest projects I’ve landed have been a direct result of my being here at Click.”

In addition to fostering collisions, the facility has also been the birthplace of several startups, most notably one called Fiksu, which specializes in cohesive mobile app marketing. Micah Adler, its president and founder, was one of the first members of the facility, said Silva, adding that he now employs dozens of people.

The obvious goal is to help foster more startups and generate many more collisions, said Silva, adding that the plan is for Click Workspace to expand. When, how, and where it will do this are the key questions still to be answered.

Expansion into larger quarters in Northampton is a possibility, but this will be difficult because of the high price of real estate there (the facility is currently getting an attractive deal on 1,000 square feet on Hampton Avenue), said Silva, adding that the more likely scenario is creation of additional offices in other area cities and towns.

Amherst is one possibility, but lease rates are quite high there as well, he went on, noting that downtown Springfield holds vast potential as a site, and exploratory talks with some building owners and managers are underway.

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest examines the shared-workspace concept, the early success recorded at Click, and the prospects for expanding that operation to other communities.

Getting a Read

Middle School: My Brother Is a Big, Fat Liar. That’s the title of the latest work, in a genre known as young-adult fiction, to which Lisa Papademetriou, one of the co-founders of Click, has attached her name.

The tome, the third in the acclaimed Middle School series of books, was co-written with James Patterson, but she has many titles she authored herself, including Sixth Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me, The Wizard, The Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey, and How to Be a Girly Girl in 10 Days.

She said these are humorous books aimed at an audience she calls ‘tweens,’ those ages 8 to 12, and that she conceived some of her ideas and did a good bit of the writing at Click.

“I come here for two reasons,” she said, noting that she’s at the facility four days most weeks. “First, it’s good to interact with human beings — writing can be a very isolating profession. But also, I come to ask people about the best ways to use social media and to build a customer base, and also to focus on the business aspect of my writing.”

Indeed, when asked about collisions, a word used by just about everyone at Click, Papademetriou put her hands together and then pulled them apart abruptly with verbal commentary consisting of the one word: “boom.” It was a gesture aimed at indicating the magnitude of these developments.

“I’ve had several very productive collisions here,” she noted. “In fact, I was just raving to my husband that I had one just last week that was so helpful in terms of using Facebook and interacting with fans in a way that’s meaningful to them.”

These are the kinds of synergistic developments that the founders had in mind when they conceptualized Click Workspace in late 2011.

Silva, who was not involved with the organization then but knows the history, recalled it this way: three serial entrepreneurs, Papademetriou, Usman, and Rocco Falcone, were looking for space in which to conduct their operations and develop new ones, and turned their focus to Northampton.

“The smart thing to do would have been to find an office somewhere and split it three ways and be done with it,” said Silva, who is known to spice his commentary with humor. “But they’re entrepreneurs, so they’re not smart. We do crazy things. What they said was, ‘what we really would like is to be around crazy people; there’s this coworking thing that really hasn’t come to this area — let’s try that.’”

Usman, whose latest venture, Credit Market Intelligence, provides software engineering to Fortune 100 companies, noted that the trend toward coworking space began five or six years ago, and when he would visit New York or Boston, he would visit such facilities.

“I would say to myself, ‘wow, this is great,’” he recalled. “I spent a lot of time convincing people that they should start one, and when I realized I wasn’t being very persuasive, I just banded together with some other people and started Click Workspace.”

Like others, he said the facility allows him to be around, and work with, talented people across a number of sectors and specialties. It’s an environment and constituency that can inspire ideas and fuel growth for a business.

“As an entrepreneur, I need access to talent, so it’s very good for business,” he explained. “If I need social-media help, Randall is there; if I need some technical help, I have a number of people I can turn to; if I need anything about entrepreneurship, Paul is there … it’s a lot of fun.”

Click occupies roughly 1,000 square feet and includes a main room with several tables that can host perhaps 12 to 15 in what is called ‘open space,’ with those seats priced at $175 per month. There are also three small offices with two or three desks that run for $350 per month.

The facility also includes a few conference rooms that are shared by members, as well as a copier, a kitchen, and nearby classroom space.

“It has everything you’d find in an office but a boss,” said Silva with a laugh.

Time and Space

Young-adult fiction writer Lisa Papademetriou

Young-adult fiction writer Lisa Papademetriou is one of Click’s founders and one of its strongest advocates.

Overall, this atmosphere has proven very conducive to collisions — and the opportunities and jobs that they generate.

While each story told by the members is different, there are many similar threads, such as the factors that inspired them to come to Click in the first place.

Landry, who had worked in the nonprofit realm for 20 years before going into business for himself, seemed to speak for everyone when he said simply, “I got tired of working at home — it’s too easy to get distracted, and I wanted people to bounce ideas off.

“That’s what I found here — smart people, people I could just grab and say, ‘what do you think of this?’” he went on. “It’s fun, it’s smart people, it’s thinkers — it gives me what I need. I don’t always come here; some days, if I’m editing video, it’s easier to sit at my dining-room table, or if I need a break I’ll go sit at a coffee shop. But it’s great to have this as my home base. It makes me more productive.”

John Galvin, who’s been coming to Click for more than two years now, feels pretty much the same way.

A magazine writer by trade — he’s written pieces for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Wired — he left that field nearly a decade ago and started a company called One Day University, which he called the “ultimate day of college.”

“We’d bring in professors from across the country to give their best one-hour lecture to an audience of mainly adults ages 50 to 75 who were thrilled with the idea of learning from the best minds in the country without having to take a test or pay $50,000 a year,” he said, adding that he sold the business in 2009 and soon thereafter started the Strategic Media Group.

He works with a host of organizations to create engaging content for their audiences, a concept known as content marketing. And he’s hired a number of individuals working at Click to handle graphic design, promotional materials such as signage, proofreading, and more.

“I travel a fair amount, but when I’m in town, I’ll be in here working — it’s a great environment,” he explained. “It has all the benefits of an office without all the office politics.”

Ali Usman

Ali Usman, another of Click’s founders, says it’s patterned after initiatives in Cambridge, Denver, and other cities.

Looking forward, both Silva and Usman said coworking space is a concept with staying power, and they will look to expand it in Western Mass.

While Northampton has a large number of people who fit the coworking profile, the concept doesn’t easily lend itself to expensive commercial real estate, at least in this region. The Cambridge Innovation Center, which hosts more than 600 companies, now occupies 207,000 square feet in Kendall Square, and recently announced plans to open a major outpost in Boston’s Financial District with enough space for about 300 startups.

“I tried to expand in Northampton first,” said Silva, “and I had some very pleasant interactions with landlords, but the market rates are such that it’s not feasible; they’ve got too many people from New York coming here who are really happy to pay New York prices for Northampton real estate.”

So, at the moment, most of the focus of expansion talks centers on downtown Springfield, said Silva, as that’s where many young entrepreneurs are coming together — Valley Venture Mentors meets monthly in Tower Square, for example, and Paragus IT founder Delcie Bean has relocated that company temporarily into Harrison Place — and the real estate is, in theory, anyway, more attainable and affordable.

But a facility like Click represents a challenge, as well as sizable risk for a landlord, said Silva, adding that he usually has to offer an education in the potential benefits, which are sometimes difficult to envision.

“I say to landlords, ‘you have small fish come to you all the time, and it’s not worth your time to deal with them, but you know that if someone feeds the small fish, they may grow up to be big fish — you just don’t want to be in that business,’” he explained. “‘So give me some space, and send all the small fish to me; we’ll feed them and care for them and nurture them. Some of them are going to die, but some of them are going to grow up to be big fish, and they’re not going to fit in our tank.’”

Despite some inherent challenges to getting them off the ground, Usman said, coworking facilities represent the future of incubation and efforts to foster entrepreneurship.

“I really believe coworking spaces will be in every large town — New York probably has 60 coworking spaces, if not more, and almost every major city has them,” he noted. “And many of the startups now are through coworking space — they don’t get their own office space, but they just go to a coworking facility.

“If you want to promote entrepreneurial activity, you have to have coworking space,” he went on. “Greenfield should have a facility. Westfield should have one.This is the wave of the future.”

When Something Clicks

Smith and Landry don’t know how long they’ll be working for the Chorus Foundation, or how much the contract will eventually be worth to them.

What they do know is that it’s highly unlikely that their partnership, and this assignment, would have come about had they not both been working at Click.

Theirs was a highly effective collision, one that Silva and others hold up as a model for what can, and often does, happen when creative minds and crazy people share a table, a copier, a conference room, and an office without a boss.

The goal now is simply to create more of them.

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

Entrepreneurship Sections
Serial Entrepreneurs Scale New Heights with Qnect

From left, Jef Sharp, Jeff Hausthor, and Henry Lederman

From left, Jef Sharp, Jeff Hausthor, and Henry Lederman created QuickQnect, software the connects the joints in a steel structure via an automatic process.

Jef Sharpe and Jeff Hausthor are on the edge again. The cutting edge, that is.

The entrepreneurs, who have been partners in five business ventures, joined Henry Lederman last October to start a new company called Qnect, and are launching a new software product called QuickQnect at the three-day NASCC Steel Conference in Toronto.

They say the product will revolutionize the way the joints in a steel structure are connected. “The idea of turning this manual process into a software solution is brand-new, and QuickQnect is up to 100 times faster than the conventional way of connecting the joints in a building,” said Sharp, adding that the service is available in the cloud.

Lederman, who has spent 42 years in the steel-detailing industry, developed an early version of the software that has already been used in 11 buildings, including structures at UMass and Harvard. And when BusinessWest spoke to the three entrepreneurs, they were looking forward to introducing their breakthrough product at the Toronto conference, which is expected to attract more than 3,500 structural engineers, steel fabricators, erectors, detailers, and educators involved in the design and construction of fabricated steel buildings and bridges.

Lederman said QuickQnect combines two critical components of the steel-connection process into one, eliminating weeks or months of manual labor required to connect each joint in a multi-story steel structure.

He created the new software to stay competitive in an industry that has cut costs by outsourcing work overseas. Developing it was a process, but the first step was recognizing there was room for improvement in the three-dimensional system used by steel-detailing companies.

Lederman’s history includes high-profile projects, including the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York City and Tata Hall at Harvard University. He has been a speaker at industry events and is a leader in detailing innovation.

“It’s fun starting something from scratch that has never been done before. And what this new product [QuickQnect] does is pretty extraordinary. But developing it was tempered by my desire to see it in its fullest commercial form,” he said.

That pursuit brought Lederman together with Sharp and Hausthor last fall. They were introduced through a friend, and his original plan was simply to get ideas from the successful entrepreneurs.

But the meeting proved to be serendipitous. Sharp and Hausthor were looking to start a new business, and Lederman was impressed by their background and knowledge. “They had amazing expertise, as they had grown other companies and also had IT experience. They had what I needed to take the company beyond what I had envisioned,” he said. “They viewed things I might have had doubts about as minor obstacles.”

Sharp and Hausthor said working with Lederman met the criteria they have established for a new venture (more about that later) as they know what it takes to transform a novel idea into a product, then market it successfully. But it’s work they truly enjoy.

“It’s exhilarating to start a new company, and even though there is risk, stress, and tension, there is also a feeling of accomplishment you can’t get with most 9-to-5 jobs,” Sharp said. “And this is an amazing company.”

Each of the entrepreneurs has different skills, and their titles at Qnect reflect their honed talents. Sharp is CEO, Hausthor is COO, and Lederman is CFO. They all agree that education is critical and learning must be an ongoing process. “It’s an interesting path, and the importance of entrepreneurs can’t be fully stated,” Sharp said.

However, he was quick to add that it takes a team effort to be successful. “Identifying great people is the most important job of a CEO.”

Lederman concurred. “There are many amazing business people doing wonderful things, but it’s very hard to find the right resources,” he said.

Still, they are confident they will reach their goals because their product will save time and money. But it took sophisticated engineering skills to create the software that automates a manual process. “Two hundred calculations are necessary for every joint, and there can be upwards of 2,000 joints in a building,” Hausthor said as he spoke about a building, constructed with the pre-commercial version of the software, that had 11,000 joints.

Sharp said they have also put together an exceptionally talented development team.

“I’m confident they will be unstoppable in building and expanding our software breakthrough. The design of the joints in a building is really important, and reducing months of work to a few hours drives everything else, including the cost of using steel, which is the most environmentally friendly solution for large buildings and is 97% recyclable,” he noted, adding they hope to identify powerful local investors.

Storied Past

The three men have impressive backgrounds. Lederman has built three successful companies, Sharp has founded six, and Hausthor has directed IT and software-development efforts and operations logistics for six firms.

“I like all new technology and enjoy investigating new things,” Hausthor said.

Sharp and Hausthor have been partners in five ventures and love being on the cutting edge of development. They also share a passion for helping the planet.

“It’s exciting to do things that have never been done before,” said Sharp. “You can start a business by buying a franchise in which everything is set up for you. But it’s not as creative or interesting as starting something from nothing and building something of great value that will last.”

His first business was a mobile food service he named the Clam Scam, which he launched when he was in college.

His next venture was started in 1999 after he moved to Western Mass. from New York, where he had been running a manufacturing company called Gravity Graphics. “I had a burning idea for a dot.com company that would sell excess manufacturing capacity online,” he said.

The idea didn’t require resources or capital, since he simply wanted to make more efficient use of what already existed on the planet. “Having a company that has an impact on the world has always been important to me, and in the past, green has always been a theme,” Sharp told BusinessWest.

Hausthor, who joined Sharp in the business known as XSCapacity, was a self-described “Fortune 500 guy” before they met. He had been a programmer analyst for Deloitte, an associate at Morgan Stanley, a technical specialist for Sony Electronics, and a project manager for Sony Corp. of America.

A friend introduced the two men, they had lunch together, and a short time later, Sharp asked Hausthor to help him start XSCapacity.

The idea appealed to Hausthor. “I had moved to Western Mass. and was working from home. I was in charge of 40 people in New Jersey, but I felt isolated,” he said. “So I made the jump.”

The idea took flight as other firms adopted the novel idea of using real estate, autos, and more to maximum capacity. “XSCapacity was a concept,” Sharp explained. And although they were reasonably successful in building their product and raising money, the company became part of the dot.com collapse.

Their next venture was TechCavalry in Northampton, which provided computer service for small businesses and homes. “We needed to do something quickly which we could fund ourselves that would provide us with relatively instant revenue,” Sharp said, adding they sold the firm in 2012 after 11 years, and it is still in business today.

Although TechCavalry was successful, “we felt compelled to do something good for the world that would have a positive impact,” Hausthor said. So in 2006 they founded Qteros Inc. with two other partners.

“The company was created to start green companies,” Sharp said. “We worked nights and weekends, and it took us nine months to find our first project.” They combined talents with Susan Leschine, a professor at UMass Amherst, who had discovered a microbe that made ethanol from cellulose.

“But we had to scale up the technology, as it was still at the test-tube level at UMass,” Hausthor said. “We had to make it into a product that needed to go into a $200 million facility. We were still running Tech Cavalry, and suddenly we were microbiologists at a facility in Marlborough.”

Sharp describes the time as “a whirlwind. We hired two scientists a month and grew quickly.” They secured a government grant, and their backers included the petroleum giant BP. The firm had 50 employees when the pair left in 2008, although Sharp continued to serve on the board of directors until 2012.

They were discussing what to do next when Sharp met Steve Frank from Florence, who had started a supercomputer business and was looking to expand. “He convinced us it should be our next company,” Sharp said, adding that Paneve, which has grown into a large data firm today, made a new type of computer chips.

But when the operation moved to Colorado at the behest of its engineers, and its Amherst office closed, Sharp and Hausthor decided to remain here and began a new search for another startup, which occurred when they met Lederman.

By that time, the duo had developed criteria to determine whether a business opportunity fit their needs. “It has to have good people,” Sharp said, adding that it’s important to him to have control of who is hired. “The product also has to be reasonably close to being ready to sell, as we have already owned two companies that spent a long time in the development stage. When we joined Henry, he was already using a pre-commercial version of the product, but wanted help scaling up and driving the business. The chemistry was good, and it was an excellent combination of our skills.”

Hausthor agreed. “The product also has to be protectable in terms of patent and other intellectual properties and has to be a technology that helps the world,” he added.

The fact that Lederman’s business was local made it especially appealing, he added. “We had met people in Boston who wanted our help, but we didn’t want to drive long distances or have to fly to do business.”

Conscious Choice

Sharp says starting new companies has become a way of life. “It’s pretty cool knowing that you can start something from an idea. But no entrepreneur does it alone. It’s very much a team effort, and it’s critical that the team gets credit, because without them you could never be successful.”

Sharp admits it’s not for everyone. “Starting your own company can be very exciting, but it can be just as exciting to join a young company,” he said, reiterating the importance of a strong team.

But people like Sharp, Hausthor, and Lederman will always thrive on work that is on the cutting edge.

“I was an entrepreneur before the word was coined,” Sharp said, “and what is really exciting is that we are always doing things that haven’t been done before.”

Entrepreneurship Sections
Valley Venture Mentors Stays Focused on the Big Picture

VVMecosystemScott Foster says there are many ways to qualify and quantify the physical growth and escalating impact of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) since it was launched more than two years ago as a unique support system for entrepreneurs looking to start a venture or take one to the next level.

For starters, there’s the rising number of applications for six-month mentorship programs — there are now more than 30 for the six to eight slots that will comprise this fall’s cycle — as well as the fact that many of these are from individuals and groups outside the 413 area code, “because they don’t have something like this where they are,” said Foster, a business-law attorney with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson.

Scott Foster

Scott Foster says VVM has drawn increasing interest from the region’s economic-development leaders.

There’s also the ever-greater interest being shown by economic-development leaders in VVM and its potential for spurring job growth in the region and state. Greg Bialecki, state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, has described it as a “catalyst” organization in speeches he’s made. Meanwhile, representatives of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. have been regular attendees of VVM’s monthly meetings.

And then, there’s acknowledgement among VVM’s leaders that this organization, like many of the ventures being mentored, is having some growing pains of its own. Indeed, said Foster, there are ongoing discussions about VVM hiring its first paid staff and moving into a permanent facility; it currently does most of its business in the spacious Bulkley Richardson boardroom.

Steve Willis, a VVM co-founder and mentor, and an entrepreneur who has launched several high-tech firms, said the organization is, in many ways, similar to the startups it serves.

“It has a small group of people who had an ambitious idea, and it was grown very carefully,” he explained. “It’s now ready for another round of financing to scale the business out. We have a set of ambitious plans in place, and it’s time to have a strategy and a business plan to grow this out.”

All of this is part of what Foster calls “creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

And he used that phrase — which isn’t technically accurate, because ecosystems exist only in nature — to describe an environment in which entrepreneurship (and the economic development and jobs that ensue) is encouraged and given an opportunity to thrive.

“The entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region is nascent, and it needs to grow,” he explained. “There’s a lot of passion for entrepreneurialism in the Valley, both on the mentoring side and the entrepreneur side, and what there wasn’t before was a community that this spirit could tap into in a cohesive, consistent way.

“What we’ve heard back from people involved in the program is that VVM has created the right atmosphere,” he continued, “one that allows people to come out, allows them to interact with one another, and drives them to want to build the ecosystem and make it stronger.”

Jess Dupuis

Jess Dupuis says VVM has been instrumental in helping her map out plans for taking her beauty products venture to the next level.

Jess Dupuis is one of the many entrepreneurs expressing such opinions.

In 2010, she started a business called Olive Natural Beauty, which manufactures and distributes a line of olive-oil-based beauty products, now sold through 20 retail partners.

Dupuis said she applied to VVM earlier this year because, while her business seemed to be on the right path, she knew she needed to focus on the proverbial big picture, and needed some help doing so.

“Up to this point, I’ve been really flying by the seat of my pants in that I’m still a young business person and I’ve never been an entrepreneur before, so there are a lot of things I’m learning by trial and error,” she said, adding that what she’s received from her mentors and VVM as a whole amounts to real-time feedback.

“I wanted some guidance and feedback, especially on how to scale my business and take it to the next level, because up until now, it’s been 100% me,” she went on. “And it’s been an amazing experience; I’ve had the chance to speak with industry professionals and people who have gone through it.”

For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at how VVM has grown and evolved since its creation, and to where the organization wants to go next as it works to create that ecosystem that Foster described.

 

Venturing Forth

When BusinessWest talked with Foster and VVM co-founder Paul Silva just after the initiative was launched in early 2011, they used a number of words and phrases to describe their organization, its mission, and its MO.

It was described as a “halfway house between the classroom and the real world,” a vehicle for providing “nourishment” to startups and next-stage companies, and a group dedicated to help entrepreneurs eliminate the “rookie mistakes” that often set a venture back or keep it from getting off the ground.

As she talked about her experiences with VVM, Dupuis said it has been all of those things. Elaborating, she told BusinessWest that her business is at a critical crossroads in terms of growth and development, with some important decisions to be made on everything from marketing to whether she needs to bring on a manufacturer and a distributor for her products.

“And before I take some of these steps, I wanted to talk with experts about what their thoughts are,” she said. “I want to be able to take those ideas and that feedback and use it as I put things down on paper into a formal plan.”

VVM’s entrepreneurial community

VVM’s entrepreneurial community provides what one of its mentees calls “real-time feedback.”

Here’s how the mentorship program works: first, VVM issues what amounts to a call for applications to what are now two cycles of mentorship, one in the fall and the other in the spring. Two tracks are now necessary, simply because the volume of applications has grown considerably, mostly due to the positive experiences of participants and word-of-mouth referrals.

“These individuals are talking about their experiences to other parts of the community — and by community, I mean beyond just the Pioneer Valley,” said Foster. “We’re getting applications from Providence, the Greater Boston area, Connecticut … people who are interacting with the program are going back and talking to other entrepreneurs, their friends, other mentors, and they’re realizing that this is unique in the way it’s delivering advice, the scope of the mentoring, and the openness of the community.

“We’ve structured something that allows an excellent exchange of ideas and support from the mentors, and also from the entrepreneurs to each other,” he continued. “The feedback we get from the teams that have been through it, and the mentors as well, is that it’s an excellent environment.”

The deadline for the next cycle is Sept. 1, said Foster, adding that there will be a “pitch camp” a few weeks later, followed by formal auditions later in the month. This multi-stage process, which will ultimately identify the six to eight ventures chosen for mentorship, was designed to create “good fits” — matches that work for both the companies and VVM.

And there are many reasons why an applicant may not constitute an effective fit, said Willis, listing such things as geography — a New Jersey-based individual or group might find it difficult to attend monthly sessions in Springfield — and the fact that some applicants simply might not be far enough along to benefit from mentorship.

“The fit is two ways,” said Willis. “Can we provide adequate service to them? And on their side, can they commit the time? Will they listen? Is this a good fit? It’s not necessarily about the business, but about the team and the people.”

Applications come in a number of flavors, said Foster, noting they range from “an idea that’s been well-thought through to a company that’s up and has a minimally viable product, and they’re looking to take it to the next level.”

When it comes to choosing applicants for participation, Foster said VVM and its mentors are what he called “generalists,” meaning they don’t focus on specific sectors, such as technology or the biosciences, and this quality has helped the initiative grow.

“There aren’t many generalist programs out there, and there are many advantages to having that quality,” said Foster, adding that ideas and business concepts that have come before the mentors have been both high-tech and low-tech, ranging from a complicated algorithm for engaging in currency hedging to a device that would monitor the natural gas entering a home or commercial building. “We’ve found that this leads to some great dialogue among the mentors and the teams that are there; they learn differently from each other, and they realize that, no matter what their sector is, they all have some similar challenges they’re going to have to face — how to hire people, how to staff up, how to raise money, how to communicate with people about your idea. Those are themes that reach across all the different kinds of businesses.”

 

Getting the Idea

Jess Greene’s venture is on the high-tech side of the ledger, but it also involves the arts.

In 2011, she created the website seekyourcourse.com, which is focused on “helping adults be more creative, and making it easier for adults interested in engaging their creative or artistic side in a class.”

Originally, the site, based on an advertisement-revenue model, was designed to host a database of educational opportunities for adults in the arts, she said, adding that it has undergone a host of changes since, and is now more focused on its blog, which boasts 26 regular contributors who post everything from tutorials to stories of their own creativity.

The venture remains a work in progress, a site devoted to engaging the strong online creative community, she went on, adding that the mentors at VVM have been instrumental in helping her shape a vision and business plan for what she called “seekyourcourse 2.0,” which will have more of a community focus and take the business concept to the next level.

She gathered ideas for this concept while on a four-month, 15,000-mile trip around the country, during which she met many of the people she communicated with online and welcomed their thoughts on what people might want and need from her site. And she’s shared that data with her mentors and also other mentees, like Dupuis. Through all those resources, she’s gained insight into everything from branding to revenue generation to driving traffic to her site.

“It’s great to suddenly have this community of people who have all this expertise,” she told BusinessWest while explaining how and why VVM has worked. “It’s a great environment.”

Dupuis agreed, and said VVM has been of considerable help with many aspects of her business, from hard financials to marketing to the challenging task of scaling a business and making it much bigger than it is.

Foster summed it all up by saying that VVM’s broad goal in her case was to make her a “smarter businesswoman,” and that this is the assignment with all the entrepreneurs it works with.

“No one is attempting to make these decisions for her,” he said, referring to business steps such as adding employees, ramping up or outsourcing production, or bringing on a distributor. “We just make sure that she has the information she needs to look at her business and figure out what makes the most sense for her as she tries to get to the next level.”

Dupuis cited proper branding of her line of products as just one of the many often-complex business-plan matters that VVM and its real-time feedback have helped her address.

“I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in marketing communications, so this is what I would consider my area of expertise,” she explained. “But VVM has really helped me hone in and think about how I want to brand these products. Do I want this to be a CVS-type brand, or is this a more luxurious brand that should be sold in Whole Foods? If you’re in one store, you may not be able to market to the other.”

Some important decisions will be made in the months to come, she went on, adding that VVM has given her plenty to think about.

Moving forward, the organization would like to do that with more individuals and teams, which brings Foster and Willis back to VVM’s own plans for taking itself to the next level.

Such ramping up could — and likely will — involve everything from hiring staff to establishing a physical presence with an office and meeting facility, to creating entrepreneurship competitions that will bring people to Greater Springfield and help strengthen that entrepreneurial community Foster described.

“This is moving from being an all-volunteer organization to one that will need staff,” he said. “We think we should be growing, and we’re still figuring out where our space should be in terms of an office and a co-working space that’s open to the teams. We know there’s a need for more educational programs, either offered by us or by others, that are targeted at this group of entrepreneurs.”

Funding will obviously be needed for all of this, he went on, adding that VVM is currently finalizing two grant applications that spell out the organization’s plans for growth and the many reasons why such development is important for the region. One is a response to a request for information from the Mass. Technology Collaborative, which has a mandate from the state to encourage mentorship programs across the Commonwealth, said Foster, adding that VVM was asked by that organization to submit information about its mission, programs, and successes to date.

“We’re making sure we have the right plan, and we’re looking at fund-raising,” he said, adding that the latter is going on mostly behind the scenes, but soon, the process of ramping up VVM will become much more public.

 

In Good Company

Looking at the present and possible future for VVM, Willis drew more analogies between the organization and the ventures seeking mentorship.

“We are, in a way, growing this the way we think startups should grow,” he explained, “and we have very similar issues to what small businesses are seeing.”

Coping with those issues is now a big part of that process of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem, an ongoing endeavor that is capturing the attention and imagination of economic-development leaders and business owners alike.

VVM has come a long way in two short years, and the future looks exceedingly bright for an organization that is getting down to business — in every way that  phrase can be used.

 

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

Entrepreneurship Sections
Stinky Cakes Founder Mychal Connolly Has a Passion for Entrepreneurship

Mychal Connolly

Mychal Connolly has turned his entrepreneurial success with Stinky Cakes into a vibrant speaking and writing career.

Several years ago, with his second son on the way, Mychal Connolly and his wife already had many of the items normally given at showers.

“We just wanted diapers — my son already had a crib and a playpen,” he recalled. “I said, ‘could we please have diapers?’”

As it turns out, no. Not as a gift, anyway. “Even though diapers were a practical gift, people want to give a fun gift; it’s not a one-sided experience.”

He found the solution to that dilemma in Stinky Cakes, the product he launched in 2009 with the express purpose of making diaper giving fun.

“My wife and I both love marketing, and we thought about how we could get baby-shower folks buying diapers,” he told BusinessWest. “We started thinking about what we could do to make diapers match the baby-shower theme, and one common item all baby showers have is a cake. So we thought, ‘OK if we made diapers look like a cake, it could be part of the theme.’”

The couple spent a few months trying to make the idea — essentially a bunch of diapers arranged in the shape of a cake and wrapped with decorative ribbon — work. When they had produced a prototype, they showed it to Connolly’s mother-in-law, who promptly bought one as a gift. When she returned from the party with several more orders in hand, Connolly knew he was onto something.

When they officially launched a business under the striking name Stinky Cakes — “people either love the name or hate the name,” he said, but they certainly remember it — the couple had two young boys and no reserve funds to tap, so they moved forward by making hard budget choices. “Instead of buying fancy clothes, we bought a website. Instead of going out to movies and restaurants, we bought business cards that sent people to the website. Eventually we saw revenue coming in from the website.”

Not knowing anything about media buying — and, again, with little initial money to work with — Connolly went to WMAS and worked out a deal for radio spots, and that helped, too. “We just worked our butts off. Most people who start business ventures quit after they don’t see any results, but the problem is not the product. It’s not the area. It’s not the consumers. It’s the entrepreneur.”

Launch&StandOutCoverTo say Connolly is passionate about entrepreneurship is an understatement. Beyond his business selling Stinky Cakes, he has written two books on entrepreneurship and regularly speaks to audiences on the topic — both in person and through a pervasive social-media presence, including a blog centered on starting and running a business.

He’s not convinced anyone can be an entrepreneur, but “if it’s in you, it can be nurtured. Entrepreneurs see the world differently. They don’t see a problem, just something that hasn’t been solved yet. They solve the problem, and then plug people in to keep that system going.

“Entrepreneurship is a mindset that creates systems to solve problems,” he reiterated. “That’s what entrepreneurship is. If you don’t create systems, don’t call yourself an entrepreneur.”

 

Candy Crush

Growing up in the Bahamas, Connolly probably didn’t call himself an entrepreneur, but he certainly had the mindset.

“My stepfather had a little pest-control business,” he explained, and as a child, he’d tag along on jobs. “I’m very analytical, and I paid attention, and I saw that, in wealthy people’s homes, their coffee tables always had business publications.”

He started watching finance shows on television even though the concepts weren’t exactly pitched to kids. “I’d watch the shows with the ticker, and I didn’t understand what people were saying, but I knew I wanted to. That’s how I started falling in love with entrepreneurship.”

Then, at age 9, he started a candy company “by mistake.”

He recalled that his grandmother would go to Florida and return with “loads and loads” of candy that was unavailable on his island, and he shared it with his friends. But he eventually grew tired of people hounding him for treats, so he started saying they were for sale, not free, just to get them off his back. “Instead of leaving me alone, they said, ‘how much?’”

He knew about concepts like price markup from those business magazines, so he started earning money selling the candy and chilly treats he’d make by freezing Kool-Aid. “My grandmother had no idea this stuff was going on,” Connolly recalled — but soon after she found out, the two teamed up in the business, and she eventually left her own job to sell candy — and did so until her death in 2005.

He had caught the sales bug, and already recognized that his mind was suited to identifying needs and meeting them. “If you told me 25 years ago when all this was happening that I’d be in Western Mass. doing this, I’d say you’re crazy,” he said. “But I always knew I would be an entrepreneur; I just didn’t know what the product would be.”

Fast-forward to 2009, the first full year in the diaper business, and early sales were strong. But the following year raised some serious issues that had nothing to do with baby gifts.

“I ended up working so hard on the company that I wasn’t sleeping, and I was eating really badly,” Connolly said, noting that his weight, which had been around 220, shot up 70 pounds, and he ended up becoming diabetic, with high blood pressure and high cholesterol to boot.

He sought help — and it’s a good thing he did. “The ICU doctor said that, if I hadn’t come in, I would have ended up in a diabetic coma. I could have died. Fortunately, I survived, and that made me grow up mentally as an entrepreneur. I always had this goal that, when I was done [building a company], I would start a foundation to help kids become entrepreneurs. But when I was staying in the ICU, I realized time is really precious, and tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.”

So for the next year and a half, he took his foot off the gas and “let Stinky Cakes run on autopilot” while he instead focused his energies on working with young people through Westover Job Corps, teaching them entrepreneurship, marketing, and leadership skills, among other things.

Many of the questions they asked him became part of his book Launch + Stand Out, in which he breaks down 23 different business ideas and discusses how he would apply the Stinky Cakes model to each of them. Throughout, he never loses focus on the importance of marketing.

“It’s not about the diapers; it’s about marketing and branding; that’s where it all happens,” he said. “Companies don’t go out of business because of lack of capital; they go out of business because of lack of sales.”

 

Changing Times

But Connelly is a natural marketer, expressing his passion for entrepreneurship through various forms of media, old and new, and, by extension, keeping his identity as Mr. Stinky Cakes at the forefront.

His blog — mrstinkycakes.com, of course — is one mode of communication. Others include an active social-media presence (and a book, Going Viral Unlocked, about using social media to grow a business), his public speaking through the Empact Connect network, and his role as entrepreneurial correspondent for The Engine, a radio show on WHYN 560-AM launched by Junior Achievement.

Connolly emphasizes financial literacy on the show, noting that people often don’t realize its importance. “If you give an entrepreneur $1 billion to start a company but he’s not financially literate, be prepared to give him another billion in a year.”

And it’s still not something adequately addressed in schools, he added. “We go to school to learn to read and learn to write, but where do you go to learn how to make money? Nowhere.”

He said guiding young people toward their own self-created success stories is especially gratifying.

“That’s the reason I’m a spokesperson for Junior Achievement, being able to help a kid who wants to be an entrepreneur, when no one is able to answer his questions for him. He’s got a mindset that most people are never going to understand, and when I see the lightbulb go on — when he thinks, ‘I can do this’ — that’s the best feeling.”

He recalled another satisfying moment, this one before an adult audience at Holyoke Community College. “When I was done talking, this lady comes up to me, crying. I said, ‘why are you crying?’ She said, ‘because what you said about overcoming fear — that’s the same thing my grandfather used to tell me.’ I said, ‘that’s not me talking, and it’s not your grandfather talking. That’s the successful version of you telling you where you need to go.’

That said, “not everyone is built for the fast track. I think the best entrepreneurs see the path from point A to point B and follow it; they don’t allow any noise or distractions to deter them.”

Again, whether it’s an e-commerce venture or any other type of business, “honestly, the key to it is marketing, marketing, marketing,” Connolly told BusinessWest. “There’s a market for everything. There are grandmothers blogging and writing books on knitting and making $1 million, because they have 50,000 people buying their $20 book.”

It makes sense that he’d come back to grandmothers, since his own played such a key role in his development as an entrepreneur.

“I don’t have an MBA, none of that stuff,” he said. “But I had that 9-year-old entrepreneurship moment with my grandmother, so I knew it worked. If I didn’t have that moment, I don’t think I would have started Stinky Cakes.”

 

Living the Dream

Connolly was quick to add, however, that entrepreneurship isn’t easy, even for those who grow up with that passion.

“Entrepreneurship is a lonely, dark place at times,” he said. “You speak a different language, and if you’re not around people who speak the same language, you have to have a mindset where you know where you’re going, and just keep moving forward.”

Even as his writing and speaking roles continue to grow, Stinky Cakes will continue to be a big part of Connolly’s life, although he has shifted the business model to emphasize the residual income streams developed by forging partnerships with other companies.

“That’s my baby; that’s why I call myself Mr. Stinky Cakes,” he said. “But I’m a serial entrepreneur; I love being involved with fun startups and companies that are growing. To me, that’s like breathing.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections
Former Ballplayer Shifts to Another Field — Entrepreneurship

Peter Fatse says his entrepreneurial venture is focused on all aspects of the development of student athletes.

Peter Fatse says his entrepreneurial venture is focused on all aspects of the development of student athletes.

Peter Fatse remembers having an interesting mix of emotions as he officially ended his professional baseball career several months ago.
An undersized utility player who could handle several positions on the diamond, Fatse, who starred at Minnechaug High School and later the University of Connecticut before being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009, spent a few seasons shifting between the lower minor leagues and Independent League rosters. He did, however, get one at-bat in the majors.
That was during spring training in 2010, against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He has the baseball commemorating that event, and the ability, as most athletes do, to recall all the details. “I was the last out of spring training, I went up in the ninth inning and struck out,” he told BusinessWest. “It was against Chad Qualls; I started fouling pitches off, and then he threw me a breaking ball and it was over.”
Fatse would later be signed by the Baltimore Orioles, and continued to work out last fall and early this year in anticipation of maybe getting another phone call from a team looking to see what he could do. Such a call never came, however, and Fatse decided to call an end to his baseball career and launch another one in business.
“You sign these retirement papers to make it official, and it’s kind of depressing” he recalled. “You sit back and think of all the times when all you ever wanted to do was play, and it’s like, ‘wow, you’re not playing anymore.’ But I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t comfortable with the decision.”
And that comfort level was created, in large part, by the realization that he could now devote all or most of his energy (he’s also a hitting coach for the Holyoke Blue Sox) to a potential-laden entrepreneurial venture he’s been developing over the past few years.
It’s called Advanced Performance Player Development, and while those first two words are in all caps and a larger type size on Fatse’s business card and signage, and form the company’s acronym (AP), emphasis is on the terms ‘performance’ and ‘development.’ The former speaks for itself, mostly, but the later needs some clarification.
Indeed, with this venture it refers to everything from help with hitting a curveball off a lefthander, as dialed up by the operator of the company’s new, state-of-the-art pitching machine, to making the transition from little leagues to high school ball; from help with deciding which college might make the best fit for a player weighing several scholarship offers, to advice on dealing with prospective agents.
“I offer individualized instruction, including a lot of video analysis, and we offer a high-level baseball instruction,” Fatse said of the venture operating in a large space, complete with artificial turf and batting cages, in the former home of Maybury Material Handling in East Longmeadow. “But what we’re moving toward is more player-development based.”
Elaborating, he displayed a poster for one of AP’s upcoming initiatives, called the Rising Freshman program, in which he and others will help 13- and 14-year-olds make the transition — athletically and academically — to high school.
“The focus will be on baseball instruction, but we’ll also bring in an academic advisor and speakers to talk to the kids about the many responsibilities of being a student athlete — focusing on such things as how to handle yourself, coach/teacher communications, managing study skills, and more.”
Meanwhile, for older youths, the company is finalizing a college-development program, during which high school underclassmen will receive similar assistance with the transition to their next level.
Overall, this range of services, the potential to work with clients over several years of development, and the prospects for eventually adding more sports to the mix, gives AP strong growth potential, said Fatse, adding that it is currently working with roughly 125 athletes from a wide geographic area and looks to greatly increase that number in the years to come.
An early measure of AP’s success is the number of caps mounted on one wall in Fatse’s office and the collection of baseballs on a nearby bookcase. These items were sent along by players who have trained at the facility or taken part in some of its programs. And the collection will certainly grow this summer and fall as ‘clients’ (that’s one of many terms Fatse uses to describe those he serves) move onto college or pro ball, as in the case of Mike Ahmed, the East Longmeadow and Holy Cross product who was selected in the 20th round of the recent draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at an intriguing new venture, and how its founder is swinging for the fences — from a business perspective.

Working the Count
On a wall near a few of AP’s batting cages are two boards featuring a number of playing cards. Before taking their swings, hitters try to quickly find the cards as they are called out by one of the instructors.
“It’s an exercise designed to build eye-hand coordination,” said Fatse. “It helps gets your eyes loose, and for the younger players, it helps show that there’s things you can do without a bat in your hand.”
The playing-card exercise is one of many instructional tools used at AP, said Fatse, adding quickly that his business is not a baseball camp like many others conducted by current and past players. Nor is it a purely instructional facility, along the lines of the famous (or infamous) Tom Emanski videos hyped in those commercials on ESPN showing players trying to throw balls into barrels from the outfield to improve accuracy.
Instead, it is a business focused on the myriad aspects of developing scholar athletes, said Fatse, adding that this entrepreneurial venture was driven by a need he recognized — from both personal experience and watching dozens of young people, and their parents, struggle with the complicated process of entering, and then thriving in, professional baseball.
Fatse said his own career was typical of many players from the Northeast. He was a 24th round draft pick, which meant he was in many ways a long shot to make it to the major leagues, and he thrived in that underdog role.
“Getting into pro ball was something I always wanted to do,” he explained, “and I guess I had a knack for proving people wrong my whole life because I was undersized.”
He was drafted as a second baseman, but played mostly outfield in the minors, rising to what’s known as ‘high A ball’ with the Brewers and Double A with the Orioles.
He remembers all through his career that his family and coaches encouraged him to pursue a baseball career, but also be prepared for life after the game — whenever that transition was destined to occur. And he told BusinessWest that he always had some entrepreneurial tendencies and was in many respects ready for the day when he hung up his spikes.
“I had always done some lessons, some modest work with some of the local guys,” he explained. “But this past off season, I got an office and started putting together a business plan for something that would be different. I started to see how much I enjoyed doing this kind of thing, and I’m enjoying the transition into business.”
And when asked to describe that business, he said it’s a combination of a number of things, including technical instruction and, perhaps more importantly, mentorship.
“I always talked to my coach at UConn Jim Penders, who was an unbelievable coach,” he recalled. “I always liked his approach to how he did things, and it wasn’t until perhaps my fourth professional season that I realized the value of what he brought to the table. And I started thinking to myself that if I could bring some of that to the guys around here, at a younger age, I think it will help them out tremendously, especially those who want to pursue playing at the next level.”
As he mentioned earlier, AP is developing into a company focused on much more than technical instruction, although that’s a big part of the operation.
Fatse has plans to create programs designed for both athletes and their families, and on subjects ranging from how to handle the college-recruiting process to deciding if and when to turn pro.

Covering All the Bases
As he talked about the science of hitting a baseball, Fatse provided some insight into both the complexity of that task and the art of teaching people how to do it better.
“I try to work on their mental approach to hitting and utilize as much of their athleticism as possible,” he explained. “We want them to use their athleticism in a controlled swing pattern. How they do it — the rhythm techniques they use — vary, and that’s why we use video analysis so much. We like to look at what some of the best in the game are doing, and there are checkpoints in every swing that I try to replicate, such as with the hips and how the hands work.
“I didn’t have a fantastic approach until I really started learning how to hit in my third year in pro ball,” he went on, using his own experiences to get some of his points home. “I use the phrase ‘give a little to get a little’ — seeing pitches, seeing arm action, studying pitchers, and writing charts. The more I became aware of the mental part and how much being a student of the game mattered, the better I became.”
Overall, he said, there is a process to becoming a better player, one that focuses on both the mental and physical aspects of the game. And it is this process that is at the heart of AP’s business plan, which is still very much a work in progress.
But the building blocks are coming together, he told BusinessWest, adding that they are centered around helping those who come to AP’s facilities focus on what he called “complete player development.”
And by this he meant everything from what happens on the athletic field and in the classroom, to properly representing one’s community.
“Probably the most important thing I tell guys is that they’re representing a lot when they put that uniform on — themselves, their families, their school, their community — and it’s a privilege.”
Complete player development is what amounts to a business model for AP, one that Fatse believes is quite unique — in this region and nationally — and that’s why he’s confident that this venture will be a major league success.
Already, he’s drawing athletes from communities across this region, but also well outside it, with clients from Vermont, New Hampshire, and other regions of Massachusetts. The portfolio has grown mostly through word-of-mouth referrals, and he expects that process to continue and accelerate, especially as the company expands into other programs, such as the Rising Freshman initiative.
Meanwhile, there are growth opportunities from expanding into other sports, he said, listing lacrosse and hockey as possible additions to the roster.
“My vision is for a place where kids can come and get their work in, but also watch video, do their homework, and maybe meet with an academic advisor,” he said. “They could get their athletic training and academic work done in the same place, be around good, positive role models, and be the best they can be.”

Expert in His Field
In addition to the caps and baseballs in his office, Fatse is also working on a uniform collection for his conference room.
There are now three framed and on the walls — one of his from his UConn days, and one each from the Ahmed brothers, Mike and his older brother, Nick, currently in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system.
They serve as reminders of what can happen when one can effectively blend hard work with determination, patience, the proper attitude, and sound decision-making.
These are things that Fatse will try to teach his clients — along with how to hit that curveball from a left-hander. It’s a business model he believes is loaded with potential, and one that will give him an opportunity to strike out on his own — this time in a very positive way.

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

Entrepreneurship Sections
Clark Paint & Varnish Endures In the Shadow of the Big Boxes

Andy Raker

Andy Raker attributes his family business’s success to a focus on the basics and doing what the big-box stores can’t.

In the 1960s, Andy Raker’s mother took a request to have a specific color of paint mixed for the set of the former StageWest theater (the predecessor to CityStage) to match the famous violet eyes of the star of the next show — actor Robert Goulet.
Raker, now the president of the Clark Paint & Varnish Company — the West Springfield-based family business that his grandmother and mother were running at the time — told BusinessWest that while it was one of the more unique requests over the past 67 years, on any given day it’s not unusual to see customers hauling doors or pieces of dining room furniture into the Union Street store to find a matching stain or paint color.
And while matching paints seems to be all the rage in many home décor outlets, Raker calls color matching an art; a combination of computer-assisted color analysis and ‘eyeballing,” the term he uses to describe use of the naked eye to compare colors in different light settings.
How Raker came to be a practitioner of this art is an intriguing story of entrepreneurship, creativity, and, most importantly, survival of this rather small-box enterprise in a retail world increasingly dominated by big boxes.
Indeed, having just finished high school and starting his first semester at American International College in 1978, Raker found himself, and his family business, in a serious situation.
Backing up a bit, he said that after his grandfather, Milford Raker, who had purchased the business from original owner Fred Clark, passed away unexpectedly in 1963, his grandmother, Ruth, and mother, Marcia, were thrust into the roles of owner and operator, and with no real experience to handle them.
For 15 years, they and the existing staff managed the operation, but when the slow, steady exodus of that staff left the two women alone to run the store, Andy was forced to put school aside and take a leadership position in the family business.
“I had worked at the store in the summers but I never learned how to make paint, and I remember when the last guy (employee) to leave handed me the keys,” recalled Raker.
Once management was thrust upon him, he said it was refreshing on one hand, realizing that he was going to be able take the company in a direction that he thought was going to be positive. “But it was scary; it definitely was with mixed emotions,” he recalled. “It was either sink or swim.”
A loyal customer base of mostly retail and apartment-building owners kept the company alive as the young Raker spent the next two years learning the paint and stain trade and took advantage of new technology as it came, asking for help from paint chemists, and especially raw chemical salesmen.
“All these raw material people will supply you with information to help sell their materials,” explained Raker. “And back then it was pretty competitive and everybody had chemists on staff so when they wanted to sell me their titanium dioxide (white pigment), I’d say, ‘well, I need some help formulating it.’”
And as he continued to learn on the job, the formulas for Clark paint brand continued to improve. Experimenting with different recipes in batches with a blender, he produced small samples, took some chemistry classes, and, through trial and error, learned how to make quality paint, just like his grandfather, who’d never had the chance to teach him.
Raker would create starting formulations with various colors that had better flow and level, would cover better, save money, and have lower VOCs (volatile organic compounds). And as everything in the paint industry went ‘greener,’ so did Clark Paint.
For this and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked at length with a business owner who likes to mix things up — in more ways than one — and has the bases covered in an extremely competitive sector.

Brush Strokes
Clark Paint & Varnish’s success over the past two decades stems from a mixture of Raker’s late-teen ‘take charge’ attitude in the face of multiple adversities and his ability to learn on the job. While friends were experiencing the independence and adventure of college, Raker was experiencing a different type of independence, one that was more survival at first, than anything else.
And when asked how he’s scripted this survival story, he said it’s been through a focus on the basics, and doing things some of the discount giants can’t.
With the arrival of those big boxes, and especially the Home Depot in the nearby Riverdale Shops in the early 1990s, most would have thought that a small, family owned paint business like Clark would have taken a good shellacking, and a few stores in the area did — including West Springfield Hardware — which eventually ceased operations.
Clark’s retail paint business took a sizeable hit — roughly 30% by Raker’s estimate. While this was a large setback, a solid industrial customer base carried the company through the next couple of years as Raker made the decision to adjust his sales focus and target more commercial business, a move that helped redefine the company for good.
Attrition of some of Clark’s competition due to Home Depot’s opening presented the opportunity for Raker to add national brands such as Pratt and Lambert and Benjamin Moore to his own, well-respected Clark label, and with the addition of an outside sales person to help secure new commercial business, Clark Paint now had more clout to compete for all markets, he said.
“That move broadened our line even more,” he said, “and brought more people into the store because those brands have a lot of dedicated customers in this area.”
And new retail customers in turn created more need for that aforementioned expertise in  color matching.
“Everybody has computers to match, but it’s only a starting point; it never matches perfectly,” Raker said, adding that a trained eye is still key. “And we’ll dry the paint, because wet paint is different than dry, and actually take the samples out in the daylight as opposed to just florescent lights because it’s not a true rendering of the color.”
But with stain and varnish matching, there is no computer to do that analysis. “It’s also part of our reputation and it’s all experience and by eye,” added Raker.  “A lot of other stores don’t have the capability, the expertise, or even the pigments to make certain stains.”
Clark has a whole line of dye stains and a line of lacquer, called M. L. Campbell for cabinetmakers, furniture, and display manufacturers. The line, Raker explained, is more for industrial use on harder woods and offers far more depth of color, than the popular Minwax brand found in many stores.
Another key to the company’s success has been its ability to adjust to changes within the industry, and especially a strong focus on ‘green’ — not the color, but the movement toward more environmentally friendly products and processes.
Before the younger Raker took over, the advent of polyurethane, a plastic-based compound in the late 60s and 70s changed the landscape of varnish. Now mildew resistance is a controversial buzzword in the paint industry, and the cheap, readily available, but harmful lead — used as a white pigment and to prevent mildew — has been replaced by titanium dioxide and other environmentally safe additives, a result of federal VOC laws that also eliminated solvents in paint. As Raker has ridden the evolving technology wave, he has seen more genuine customer concern for health and environment.
“Everybody is looking for a more sterile, cleaner environment, and technology is catching up fast, but it wasn’t like that at first,” Raker explained to BusinessWest.  “Originally when the first paints came out that had to be ‘green,’ they weren’t quite as good, but now the technology is there.”
While those same raw chemical vendors were selling the same formulas to his competitors, Raker told BusinessWest that because Clark is a small manufacturer of paint, he could learn to make the greener formulas quickly, and keep his cost per can or container down due to a lack of shipping and distribution costs and third party middle men. “From the raw materials to out the door, we’re able to offer a better product at less money.”

Satin Finish
Raker hasn’t been called upon to create a paint to match a Hollywood star’s eyes in recent decades, but he admits that there have been intriguing challenges with that aspect of his work.
The biggest challenges, though, have been stepping in and then stepping up to take this family business to places that might not have been envisioned in 1978, or later, when the competitive playing field changed dramatically.
This is an inspiring story of entrepreneurship and perseverance. What will happen in the coming chapters isn’t known yet, but one thing is certain — they will be colorful, and in every way imaginable.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Sections
‘First-to-file System’ Represents a Significant Change in the Rules

RacePatentOfficeOn March 16, the U.S. patent system changed from what’s known as a ‘first-to-invent’ system to a ‘first-to-file’ system. This significant change means that only the first person to file a patent application on an invention can receive a patent, with few exceptions.
In other words, an inventor can race to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (the Patent Office) and attempt to beat out a prior inventor who waits to file.
There is however a one-year grace period for an inventor, or company, to file a patent application after initially disclosing an invention or offering it for sale. If the inventor decides to file, he can prevail over someone else who filed a patent application earlier that year.
In addition, someone who derived the invention from you, whether directly or indirectly cannot beat you in a race to the Patent Office. That’s because the Patent Office has a procedure (called “derivation proceedings”) to try to sort out the facts.
There are expenses and uncertainties, though, in trying to prove that you are the first inventor.
To avoid these scenarios, most companies should file provisional patent applications rather than non-provisional patent applications (a.k.a. ‘regular’ or ‘utility’ applications) before initially disclosing their inventions or offering them for sale (at trade shows, for example).
A provisional application is an informal, yet complete, disclosure of an invention filed at the Patent Office.  The provisional application is not prosecuted by the Patent Office and does not, by itself, result in a patent. It buys the inventor (or his assignee) one year to decide whether or not to file a regular patent application. If the regular application is filed within that year, the regular application can claim the benefit of the provisional application’s earlier filing date.
Provisional patent applications are relatively inexpensive. Therefore, most companies should file their provisional applications as soon as possible after creating inventions. Update your provisional applications upon creating major changes (for a production model, for example).
Before you file, conduct a preliminary patent search using Google® Patent. Also search the Internet for your product.
If you do not find it, contact a patent attorney to conduct a more detailed search or to file a provisional patent application.  Your company’s initial marketing efforts or public disclosure may dictate if you file before or after conducting a detailed search.
This change from a ‘first-to-invent’ system to a ‘first-to-file’ system is a significant development when it comes to patents, and inventors and entrepreneurs should fully understand what it means to their efforts to bring new products to the marketplace.

Donald Holland is a principal with the Longmeadow-based law firm Holland & Bonzagni, which specializes in intellectual property, patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, computer law, cyber law, joint ventures, technology transfers, licensing, and related litigation; (413) 567-2076.

Entrepreneurship Sections
Entrepreneurs Gain Insight at Valley Venture Mentors Program

EntreneurshipDPartThe idea for Marcie Muehlke’s business was born when she went shopping for her wedding gown. “I wanted something that was beautiful, but also had a beautiful story behind it; I didn’t want a dress made in China in a sweatshop or by children,” said the Amherst resident.
Her search proved futile, but after talking with friends, the 29-year-old realized they shared her values — and so did many others.
“So I founded Joya Bride with the idea of having women’s cooperatives in Southeast Asia produce wedding dresses that would make women look beautiful and feel joyful on their wedding day,” Muehlke said, noting that her goal since she was a college undergraduate has been to figure out a sustainable way to help women in the developing world.
Muehlke recently returned from three weeks in Southeast Asia, where she met with silk makers and independent craftswomen. “It was an amazing trip,” she said.
It was also a journey she might never have undertaken without the help, support, and guidance she has received from Valley Venture Mentors, or VVM. The Springfield-based group provides critical support to entrepreneurs by linking them to business professionals who act as mentors during structured monthly pitch-and-planning sessions as well as in private meetings between sessions.
Although Muehlke had conducted academic research before making the decision to launch her company, the guidance she’s received from the group has been invaluable.
“Each month they posed questions about things like price points, sourcing, and supply-chain marketing, and through long conversations with my mentors, I was able to nail down answers and move forward,” she said. “They provided me with lots of valuable advice as well as help in making overseas contacts.
“I haven’t signed any contracts yet, but I have sample dresses and a few orders, and when I graduate next month from the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, I’ll devote myself to this full-time,” Muehlke continued. “It’s a decision the group really helped me with. We talked through the pros and cons, and they gave me the moral support to take the risk. They’ve helped me make critical decisions and move forward to make this business become a reality. It would have been a lot more difficult and slower without them.”
Muehlke’s comments are typical of those who have received — and continue to receive — support from the program. And for this issue, BusinessWest talked with several individuals on both sides of the mentoring spectrum about the VVM and its potential to spur business growth, and thus employment, in this region.

Valuable Exchange
Muehlke was one of more than 60 people who met in the Springfield law offices of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas during the VVM’s monthly meeting in April, where the degree of energy, enthusiasm, and intense interest in new business concepts was certainly palpable.
Four groups who hope to be accepted into the program delivered timed presentations. Their auditions had to include an executive summary, a video, and a pitch focused on how and why their company could work. When they finished, three teams already accepted into the VVM program reported back to the group on progress they have made since the last meeting.
Scott Foster, a partner and business law attorney with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas who started VVM with Paul Silva, managing partner of Angel Catalyst, said two main premises must be incorporated into each presentation. The first is called the ‘pain,’ which translates into the need or problem the entrepreneurs will fill or solve, as well as “why the world needs it.”
For example, a company dubbed Mission Control presented an idea for a software product that would be affordable and easy for nonprofits to use and noted that the market lacks software that meets the needs of such organizations.
After explaining why their product or service is valuable and viable, the entrepreneurs finish their presentations with the second critical component of the program, termed the ‘ask,’ which is a problem they must solve to move their venture forward — and a matter they want and need help solving.
Foster said entrance into the program is determined by the degree of maturity of an idea, and what the presenter has already accomplished. “We’ve had people present ideas that were not developed enough for us to be helpful,” he said.
Those who are accepted must be willing to accept what Foster refers to as “lovingly critical advice.”
“But this is not a shark tank — even if a mentor thinks an idea is the worst thing he or she has ever heard of, their job is to think about the challenges the business will face,” he explained, adding that groups who are not accepted can return and present their ideas again after they have done more work on them.
After the presentations, mentors meet with the presenters in two short break-out sessions where they pose questions aimed at helping the fledging entrepreneurs hone their ideas, identify exactly who their product or service will appeal to, where they might get financial backing, and the best way to market their idea. After those sessions, the mentors meet with teams already accepted into the program.
Foster said mentors refrain from giving advice, but may introduce solutions they have found helpful in solving similar problems. And between meetings, mentors, as well as the facilitator assigned to each group, often reach out to teams with help that can include introductions to people outside of VVM.
“We had one team that was creating a commercial coating to reduce the drag on ships,” said Foster. “One of our mentors knew someone at the Navy laboratories and was able to help the group get their product tested by the Navy. It’s a lot of work because the mentors and board members are all volunteers, but although it takes an enormous effort, it is very rewarding.”
Gourmet food and beverages are served to create a convivial atmosphere, and when the meetings finish, people often go to the sports bar in Tower Square to continue talking. “We’re hearing about innovative concepts and ideas that can change the world,” Foster said.
As word about VVM spreads, the number of people wanting to present ideas has mushroomed. “The majority of people we accept are still in early stages of establishing their company, and many are operating out of their homes, which is the stage where the least amount of assistance is available,” Foster told Business West.
The original concept called for a six-month membership for entrepreneurs accepted into the program. But that model has changed. “Some only need four months, while others come to a few meetings, then take time off to apply the advice they received before they return,” said Foster, offering the example of a person who came to the group with a viable concept, but needed time to bring it to fruition and figure out what the appropriate market for the product was before he was prepared to return. “But this is a lifeline for people. It’s the difference between sitting at home and thinking about a good idea and getting out there and getting it done.”
Nathaniel Davis was accepted into VVM last June. His company, Play/Give/Win, offers nonprofits and other people who want to raise money an innovative way to do so. Instead of asking for donations, charities can invite people to pay to play online games with prizes, or go on ‘missions’ that range from ‘liking’ a Facebook page or Twitter account, which translates into a cash value due to business sponsors, to checking in at a location where they can redeem a coupon.
“VVM has been absolutely pivotal in helping us create a working product, get customers, and generate our first revenue,” said Davis.
Before he found out about VVM last spring, Davis said he spent a large amount of money trying to make connections in Boston, and believed he would eventually have to relocate to a major hub such as New York or Silicon Valley, where there is strong support for technology entrepreneurs, in order to be successful.
But all that has changed as a result of his involvement with VVM. Davis had outsourced his Web development to India, but the relationships he made through his mentors allowed him to bring it back to Massachusetts at a lower cost, convey the concept in simpler terms, and define his product so the average person can understand it.
“They also helped me discover whether I was actually onto something,” he said. “I believed I had a viable idea, but they helped confirm it and provided valuable feedback that helped me redefine my business model. It’s a good place to come and pitch an idea; you will be among professionals in the area who have already succeeded and can help you avoid pitfalls and mistakes they made along the way.”

Changing Direction
“Entrepreneurship, whether for profit or nonprofit, is what changes an economy to make it more responsive to the region,” said mentor Rick Feldman, who has been involved with fledging firms for 30 years. “My world is the world of enterprise development; I’ve started and sold two companies and, years ago, started the Western Mass. Software Assoc. to do this type of work.”
Feldman enjoys his involvement with VVM, and says part of the group’s goal is to help people figure out the right path to take and think seriously about whether they are prepared to own their own business.
“In some cases, that means rethinking their plans; they may actually want a job or career, and you find that out through lovingly critical conversation,” he said, using a phrase other mentors employed on a frequent basis.
He’s worked with two people in VVM who decided that going into business was something they were not prepared to do. “They found their niche in another way, through a job,” Feldman explained.
Mentor Mike Ippolito had the same experience. He was mentor to a group he met with four or five times. “They couldn’t seem to get their business model down, and eventually they all found good jobs,” he explained. “When you are in a startup, you have to look around and ask if the path you are on is the right one. We encourage people to look at all of their options and hopefully come up with a decision.”
However, those who decide to move forward get help from a variety of professionals, who essentially urge them to think globally. “We’re not looking for companies that want to stay small, but for those who want to swing for the fences, hit a home run, and become as big as Facebook,” Foster said. “It’s a little crazy, but we want them to think big, become very successful, and employ hundreds of people.”
Cloud2Market founder Robert La Ferla said VMM has been very helpful to him and his partner, Chitra Dwarka. “They showed us gaps we needed to address as well as areas in which we needed to communicate more effectively. And our mentor gave us ideas about different markets to target,” La Ferla said.
Their business is aimed at redefining the call experience for consumers and businesses via a visual, branded, interactive, and easy-to-use mobile app and cloud service designed as a single integrated solution for customers that will increase satisfaction and reduce costs.
Mentor Daniel Lieberman says VVM also benefits those who volunteer. “It gives the established business community an opportunity to meet people and get new ideas for growth,” he said, adding that he was a mentor to Davis’s company for three months and has been part of the program for nine months. “It is very fulfilling, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m in Internet marketing, so it is good for me to be aware of what the business trends are.”
Mentor Jim Mumm looks forward to the monthly meetings. “It’s exciting to be around people with great ideas who are working long hours to make them happen; the caliber of people who come here and help is incredible,” he said. “This keeps me in an entrepreneurial mindset as I am around other like-minded people, whether they are wildly successful or just getting started. I get more than I give, and it makes you rethink what you are doing in your company and why.”

Positive Gains
Muehlke said the monthly presentations at VVM helped her to polish her public-speaking skills. “You have to explain your concept, present any updates, and defend your decisions; public speaking and pitching a business is not easy, and this has been a great way to practice,” she said. “This is a community of support, and their energy and enthusiasm are as important as their actual advice. I’m so glad I have been able to be part of it so I can provide brides with dresses that make them look beautiful and feel more joyful, knowing they are helping women around the world.”
It’s a goal right in line with the purpose of VVM. “These people are building ventures and satisfying significant niches,” Silva said. “They may not all be high-tech, but they are all high-scale.”

Entrepreneurship Sections
, entity

Jeffrey Fialky

Jeffrey Fialky

Individuals forming new business enterprises, or perhaps those whose business enterprises have matured to the standpoint of pursuing the next level, often approach their accountants and attorneys when considering whether or not to incorporate.
Really, the term ‘incorporate’ is euphemistic for whether an individual, and in some cases multiple business partners, should proceed (or continue to proceed) on their own behalf or, alternatively, form a limited-liability entity pursuant to the laws of the respective jurisdiction. The question of whether to engage in business operations in an individual capacity or to form a limited-liability entity within which to conduct business operations is generally a question answered by a thorough analysis of the respective liabilities and tax implications.

Sole Proprietorship
The simplest manner of doing business is in the form of a sole proprietorship. That said, a sole proprietorship is a bit misleading by name, in that it is not a business entity, but rather the absence of a business entity.
There are no registration or filing requirements, and simply engaging in the business operation commences the sole proprietorship, in the individual’s own name, or on their own behalf. As a result, an individual who engages in a business practice as a sole proprietor personally exposes himself to any liabilities that could arise as a result of such business operations without any legal protection from same.
While an individual doing business as a sole proprietor may register a fictitious name in which to conduct his or her business by filing a DBA certificate in the community in which the business operates, from a legal standpoint, the fact that the business operates pursuant to a fictitious name has no bearing or legal effect relative to liability. By way of example, assume Joe Smith, d/b/a XYS Construction, is named in a lawsuit as a result of an injury occurring to a third party on a job site. A judgment against Joe, personally, could certainly result in a lien against Joe’s personal residence, subject to subsequent sale in order to satisfy such judgment.

General Partnership
Another form of business operation is a general partnership. This consists of essentially two or more individual sole proprietors engaging in business operations in a joint capacity. Often, a general partnership will be governed pursuant to the terms of a partnership agreement; however, such as with a sole proprietorship, there is no formal legal registration requirement.
Additionally, as with a sole proprietorship, the general partnership does not protect the individual partners from personal liability arising out of the business operations. Worse, partners pursuant to a general partnership are not only liable personally for their own acts or omissions relative to the ongoing business venture, but, additionally, each individual is personally liable for the acts of other partners in the partnership.

Corporation
For many reasons, including avoiding the personal liability attributed to sole proprietorships and general partnerships, parties are often counseled to consider forming limited-liability legal entities, which provide a barrier of protection for the business owners.
Among the host of legal entities available for formation, the most commonly used in contemporary business are the corporation and limited-liability company (LLC). That said, the term ‘corporation,’ as generally used, often includes two specific types of corporations ­— subchapter ‘C’ corporations (C corps) and subchapter ‘S’ corporations (S corps), the distinction between which arises pursuant to the respective subchapter of the IRS tax code.
Generally speaking, a corporation is a legal entity that is formed by the filing of articles of organization, is governed by its bylaws, and which is owned by its stockholders. Corporations are managed by their board of directors, with day-to-day operations overseen by their officers. Unlike a sole proprietorship or general partnership, a corporation is an independent legal identity, which is independent from that of its stockholders. Accordingly, a substantial degree of protection is afforded to owners of the corporation relative to liabilities arising as a result of the ongoing business operations of the corporation. The tax treatment of a corporation, including the potential tax effect on individual stockholders, varies in accordance with the nature of the corporation formed, specifically whether it is a C corp or an S corp.

C Corporations
Subchapter C corporations, or C corps, enjoy the benefits of limited liability for stockholders, and are operated pursuant to the traditional corporate formality of being governed by their directors and officers. One significant potential tax disadvantage to C corps, however, is the potential for double taxation of corporate earnings. C corps pay tax on income at the corporate level, and in the event that earnings are distributed to stockholders as dividends, the dividends are often subject to tax at the individual shareholder level upon distribution. This so-called potential for ‘double taxation’ can often be avoided by forward thinking and anticipatory tax planning.

S Corporations
Unlike C corps, subchapter S corporations, or S corps, while providing many of the advantages of the limited liability corporate structure as provided by a C corporation, have the added advantage of not being subject to the potential for double taxation. In fact, income and losses from the business flow through to the individual stockholders and are reported on their personal tax returns. That said, S corps are subject to their own specific limitations and potential disadvantages, most notably the fact that they are limited to a maximum number of stockholders, that stockholders generally must be individuals as opposed to other legal entities, that the S corporation may not have more than one class of stock (e.g. common vs. preferred), and that distributions must be in direct percentage to ownership interest.

LLC
Another commonly utilized business entity is the limited liability company (LLC), which is an entity that shares many characteristics of sole proprietorships and general partnerships, but with the limited liability protection afforded to corporations. The LLC, much like a corporation, is formed by the filing with the secretary of the respective state jurisdiction, with a simple certificate of organization filing, and payment of the respective registration fee. Unlike a corporation, which is owned by its stockholders, LLCs are owned by its member or members, as opposed to directors and officers, and managed by their manager or managers.
LLCs afford a great degree of flexibility in that most states have enacted a limited-liability company act permitting LLCs to be owned by a single member, to have multiple classes of membership (e.g. common vs. preferred), and to determine the capital structure, ownership, and management, all as determined by the business owners. Additionally, unlike S corps, profits and losses may be allocated in a manner that is disproportionate to direct percentages of ownership interests.
Unlike a corporation, which is operated pursuant to its articles and bylaws, LLCs are operated pursuant to a document called an operating agreement, which is a recitation of the respective rights and obligations of each member and manager of the LLC.
Members of an LLC have additional flexibility relative to taxation in that members can be taxed much like a sole proprietor or like a partnership, although distributions to members may be subject to self-employment taxes.
As a result of the flexibility of LLCs and the avoidance of the potential for double taxation, they provide ideal entities for the purposes of taking title to real-estate holdings and investments. For similar reasons, LLCs are additionally valuable tools for estate-planning purposes.

In Summation
As you can see, the determination of whether to form a limited liability entity and, if so, the choice of entity itself, is a fact-dependent analysis. Naturally, consultation with legal and tax professionals is recommended to ensure that you may enjoy the maximum level of liability protection and the most favorable tax consequences for your situation.

Jeffrey Fialky is an associate with the regional law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C, specializing in business, corporate, municipal, and real-estate law. A former assistant district attorney in Hampden County, Fialky joined the firm after a decade of holding senior attorney positions with some of the country’s most prominent telecommunications and cable television companies, where he negotiated large-scale licensing, acquisition, and distribution agreements; (413) 781-0560; baconwilson.com/attorneys/fialky

Entrepreneurship Sections
Amherst Engineer Creates Pressure Vest for Children with Autism

Tina Champagne

Tina Champagne says not every patient responds to deep pressure, but for those who do, the Vayu Vest is groundbreaking.

The power of a hug can work wonders in relieving anxiety and stress. But many children with autism spectrum disorder are overly sensitive to touch and cannot tolerate the comforting gesture.
However, they do need something to quell their anxiety, which can result from their heightened response to sounds and sights most people don’t even notice.
And thanks to a groundbreaking new medical device, children with sensory processing disorder are being soothed and comforted by a lightweight, therapeutic vest that can be inflated to produce the exact amount of pressure the child needs at a given moment.
It’s called the Vayu Vest, and it has taken mechanical engineer Brian Mullen years of collaboration, research, and trial and error to create. “About 87% of people with autism have sensory processing issues,” said Mullen. “They experience the world and respond to it differently than typical people.”
Tina Champagne agrees. “Children with autism are often oversensitive to touch, sounds, visual stimulation, and even temperature,” said the program director for the Center for Human Development’s Institute for Dynamic Living in Springfield.
The launch of the vest, which is named after a Hindu wind god, took place in May and was initially inspired by Champagne’s work as an occupational therapist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.
Champagne and Mullen have collaborated on the project for seven years, doing research and clinical trials to develop a product that not only helps children with autism, but may have other applications in mental health treatment.
Two years ago, Mullen and his business partner, Chris Leidel, started a business named Therapeutic Solutions to market the vest. The duo and their Amherst-based operation were recently named as finalists in the prestigious Mass Challenge competition in Boston that runs through the end of September. They are hoping to win a portion of the $1 million in cash awards, as well as generate interest in their product.
They have received help and won awards along the way for their work, which they are grateful for, and Mullen says their business is growing, thanks to support from the Western Mass. community. Their hope is to get the cost of the $2,000 device reimbursed by insurance companies. If they succeed, it will be the first medical device for autistic children paid for by insurance.
“This was and is all-consuming,” said Mullen. “It’s an incredibly important thing to do, and we are getting calls and e-mails from people thanking us.”

Research Project
The story of how the vest came to be begins when Mullen was a student at UMass Amherst. At the time, Champagne was working as group program director in Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s acute inpatient behavioral unit and was focused on collaboratively incorporating healing and nurturing interventions into clients’ treatment plans.
“I was working in conjunction with the state Department of Mental Health to find tools to help decrease the need for seclusion and restraints,” she said, explaining that people were sometimes put into mechanical restraints or injected with medication when their behavior spiraled out of control. “It was and continues to be an international initiative, and part of my job was to help staff learn new approaches and interventions that were safe and nurturing.”
One of the tools she incorporated was a weighted blanket, traditionally used to help calm people with autism when they became anxious. “The clients would wrap themselves in them,” she said. “The belief is that the pressure helps to decrease the autonomic nervous-system response of overarousal connected to anxiety.”
Research had been done in the field by Temple Grandin, an author, engineer, seven-time Emmy award winner, and well known woman with autism, who has spoken and written about autism for more than 20 years. Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State Unversity, created a so-called “squeeze machine” for herself as well as for livestock waiting to be slaughtered.
Mullen began his documented collaboration with Champagne when he was in graduate school at UMass Amherst, and was looking for a project for his thesis. They had been introduced by his professor, Sundar Krishnamurty.
Mullen was fascinated by the subject, and soon became immersed in research himself, learning how weighted blankets and vests were being used with people with autism to help them self-soothe and regulate anxiety. “I saw a real need for this,” he said.
Champagne said other students had tried developing inflatable sleeping bags and vests, but the sounds they made as they inflated, and the feel of the fabrics used, upset children with autism.
And although Mullen was completely committed to his research project, he said it was a risky and unconventional topic for someone in the mechanical engineering program.
“I was taking a non-traditional path, the path less traveled,” he explained. “This was something different and new, and it appealed to me. I knew that what I was doing could have a large impact on people’s lives and I figured, ‘why not help when I have the opportunity?’”
Mullen said great progress has been in the field of autism research over the past seven years, “but the population is still drastically underserved. And it became compelling for me to help reduce the use of restraints and seclusion and come up with better solutions for people. After I saw and heard about this and was exposed to it, I felt I had to take action.”

Trial and Error
After earning his graduate degree, Mullen decided to continue to work toward a doctorate. In 2006, a feature story was written in the Boston Globe about the research he and Champagne were conducting. “We received a lot of very positive feedback from people in this country as well as on the international level,” he said.
About that time, he met with a parent who asked him to make a vest for her daughter to help curb her anxiety. Although he had interacted with others via e-mail, “it was very different when I had to sit across from a parent. It was very moving, and I decided to make sure that our research got to the people who could benefit from it.”
At that point, Mullen decided to start his own company with the goal of creating an inflatable vest that was portable, comfortable, and would allow pressure to be adjusted to an individual’s needs. He entered a 2006-07 UMass business-plan competition and lost in the finals.
“But I learned a lot from mentors and the judges who gave me a crash course in how to develop a business,” he said. He re-entered the 2007-08 competition and won the grand prize.
At that time, Leidel and Mullen joined forces. They had been in the same class as undergraduate students, but after graduation, Leidel had worked in an industrial setting before deciding to return to get a master’s degree in business administration.
He helped Mullen write an essay for an entrepreneurial competition, which won them a monetary award. In addition, they also received a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance in Hadley. “It was a very important grant, as it helped us do some consulting work to further the idea and develop it to see if could actually become a business,” Mullen said.
The money also allowed them to work with Dielectrics in Chicopee, which specializes in medical devices. “They helped us to make a prototype and really took an interest in the product,” Mullen said.
After graduating in 2009, he and Leidel were able to raise seed funding for their business from local investors who were following their work.
Feedback has been integral to product development, and the duo continues to collaborate with local organizations. Champagne has found the vest works well for some children who have attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, children with autism, and those who have suffered trauma.
However, she and Mullen stress that it is not for everyone. “Studies show that 75% of individuals like deep pressure, but 25% don’t,” Champagne said, citing results obtained from the first study they conducted and published, using the modality with adults aged 19 to 64 who had no mental health issues.
But for those who respond to pressure, the vest is groundbreaking, Champagne said. “And Brian and his staff have taken it on themselves to meet the highest possible standards for medical equipment.”
Today, vests have been donated by sponsors for use at the OTA Watertown Clinic, which is one of the largest occupational therapy facilities in the country, and also at River Street School in Windsor, Conn. and at the Center for Human Development, where it is used under Champagne’s direction. Mullen and Leidel are also renting out the vests on a individual basis.
The Vayu Vest was registered as an FDA Class I exempt medical device with the U.S. Food and and Drug Administration last fall, and Mullen and Leidel hope to get it reimbursed by insurance.
“We think we have a significantly better solution than anything that has been tried in the past to apply pressure on a personal level whenever and wherever it is needed. It’s our passion to get it to children who can benefit from it,” Mullen said.
So that they can be held and comforted in a way that is personalized, safe, discreet, and makes a lasting difference in their reaction to the world. n