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Hampshire County

Getting Down to Business

Vince Jackson

Taking over leadership of a chamber of commerce is always fraught with challenges, especially in a community as rich in diverse businesses and nonprofits as Northampton, and also stepping into the large shoes of the previous executive director, who served for 27 years. But Vince Jackson, with his deep background in entrepreneurship, business development, and marketing, is proving to be an ideal fit, and has already begun to shift and deepen perceptions about what a chamber can be.

Vince Jackson has been preparing for his new role for more than 30 years.

“What attracted me to this job is, well, it’s a bit of a sweet spot,” said Jackson, who took the reins as executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce last June.

He was referring to an intriguing mix of careers leading up to that point, including a decade and a half in corporate America; he worked for 10 years as a senior product manager at PepsiCo, two years as an assistant product manager at Kraft Foods, and three years as a senior systems analyst at Procter & Gamble.

“When it comes to engaging and interacting with our corporate community here,” he told BusinessWest, “I understand large organizations like Cooley Dickinson Health Care, I understand Coca-Cola’s Northampton’s operation and the challenges they face, I understand L3Harris.”

Equally important — or perhaps moreso, considering the makeup of the region’s economy — was his two-decade experience with Marketing Moves, the company he founded in 2000, which provided client companies with strategic marketing support.

“For the last 19 years before I took this job, I was a marketing consultant,” he explained. “I targeted Fortune 50 corporations, but I also partnered and did subcontracting work with a lot of small businesses. And I was running a small business myself, so when it comes to understanding the joys and pain points and opportunities of the small-business owner, I can relate — regardless of the industry — and also bring some of my marketing experience that may benefit them in unique ways.”

In the meantime, he was also amassing a great deal of nonprofit board leadership experience, and Northampton and its environs have a rich base of such organizations, he added. In fact, among some 525 chamber members, close to 50 are nonprofits. “So understanding the nonprofit arena is important.”

“When it comes to engaging and interacting with our corporate community here. I understand large organizations like Cooley Dickinson Health Care, I understand Coca-Cola’s Northampton’s operation and the challenges they face, I understand L3Harris.”

In short, Jackson’s background made him an easy choice to replace Suzanne Beck, who had led the chamber for 27 years before her retirement last year.

He took the reins at an interesting time, as the chamber was beginning to activate a new strategic plan. Through that process, preparing a marketing plan of his own, and communicating with members, he quickly learned an important lesson: “The things that got us here won’t get us there. So we’ve got to do things differently.

“Our vision for this community is that we really want to make it a place for everybody,” he went on. “Northampton is a very welcoming community, and we want to make sure this is also a prosperous community and that all the things that make it special really cascade through Northampton and across the community.”

Part of that vision is recognizing and promoting the city’s calling cards, such as its array of eclectic, mostly locally owned businesses. “Most of the retail shops offer things you might not find at the mall, or on Amazon. That’s the kind of thing that makes this place special and unique.”

It’s also a welcoming and inclusive community, he added, and one with a heart for advocacy, as evidenced by the number of nonprofits in the area. “They provide a lot of services that are so needed in a community like this, and you see the impact of that kind of support when you are out in the neighborhoods.”

With those strengths in mind, the chamber’s new strategic vision emphasizes two key points: that the health of the economy and the health of the community are one, and the chamber must include and reflect that community.

“The mission of the chamber, in layman’s terms, is to be a matchmaker,” Jackson told BusinessWest. “We want to be that catalyst for bringing people together, bringing organizations together, doing innovations, collaborations, and anything that moves our economy and community forward. You’ll hear us say, over and over again, that when the economy thrives, our community thrives, and when our community thrives, the economy thrives. That’s our core belief, and that’s really what the mission of the chamber is all about — driving the economic impact and the community influence to make that happen.”

On Message

The plan seeks to boost Northampton’s economic profile — both internally, growing the business base, and externally, drawing more tourism — by targeting five specific audiences.

The first is arts and culture, an area Northampton and its surrounding towns has been long known for, with its raft of museums, music venues, historic-heritage sites, and host of resident writers, artists, and craftspeople. The second is outdoor recreation, which encompasses everything from bike paths, fishing, and boating during the warm seasons to skiing and other winter sports.

Both those realms draw heavily from New York, Boston, and other urban centers, which are home to both people with an interest in the arts and weekenders looking to get away and be outdoors. And on the outdoor front especially, economic-development leaders from Hampshire and Franklin counties have often joined forces to promote a wider swath of the Pioneer Valley.

This stretch of Main Street in Northampton is typical of the city: the odd chain amid a series of unique, eclectic, locally owned businesses.

The third audience is people with connections to the Five Colleges, which collectively serve some 50,000 students each year, roughly 10% of those international, which feeds into the chamber’s fourth targeted audience, the international market. The fifth audience is the LGBTQ community, which has long identified Greater Northampton as a welcoming place.

“We at the chamber want to be the local experts on the economy, and one of the ways we do that is through our tourism efforts,” Jackson went on, noting that the chamber gets an annual grant from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism for marketing and promotional activities and programs that drive tourism to the area.

“And we see enormous impacts on our economy when we do that, when we give people reasons to come to Hampshire County and Northampton,” he went on, adding that Northampton itself sees about 50% of the regional tax dollars from tourism.

“The other way we drive the economy to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to get established and find ways to make this a business-friendly place by working with all of our business owners and the city to make this a good place to start a business and be successful,” he explained.

One example can be found in the burgeoning cannabis industry, as NETA, the first retail dispensary in Massachusetts to sell for adult use, has been a notable success story since opening 15 months ago, and the city has about a dozen licenses pending for businesses in all areas of the cannabis trade, from cultivation to production to sales.

“When the economy thrives, our community thrives, and when our community thrives, the economy thrives. That’s our core belief, and that’s really what the mission of the chamber is all about — driving the economic impact and the community influence to make that happen.”

To better connect and assist businesses and entrepreneurs of all kinds, the chamber recently presented more than a dozen free business workshops, or “knowledge sessions,” Jackson called them, in which business leaders volunteered their time to share information and ideas. These included a look at digital marketing, a session dealing with different generations in the workplace, and another that brought beauty, health, and wellness businesses together.

Crafting a new strategic plan is daunting when a chamber has had one director for more than a quarter-century, especially when a new director is coming in, he said, which is why the chamber treated 2019 as a transition year. But there were some notable success stories.

“For example, I found it a joy to partner with [state Sen.] Jo Comerford, who was working hard for earmarks for the nonprofit community in Western Massachusetts,” he said, noting that, right before Christmas, she was able to secure $150,000 for a handful of nonprofits, three of which are chamber members. “The chamber will be the fiscal agent when those funds come through. This was the kind of matchmaking we’re proud to do.”

The Right Fit

Ruth Griggs, a member of the chamber’s board of directors who was on the search committee that brought Jackson on board, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette last spring that he was a deeply experienced entrepreneur with a balance of skills and characteristics chamber members appreciate.

Jackson, in turn, said one of his goals was to move past being just a membership organization to more of a “partnership organization” — getting people to move from being just dues-paying members to becoming more engaged with the chamber and the community.

Today, he says that has, indeed, been a priority, citing the recent opening — a couple storefronts away from the chamber offices on Pleasant Street — of Wurst Haus, the most recent new eatery from the restaurant group led by Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, and the chamber’s outreach to them.

“When new businesses come into the community, we want to make the sure the chamber is partnering with them, and that they’re also excited about partnering with the chamber,” Jackson said. “It’s a two-way exchange that will benefit all of Northampton. We make sure we invite them and introduce them to all the work the chamber does.”

Part of that is encouraging members to participate in committees that shape much of the chamber’s direction, including a finance committee, an ambassador committee that welcomes new businesses, and an economic-development committee of about three dozen members that meets monthly to talk about projects big and small.

Members of that latter committee include “seasoned business owners and young ones, nonprofits, local politicians, bank presidents — it’s a good, diverse mix of folks who add a point of view that’s unique, and when we come together, we’re all better collectively,” he said.

In a thriving, 21st-century chamber, he told BusinessWest, members aren’t just dues-paying entities, but true investors — of time and talent, not just money — in the chamber and in the community.

“The chamber is run by volunteers,” he said, noting that his team includes four full-time staff and three part-timers (the latter mainly managing the visitor center), so members who want to be deeply involved are critical. “There are a lot of connections to be made, and our role is really to be that catalyst and bring people together to make it all happen.”

If members are willing to work toward that goal, Jackson said, then the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce — and chambers in general — still have a key role to play in their communities.

“People expect the chamber to be the centerpoint, and historically we have been. But it wasn’t as open an organization as it is now,” he said, noting, again, that the endgame is a thriving economy and a thriving community. “They’re inextricably linked; they go hand in hand.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

Prodigy Offers Fresh Entertainment Alternative

By Mark Morris

Jeff Bujak says he designed the mini-golf course to challenge everyone who plays it.

When game designers evaluate a new concept, one of the most important considerations is for the game to deliver a fun and different experience every time it’s played.

Jeff Bujak, owner of Prodigy Mini Golf & Game Room in Easthampton, applies that same standard to his business.

“I want folks to view the experience at Prodigy as one where they haven’t had enough. I want people to say, ‘there are about 2,000 games I haven’t played yet, so I’m going to keep coming back.’”

Actually, there are currently 2,198 games available at Prodigy, and that’s one reason why the company website describes it as “a gamer’s wonderland.”

Located on the ground floor of the Eastworks mill complex, the 8,000-square-foot game room is the culmination of Bujak’s past experiences as a musician and game player, and his passion for creating things that didn’t exist before.

Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., he spent 15 years traveling the country as a solo keyboard player and as part of the band Somebody’s Closet. He moved to Northampton for its well-known music scene in 2004. Tired of life on the road and sleeping on people’s couches, he decided in 2015 that he’d had enough of life on the road and left music for what he called “a stable paycheck with daytime hours.”

While working in the IT department at Viability, a human-services provider in Northampton, Bujak had the idea of a business that featured a mini-golf course and board games. Meanwhile, around that same time, his wife opened Small Oven, a bakery in Easthampton.

“I could see that Easthampton had real positive energy for business, so I started telling bakery customers about my idea for an entertainment complex,” he recalled. When he presented his business plan to Will Bundy, owner of Eastworks, it proved to be a winning move.

“When I first met Jeff, I knew that Prodigy was going to happen at Eastworks,” Bundy said. “Eastworks is a community of creative and entrepreneurial businesses. Prodigy and its unique view on games and gaming is a perfect fit for us.”

Flipping the Switch

The original proposal was for a mini-golf course and board-game room with no video games that would be called Analog. When Bujak saw how much space was available at Eastworks, he refined his idea and decided to offer more entertainment options. As a collector of video games and their consoles, he knew he could easily include those into the game room.

Most of the video-game offerings are on consoles like NES, Sega, and ColecoVision, which are no longer produced. Bujak has connected them to TV sets from 20 to 30 years ago because the games work best on the older sets.

“I want to keep this place fun for real gamers. When someone plays Mario, they expect it to react the way it did when they were younger, so you need the older TVs to get that.”

Prodigy is positioned as a game room for ages 13 and up. As a result, Bujak said some of the younger players have never seen televisions with picture tubes and often ask for help in turning them on.

Prodigy offers 26 retro video-game consoles that work best on older TV monitors.

The nostalgia doesn’t end with video games, as Bujak proudly pointed out that, instead of serving alcohol, Prodigy offers vintage sodas such as Yoo-hoo, Mellow Yello, and Hawaiian Punch to put customers in a nostalgic mood.

Bujak considered naming the game room after himself, but Bundy suggested that choosing a an edgy word people could relate to might be more effective. After researching several candidates, Bujak landed on ‘prodigy,’ loosely defined as ‘young and smart.’

“My vision was for a place that was ‘young’ in the sense that it always offered something fresh, and ‘smart’ because it encouraged people to use their brains in a fun way,” he said.

He envisioned a game room with one admission price, and every game is then free to play, intentionally countering the typical business model of an arcade, where admission is free and customers pay for each game they play.

All-day admission on Wednesdays and Thursdays costs $10 “per human” and increases to $12 Friday through Sunday. Monthly memberships and discount punch cards for small groups are also available. Bujak said he wants to keep his focus on providing value to people who visit Prodigy.

“I will often ask myself, ‘what does $12 get you at a movie theatre compared to the experience at Prodigy?’ Did my customers get their $12 worth?”

Opened in March 2018, Prodigy features a rich mix of retro video games, classic pub games, and stacks of board games. Winding its way throughout the game room is a challenging 18-hole mini-golf course Bujak designed and built himself. As someone who won mini-golf tournaments in the past, he researched courses and game rooms throughout the Northeast to come up with a fresh design for his course.

“My vision was for a place that was ‘young’ in the sense that it always offered something fresh, and ‘smart’ because it encouraged people to use their brains in a fun way.”

“I wanted to throw a whole different angle on mini-golf course design,” he said. “I’ve tried to incorporate some of the decision making players are confronted with in video games and apply that to mini-golf. “

He explained further that, like a video game, many of the holes on the course offer several paths to aim for, all with different consequences.

Next Level

Business has been brisk, with Bujak doubling his first year’s projections. Along the way, he has also been making adjustments to the room and game choices to make sure the appeal stays fresh.

“I see my key demographics as people in their 30s,” he said, adding that couples in their 30s will often come together to Prodigy to play competitively with a board game or a four-player video game. If they want to play cooperatively, they can form a band and play Guitar Hero.

Bujak has also found that Prodigy is a great place for first dates.

“You can really get to know someone better when you are having a conversation over a game — not to mention what you learn about a person when you see how they handle winning and losing,” he said. Because Prodigy doesn’t serve alcohol, it’s also a safe place to ‘break the ice’ with someone.

“While we host plenty of families and friends, our place appeals to folks who don’t know each other well, but end up knowing each other better at the end of the experience,” he noted.

With that dynamic in mind, he sees hosting business groups as a growth opportunity for Prodigy in 2020. “Because games bring out the competitive and cooperative nature in us, I feel we can offer companies a great place for team-building events and networking opportunities.”

From day-long rentals to single meetings, Bujak said Prodigy is set up with plenty of audio-visual support, including a 10-foot-wide screen for PowerPoint and video presentations and seating to accommodate up to 40 participants.

Recently, Bujak hosted his former co-workers from Viability, who took part in several staff days. This experience assured him that Prodigy can be an effective location for off-site business meetings.

“When you have a social event with a game theme, it generates conversation in ways other gatherings don’t,” he said, adding that “competing with yourself or with others creates healthy competition, which is good for your mind and good for productivity.” 

Prodigy has found success early on as a place where people bring their friends to share a fun place they’ve discovered, which is right in line with Bujak’s marketing strategy.

“From the beginning, I’ve told people that Prodigy is not like any other place,” he said. “It’s something you have to come and see.”

Hampshire County

A Shopping Evolution

General Manager Lynn Gray

General Manager Lynn Gray

Hampshire Mall has seen its share of changes over the decades, particularly in recent years with the onslaught of online retail that has severely challenged brick-and-mortar shopping centers across the country. But this complex on busy Route 9, in a largely affluent, college-dominated region, has recrafted itself as an entertainment destination, where people can do some shopping, yes, but also enjoy go-karts, bowling, laser tag, a movie, and more. The takeaway? Malls may be challenged, but they’re not obsolete yet.

When Bill Hoefler purchased Interskate 91 at the Hampshire Mall 19 years ago, the rollerskating destination had been open for several years, and the mall itself had been thriving, more or less, for two decades.

He wondered how that could be. “Hadley’s population was only about 3,800.”

But the commercial corridor on Russell Street had been growing for some time, he went on, serving as a bridge between Amherst and Northampton, two communities with eclectic, college-centric populations where it could sometimes be difficult to build.

“Walmart had just been built in ’98,” he noted, “and we knew the mall had plans to demolish the theaters and build new ones. Then you had Chili’s and Applebees just a half-mile away. Those companies usually will not build where there’s not a 100,000 population density within a five-mile radius. So why are they in Hadley?”

Fast-forward almost 20 years, and Route 9 is even more built out than before. Interskate continues to draw a loyal clientele, and Hoefler has expanded his adjoining laser-tag operation from 2,100 square feet to 4,500. And Hampshire Mall — at a time when malls, especially those not bordering major highways, have been rocked by the online retail revolution — is not just surviving in tiny Hadley, but bringing in new tenants, many of them entertainment-oriented.

“It’s a hotbed,” Hoefler said. “People in Western Massachusetts will drive 45 minutes to do what they want, but why not just go to Holyoke? Well, a lot of people north of Holyoke just won’t go that far; they stop here. Or they come in from the west. We even have people from Westfield who would rather come here than mess with the perception of the ‘city mall’ in Holyoke.”

Lynn Gray has a lot of experience at Hampshire Mall as well, starting her career in marketing there about two decades ago, when Kmart was still a thriving anchor, and Cinemark was turning the old six-screen movie theater into a 12-screen megaplex. After leaving to work at another Pyramid Management Group property a decade ago, she returned around the start of 2016 and now serves as the mall’s general manager.

“So I got to see where the center was 20 years ago and where it is today, and the changes in between have been really exciting,” she said, rejecting the idea that brick-and-mortar retail is in permanent decline.

“The word I like to use is evolution, because shopping behavior changes constantly,” she told BusinessWest. “What consumers want, how they want it, when they want it, how they want it delivered to them, or how they want to see, touch, and feel it has constantly changed.”

Many still desire that hands-on, instant-gratification shopping experience, she added, which explains why Hampshire has brought in new retail tenants in recent years, from chains like PetSmart to service-oriented shops like T-Mobile and Nail Pro & Spa to local favorites like Faces, which previously spent decades in downtown Northampton.

But it has also morphed into an entertainment destination, complementing long-time tenants Interskate and Cinemark with newer arrivals like Autobahn Indoor Speedway and PiNZ.

“Twenty years ago, there was a theater here, which is entertainment. We had rollerskating and laser tag, which is entertainment,” Gray said. “Over the last several years, as a lot of developers and shopping centers have moved away from big boxes and wondered what to do with some of the changes in retail, they’ve been introducing more and more entertainment. We’ve followed suit, but Pyramid has always been at the forefront of that anyway. Having a rollerskating rink at a shopping mall is not traditional.”

Not much has been traditional about successful malls in recent years, Hoefler agreed, but the business model is working in Hadley.

“When we got here, we saw it was the beginning of an upswing, and we made it our home,” he said. “We’ve been big cheerleaders for the property, and we love being here.”

Gaining Speed

Jake Savageau, general manager of Autobahn, feels the same way. The karting chain boasts 12 locations across the country and attracts a broad clientele, from parents bringing young children during the day to a college and adult crowd at night, racing electric karts that can reach 50 mph. The center’s oldest racer to date was a 95-year-old.

“So much entertainment is coming into malls,” he said, “so when people come in expecting to buy clothing and other items, they see us making a lot of noise, and it attracts their attention — ‘what’s going on here?’ It makes them stay in the mall longer and spend more money and have a good time at the end of the day.”

PiNZ, a small, Massachusetts-based chain, is another recent addition, bringing bowling, arcade games, and a full restaurant and bar to the mall — plus the most recent attraction, axe throwing. General Manager Jessica Ruiz said PiNZ attracts the same kind of crowd flow Autobahn does — younger kids during the day, college students and adults at night.

Jake Savageau says shoppers sometimes discover the entertainment options, like Autobahn Indoor Speedway, when they arrive — and then return to spend more time and money in the mall.

Jake Savageau says shoppers sometimes discover the entertainment options, like Autobahn Indoor Speedway, when they arrive — and then return to spend more time and money in the mall.

“They love it,” she said of the axe-throwing room. “For the most part, people are surprised they like it as much as they do. Everyone’s looking for an experience now. And that’s what we give them, with all the activities we offer here.”

The mall has begun installing ‘patios’ outside the PiNZ eatery and nearby Arizona Pizza, offering a sort of sidewalk-café experience that connects diners to the mall as a whole. Speaking of connecting to the mall, neither PiNZ nor Autobahn has an exterior entrance — the idea is to bring people into the mall to see what else catches their interest.

The Cinemark theaters still do well, Gray said, and continue to invest in the space, including new seating last year and updates to the HVAC system to become more energy-efficient. “They’re making a lot of changes and reinvesting because this is a great, desirable location for them, too.”

Pyramid has made capital investments as well, she added, not only in space improvements to attract new dining, shopping, and entertainment options, but efforts over the past decade to install new lighting, new flooring, restroom updates, and seating modifications to make the center more attractive to both customers and retailers.

“The food court was redone, we have new digital display directories … it’s been really nice to see,” she said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago when I came here, it was the cobblestone and a sort of ’80s-’90s vibe, and today, it’s fresh, it’s exciting, it’s bright.”

With new retail and entertainment tenants in the fold, she would like to see more dining options come on board — perhaps some locally owned eateries, or even a brewery. The idea is to constantly evolve the mix to transform what was once retail-dominant into a center where people can have a diverse experience and spend plenty of time — and money.

“Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t have thought they’d see a Target in a shopping center, and the next evolution is that people wouldn’t have thought a gym would be in a mall,” she said, noting the presence of Planet Fitness. “But that’s here, and go-kart racing is here. So it constantly changes.”

Blurring Lines

Malls aren’t done evolving, Gray said, noting that even online retailers, like Warby Parker, are showing up in malls.

“Even Amazon is doing pop-ups inside shopping centers. The online world and the e-commerce world does still look to brick and mortar to enhance their brands as well. While you can buy things on Target.com, people still want that experience and that instant gratification, while other people can wait for their product. A lot of people still want to come into a mall, into a setting where there’s more than one option, to see, touch, and feel their products before they make their purchase.”

That said, no one managing malls today is downplaying the impact of online retail.

“Your online presence is always going to be there — that’s the wave of the future,” Gray told BusinessWest. “But by introducing an entertainment component, it’s about the experience — and we’ve taken that experience to a new level. With the collection of all these experiences all under one roof, the goal for us is to make sure we’re all things to all people and we provide the customer with what they want, when they want it.”

Faces built its name for 33 years in downtown Northampton, but now it’s one of the newest retail options a few miles to the east at Hampshire Mall.

Faces built its name for 33 years in downtown Northampton, but now it’s one of the newest retail options a few miles to the east at Hampshire Mall.

Hampshire Mall is well-positioned to roll with changes in shopping habits, Gray added, because of its community demographics and the economic vitality of Route 9 in general.

“Retailers are looking for population density, but they’re also looking for household income thresholds, and this area offers so much. It’s a very affluent community, the crossroads between Northampton and Amherst,” she explained. “But we’re also in great proximity to a wealth of the college student population, which definitely is a driver for this area.

“Twenty years ago, this section of Route 9 was completely different than what it looks like today,” she went on. “There wasn’t a Lowe’s, a Home Depot, a Starbucks. Now all these things exist here, and this becomes a very desirable area for a lot of different uses. LL Bean is moving across the street; Autobahn is open here. A lot of people see this as valuable real estate because of its access to the affluent community and the college students.”

Bill Hoefler

Bill Hoefler says he enjoys being part of the “funky and eclectic” mix of tenants at Hampshire Mall.

Faces is a good example, she said. “It’s traditional retail, if you will, but with a non-traditional flair,” she said of the quirky store that opened in downtown Amherst in 1971 but recently ended a 33-year run as a downtown Northampton mainstay.

“They relocated to Hampshire Mall because they saw the collection of entertainment and dining and all the uses they wanted to be around to support their business for the long term,” Gray noted. “I think that’s a testament to how, when you put the right people under the same roof, people are more drawn to come in, and businesses are more drawn to open new locations.”

Rolling Along

Hoefler has certainly seen his share of mall evolution, but continues to draw families to the uniquely shaped skating rink above the food court and his new, cutting-edge laser-tag center downstairs. “We didn’t just want to move; we wanted to do it bigger, better, with the latest technology.”

The skating business ebbs and flows, he added, but in perhaps unexpected ways; when the economy is good, he sees new faces, but he typically does best when the economy is flat, because he has a loyal clientele, largely middle to lower-middle class, that appreciates an affordable entertainment option. “Even when times are tough, they still come skating.”

Now that those entertainment options have expanded, Hampshire Mall’s target audience — a mix of college students, factory workers, agricultural families, and more — have additional reasons to make their way to the mall.

“We’re proud of our history,” Hoefler said. “We’re proud to be in the mall. We’re glad to be part of the mix that keeps this funky and eclectic. It’s a good time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

World Changers

Phil Weilerstein

Phil Weilerstein wants to help innovators move their ideas into practice — and perhaps change the world.

Katya Cherukumilli has a big idea with potentially bigger impact.

Her nonprofit startup, Seattle-based Global Water Labs, is developing a scalable and affordable fluoride-removal technology that aims to reduce the incidence of irreversible diseases as a result of consuming excess naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater — a risk common to some 200 million people worldwide.

She credits Hadley-based VentureWell with helping her move her big idea beyond the headspace into something tangible and, hopefully, impactful.

“One of the things VentureWell helped me realize was that the business model has to be really different for the R&D pilot phase and the scale-up and commercialization and expansion phase,” she said. “In a sense, I pivoted from how I was thinking about the fundraising for the initial pilot phase to thinking about who the different donors and funding agencies would be for the scale-up phase.”

VentureWell, which has been promoting technology entrepreneurship — especially in the sciences, medicine, and the environment — for almost a quarter-century, was a key reason Cherukumilli was able to even reach the pilot stage, thanks to $25,000 grant, but also connections to additional opportunities and networks she otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

“One of the things VentureWell helped me realize was that the business model has to be really different for the R&D pilot phase and the scale-up and commercialization and expansion phase.”

Myriam Sbeiti tells a similar story. While at New York University, she co-founded Sunthetics, which has developed a solar-powered device to use during the chemical-input phase of nylon production, helping eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from the manufacturing process. But she quickly learned that conceiving a way to solve a worldwide problem and actually solving it are two different things.

“I’ve learned that entrepreneurship is finding solutions to completely new problems every day. I’ve been able to develop many new competencies from scratch — from negotiating contracts to navigating regulatory hurdles,” she said. “VentureWell has been a catalyst for our development. They provide a healthy balance of business mentoring and support while also keeping in mind the feasibility and viability of a venture’s technology.”

It’s that gap — between good ideas and viable businesses — that VentureWell has been trying to bridge since its founding in 1995, largely working with teams of college students and faculty. Its success to date, and its future promise, have both turned heads and drawn significant funding support, from the likes of the Lemelson Foundation, USAID, the European Investment Fund, the National Institutes of Health, the Autodesk Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the National Science Foundation, to name a few.

“Our objective broadly is to impact entrepreneurship and innovation at colleges and universities,” VentureWell President Phil Weilerstein told BusinessWest, noting that its programs encompass grant making, faculty development, conferences, and curriculum — all with the goal of “making the idea of entrepreneurship more available to students.”

Laura Sampath says VentureWell is looking to adapt its model to enterprises that aren’t college-based.

Laura Sampath says VentureWell is looking to adapt its model to enterprises that aren’t college-based.

More specifically, the idea is to foster programs that help people move ideas into practice — and then scalability.

“As someone who’d started a business in the Valley before this, I wish I’d have had someone share these things with me so that the startup process was more effective, efficient, and less painful,” he went on. “It’s very rewarding, knowing the value it has for the people we work with, and being able to do it in a way that not only supports that particular venture but creates, through that venture, other pathways.”

Such a program is needed, if a recent report by the National Chamber Foundation and the Millennial Generation Research Review is to be believed. While more than 2,100 U.S. colleges and universities have added an entrepreneurship curriculum, the report notes, a large percentage of former students claim that the coursework did not adequately prepare them to start a business. Which raises the question, how can student innovators gain the necessary tools and knowledge to take their idea to market?

Enter VentureWell, and its team of 56 individuals trying to change the world from their quiet corner of Hadley. “We provide people with a healthy start,” Weilerstein said, “and get them on a pathway they might not otherwise have found.”

How they do that can’t be explained in a few words — and the potential worldwide impact is broader still.

What’s the Big Idea?

VentureWell was established in 1995 with support from the Lemelson Foundation, founded by prolific independent U.S. inventor Jerome Lemelson, who believed invention was essential to American economic success and vitality and envisioned a program that would foster the next generation of collegiate inventors and help them bring their ideas to impact.

In 1995, Lemelson convened a group of higher education faculty and administrators at Hampshire College to discuss how to make his vision a reality. In the meeting, Lemelson described an organization that would support educators in implementing a hands-on, experiential approach to learning while at the same time helping students develop new products and boost them toward commercialization.

VentureWell — originally called the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance — was created out of this meeting. It began offering grants to faculty to start programs in technology entrepreneurship, particularly ones that focused on the development of ‘E-teams’ — groups of students, faculty, and advisors working to commercialize a novel idea. VentureWell then funded the best E-teams coming out of those courses and programs, helping them bring their inventions to market.

Christina Tamer (left), senior program officer, and Lauren Gase

Christina Tamer (left), senior program officer, and Lauren Gase, senior evaluation analyst, at VentureWell’s annual OPEN conference, which promotes connections among innovators and entrepreneurs.

The organization has since grown to a membership of 200 colleges and universities from across the U.S., engaging — and funding — thousands of undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs each year.

“Our approach from the outset has been to develop pathways for people with good ideas to figure out how to make an impact in the world through an innovation process that leads to scaled entrepreneurial outcomes,” Weilerstein said. “We’ve been successful at doing that both in the individual E-team ventures as well as working with institutions — with faculty and folks who are the enablers of this work — to improve the productivity of their environments.”

The end goal, he added, is to create pathways and support resources that enable ventures not only to emerge, but emerge with the ability to scale up and sustain that growth.

This is accomplished in three ways: programs to assist early-stage innovators, faculty initiatives, and cultivating broad-based innovation and entrepreneurship networks.

E-teams — VentureWell’s most common approach to early-stage innovation — are formed through competitive grants accessed through universities, Weilerstein explained. “Students are driving the projects — they’re the entrepreneurs, and they’re expected to be the startup founders, typically after they graduate. They learn by doing early-stage development in school, so they’re in good position to raise money and launch the company after graduation. Our training programs are designed to support that process.”

VentureWell’s second means to achieve its goals is by supporting faculty initiatives at colleges and universities — basically, challenging innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) faculty to pioneer new and better ways of engaging their students in the entrepreneurial process. To these ends, the organization issues grants up to $30,000 to support science- and technology-based I&E in higher education.

Finally, VentureWell wants to cultivate networks of inventors and entrepreneurs to build an ecosystem of innovation.

“VentureWell has awarded over $11 million to 450-plus faculty at more than 230 different institutions,” Victoria Matthew, VentureWell senior program officer, said during a recent conference session on a project called Mission 2025, which was designed to elicit a vision for the future of I&E education. “Over that time, I&E education ecosystems have flourished and advanced such that competitions, entrepreneurship centers, and maker spaces are now standard on many campuses. While the progress is impressive, many in our community are now asking: ‘where do we go from here?’”

Indeed, Laura Sampath, vice president of Programs, told BusinessWest that, more than five years ago, VentureWell started being recognized nationally for the work it was doing with early-stage innovators, and funders were asking how to translate the model to support innovators who were not necessarily university-based. So the organization started working with USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on programs that supported scientific community.

“It’s the same at its core with a slightly different participant base, and those programs have continued to grow,” Sampath said, adding that VentureWell also works with the U.S. State Department to promote enterprises in Africa, Eastern Europe, and other areas. “With this model we developed over our first 20-plus years in existence, there are a great deal of transferrable ideas within that.”

Getting Down to Business

Again, the idea is to effect broad change in some area of technology, healthcare, or environment — and change lives, perhaps worldwide.

“We want to have an impact on educational and institutional systems, infrastructure, and ecosystems that provide the breeding ground and opportunity space where people with ideas can begin to think about the applications of their ideas,” Weilerstein said. “We work with the innovators to move that forward to support opportunity and investment and jobs — but also societal benefits through health and environment impacts.”

Sometimes the innovator doesn’t even understand what the eventual value of his or her invention will be.

“Like, I might know how to put a coating on a piece of glass so that nothing will stick to it. Well, who cares about that?” Weilerstein said, suggesting that, perhaps, people who make solar panels and want them to shed dust may value that idea most. “The initial thinking was, ‘I can make windows that never need to be washed.’ Well, it turns out that’s not actually worth much to people. So the innovators are finding out where the value is and what will actually lead to a viable, scalable business.”

In short, the E-teams and other programs are teaching students and faculty how to go from thinking like a scientist to thinking like an entrepreneur. “How can we support the scaling of your brilliant research idea and help it move more quickly or successfully into use by other people? That’s the critical jump between nothing ever coming of a really interesting research result and something actually world-changing happening.”

At VentureWell’s inception, Sampath added, the field of innovation and entrepreneurship was very different, and the types of institutions it works with must continue to evolve along with societal needs. “Part of what we now need to do is create that engine in a way that keeps us up with the times, that ensures we’re meeting the need of the [innovation] field as it stands today, which is constantly changing. And there’s no shortage of opportunity.”

Part of Mission 2025, Weilerstein said, is building tech-innovation networks in geographic pockets — like in the Midwest — that don’t have the advantages of, say, Boston, where resources, funding, and talent to build a billion-dollar company are close at hand.

“This is very rewarding work,” he added. “I feel lucky every day to come to work. It is meaningful work, both for the outcomes that happen and the way the work we do changes people.”

Even if an idea never turns into a viable business, the E-team experience often changes the mindset of the students, who then bring that heightened entrepreneurial approach to whatever career they attempt.

And if an idea does take root? Well, the world is full of massive problems in need of solving.

“The solutions to the problems facing society are often found at scale in an entrepreneurial way, and I think that’s true of things like climate change, pollution issues, and healthcare,” he went on. “People often are reluctant to associate problem solving with entrepreneurship, but that’s the way we approach it. Our work starts with invention. That’s really at the core of what we’re looking for — people who have figured out how to take a good idea and reduce it to practice. And the good idea is usually a solution to somebody’s problem.”

To an entrepreneur, the end goal of a good idea might be a business, independence, and financial security. That’s all fine, but Weilerstein wants people to think bigger.

“You have the satisfaction of a career, but it’s also an important way for society to solve problems,” he said. “All the things we think of as a crisis, we also see as an opportunity.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]