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Innovation and Startups

The Art of Connection

ArtsHub of Western Mass is a website, but for the region’s artist community, Lisa Davol and Dee Boyle-Clapp say, it’s so much more.


“Like the steampunk aesthetic, Bruce Rosenbaum thrives on paradox. His artwork is a blend of gilded era opulence, modern functionality, and futuristic aspiration,” author Daniel Hales recently wrote about the Palmer-based artist who specializes in creating steampunk-inspired objects. “Similarly, Bruce himself is simultaneously an unapologetic dreamer — an artist building fanciful castles in the clouds out of very heavy materials — and also a very pragmatic and successful businessman.”

That article, one of many on the ArtsHub of Western Mass website, perfectly encapsulates the dual worlds of art and commerce that so many creatives must inhabit. They may create in isolation, but rely on connection — of many different kinds — to bring their work into the light and make a living.

The ArtsHub, a free, centralized online portal that seeks to forge those connections, could be a game changer in that regard, said its founders, Dee Boyle-Clapp, director of the UMass Arts Extension Service, and Lisa Davol, Marketing manager for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Lisa Davol

Lisa Davol

“We’ve all been trying find a way to get artists together because artists are kind of working in their own silos, and they really needed a place to gather to see who’s doing what and to find access to resources, technical assistance, funding, and collaborators.”

Rosenbaum, Boyle-Clapp said, is “a person who’s an artist, but he’s always looking for other artists to hire because he needs people who have specific skills based on whatever art project he’s currently working on. And he needed a place to find other artists. So the ArtsHub is a spot for him to quickly find people who are in the region he can reach out to and hire. That’s one of the roles the ArtsHub is going to play.”

One of many, in fact.

“It’s a concept we’ve been talking about, and that the arts community has been talking about, for years,” Davol said. “We’ve all been trying find a way to get artists together because artists are kind of working in their own silos, and they really needed a place to gather to see who’s doing what and to find access to resources, technical assistance, funding, and collaborators. There’s such a huge arts economy in this area, but there’s a need for connection around that.”

The pair worked on creating an arts database in Franklin County, and similar efforts have been attempted in other areas of Western Mass. But the vision for ArtsHub, which caters to artists — visual, performing, written-word, you name it — across Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties, started coalescing in earnest after the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council convened a creative-economy network.

“It was really the first time everyone in the whole region was able to come around the table together and say, ‘hey, this is what’s going on in my region; what’s going on in your region?’” Davol recalled. “And all of the needs are the same, basically.”

Next came a planning grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, followed by a much larger $186,000 grant from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development. After much planning and a virtual summit that drew artists around the theme of “How to Recover and Thrive” after the pandemic, the website was launched in January.

“Now we have a place to find resources,” Davol said. “This is sort of like a chamber of commerce for artists. It’s the same concept. They’re all small businesses, and they really need support and connection.”

As the website explains, “we want to collaborate across diverse sectors of the creative communities in Western Mass. and help one another locate opportunities for funding, studio and rehearsal space, collaborations, commissions, training, careers, storytelling, promotion, and more. A good hub makes space for all local creatives, from studio and performing artists to architects and spacemakers, graphic and web designers, photographers and videographers, singers and musicians, arts managers and administrators, employers and funders, tourists and visitors, audiences and customers.”

Boyle-Clapp noted that “we needed a website, a home base, a place to have an artists’ directory, a place where artists can find access to resources and studio spaces and answer the question, ‘how do I hire somebody?’ Those are all really important.”

Dee Boyle-Clapp

Dee Boyle-Clapp

“It’s a one-stop place for artists to find out what’s going on, what’s available, what can I learn, and what can I access that will help me with my career?”

Artists create a profile on the site and are able to interact with hundreds of other artists on matters like locating talent, professional development, public art opportunities, grants — the sky’s the limit, really. “It’s a one-stop place for artists to find out what’s going on, what’s available, what can I learn, and what can I access that will help me with my career?”


Making Contact

One reason ArtsHub has succeeded so far where other efforts have fizzled out is that its founders thought more strategically about how to partner with different entities to make it sustainable.

“A big part of it is the artists’ database. They’re so expensive to create and so hard to maintain,” Davol said. So ArtsHub has partnered with the New England Foundation for the Arts on that aspect, which broadens the range of exposure for participants.

Meanwhile, ArtsHub has enlisted a number of community liaisons to reach out to artists in specific communities — not just geographic, as in individual cities and towns, but into the Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and other demographic communities in the local creative ecosystem, to get them involved and develop a richer and more robust membership.

“The liaisons are working to help us understand what the needs are of those artists who represent those communities and help them tap the resources of the ArtsHub,” Boyle-Clapp said. “We think of the ArtsHub as a platform, and now we’re inviting other people to participate. Do you have a studio for rent? Are you looking for an actor or artist? Do you have a grant available? This is where to post it.

“It opens up opportunities for everyone, so it’s not an exclusive group, which is why the community liaisons are so important,” she went on. “They’re helping to open this up to the wider community of who’s working here.”

This effort comes at a time when the arts community is recovering from unprecedented challenge, particularly for those who depend on public gatherings, which were shut down for long stretches during the pandemic. The $186,000 grant, in fact, specifically targeted COVID-recovery efforts.

“The arts were hit so hard. Arts organizations were slammed. It’s one thing to be closed down, but another thing to have absolutely no access to venues and no place to be found.”

“How can we help this sector revive?” Boyle-Clapp said. “The arts were hit so hard. Arts organizations were slammed. It’s one thing to be closed down, but another thing to have absolutely no access to venues and no place to be found. One in six jobs in the Valley is tied to the creative economy, so it’s critical that this sector be supported and have access to resources. We are here to help facilitate that as much as possible.”

Most of the initial effort was building the site, Davol said, and now the engagement piece is in full swing, getting artists to sign up. And it’s been successful, with about 2,500 Western Mass. artists on ArtsHub now, many busy connecting over shared resources and opportunities, while posting events to a calendar page.

“I think at the one-year mark, we’ll be able to see what the impact has been,” she added. “There’s a lot of engagement on Facebook, a lot of people signing up. And the more people we can get, the better a resource this is for the creative community, and the more job postings there will be. It looks really great now, but it could be so much bigger.”

ArtsHub has also been engaging writers to share stories on the site, from the Rosenbaum profile to a recent discussion about non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. “We have writers doing stories about individual artists and concepts,” Boyle-Clapp said. “These are topics of interest to folks in the arts.”

A Lunch and Learn workshop series will likely follow, with artists given the chance to speak for 15 to 30 minutes about their work, she added. “I’m going to kick off the first one by talking about internships.”

Davol noted that the virtual creative-economy summit in January featured workshops on everything from how to get leads and market one’s work to how to get into galleries. “The Lunch and Learn may be a way to continue that. We’ll see what happens the first year and what needs are brought to the surface. What have we learned from this, what has been brought to our attention, and where can we go? We’re very open to possibilities.”


Developing Story

Not only is ArtsHub connecting artists with resources and encouraging the community to hire locally, Boyle-Clapp said the general public might find the site useful as well, whether they’re looking for a musician for a bar mitzvah or planning on visiting the region and seeking cultural activities to fill their itinerary.

“People have wanted this for a really long time. It’s a dream come true,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re really excited that it’s here, and now we’re just trying to get more people to know about us, to understand it, to access its potential. It’s a site that should be utilized as much as possible.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached a [email protected]


Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Going with the Flow

customer site in Detroit

From left, Aclarity’s Chief Science Officer Orren Schneider, CEO Julie Bliss Mullen, Application Engineer Liz Christ, and Senior Operations Engineer Chris Hull at a customer site in Detroit.

They’re called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. But they’re known by a much simpler, and more troubling, moniker.

“They’re nicknamed the ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down in nature,” said Orren Schneider, chief science officer at the Hadley-based startup known as Aclarity. “The bonds in them are so strong that essentially nothing natural breaks them down. Maybe if you hit them with lightning, they’ll break down.”

Lightning isn’t exactly a feasible solution. But Aclarity — which has made waves (no pun intended) in the water industry with a its novel electrochemical approach to combating pollutants — offers a better one.

“We can actually destroy these compounds and break them into their component parts,” Schneider told BusinessWest. “There’s a big focus at the state level — and also starting at the federal level — on how to get these compounds out of the environment.

“The reason they’re there is they’re incredibly useful in a lot of different consumer and industrial products,” he explained. “Scotchgard, for instance. They’re also used in firefighting foam to help put out fires. They’re used on pizza boxes and Chinese food containers. So they’re very useful, and those same properties that make them useful make them difficult to break down. Right now, our main focus is, how do we break these down?”

Several years ago, BusinessWest told the early part of the Aclarity story, of how CEO Julie Bliss Mullen, as part of her PhD research, discovered an electrochemical technology that could treat water by passing a small electric current through it to destroy contaminants.

“They’re nicknamed the ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down in nature. The bonds in them are so strong that essentially nothing natural breaks them down.”


It immediately stood out from other solutions on the market due to both the lack of resulting waste products and its versatility. So in 2017, she co-founded Aclarity, which won the top award at the UMass Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company.

Julie Bliss Mullen co-founded Aclarity to sustainably and cost-effectively clean the world’s most challenging waters.

Julie Bliss Mullen co-founded Aclarity to sustainably and cost-effectively clean the world’s most challenging waters.

Essentially, she explains, electricity is applied to an anode and cathode, water flows through the reactor, and contaminants are destroyed by strong oxidants such as free electrons (which break the PFAS bonds), hydroxyl radicals, ozone, and chlorine that are generated inside of the Aclarity reactor. The result is harmless byproducts — essentially water that is free of PFAS and other harmful contaminants.

“Think about a battery,” Schneider said. “You have electrodes in there, and it takes chemical energy and turns it into electrical energy. We do the opposite. We put electrical current into the electrodes, and chemistry occurs. What we’re trying to do is break down a lot of different chemicals that are found in water. And most of the ones we’re focused on right now are PFAS.”

Aclarity isn’t the only company trying to develop a workable and scalable solution for this type of water pollution, he added. “The first company that can commercialize a product that can destroy these compounds is going to be a big winner. And we think we are in the lead there. We know the technology works, and now we’re just figuring out how to make a product that we can sell to do it.”


Water, Water Everywhere

Schneider said the original product was just a small reactor that could handle a couple of gallons a minute, which proved out the technology.

“We used that with potential customers to run samples, run water through it, to show them what we can do,” he said, adding that Aclarity has recently built the next stage, scaling up from a single electrode to 10 electrodes in a reactor, and that is being used to further show potential customers that the system works.

“We’re working right now with landfills; we’re going to be starting a project in Warren at the end of August with one of these pilot units,” he noted. “Landfill leachate looks like Guinness beer when it comes out — dirty, dark brown. We turn it into something that looks a little more like Coors Light. And we destroy a lot of the stuff that’s in there, organic compounds, things like ammonia and PFAS. Landfill leachate is an ideal application for us because it’s really high concentration and relatively low volumes. That really favors our economics.”

Aclarity is also starting a pilot system in North Carolina at a water-treatment plant, working with an engineering firm there. “The levels of PFAS found in drinking water are generally pretty low, and the existing technologies work well to remove them,” Schneider explained, but not destroy them. So after small volumes of PFAS are separated from the water using membranes and a technology called foam fractionation, Aclarity will be on site trying to destroy those compounds.

“The first company that can commercialize a product that can destroy these compounds is going to be a big winner. And we think we are in the lead there.”

“You probably won’t see us bolted onto the end of a water treatment plant,” Schneider said. “In New York City, their small system treats 290 million gallons a day. Their large system, over a billion gallons. We just can’t treat that much. But this particular plant treats about 20 million gallons of water a day, and when you concentrate it all the way through foam fractionation, you might be down to 20,000 gallons, and at that level, that’s something we can treat. So it’s a combination of concentration technologies followed by destructive technologies.”

Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, Aclarity is working with a textile plant, treating PFAS at the factory rather than letting it get out to the enviroment and having to worry about treating it there, Schneider explained.

“One other area we’re looking at is Department of Defense bases and firefighting academies. A lot of these compounds are found in firefighting foam. They’ll spray it down, and it keeps oxygen away and stands up to high heat, but then you have this lagoon of water that’s highly contaminated. So we’re discussing building a mobile treatment system where we can come in, treat the lagoon for whatever amount of time is needed, then move on to the next site.”

Orren Schneider (left) brought decades of experience

Intrigued by the company’s promise, Orren Schneider (left) brought decades of experience in the water industry to Aclarity.

Schneider said Aclarity was looking for someone like him who knows the water industry — he’s been working in it for 35 years — and understands these technologies. And he was intrigued by the potential of Bliss Mullen’s startup.

“There are other emerging destructive technologies out there, but, putting on my scientific hat, my engineer’s hat, I have doubts about some of them, how well they’ll scale up or how much energy they’ll use or the materials that are required. I follow trends of new technologies that come out, and I think electrochemical is the next one that’s really going to make a change and emerge from the lab into something that becomes commercially viable.

“That’s one of the reasons why I joined Aclarity. None of our existing technologies really deal with PFAS well,” he went on. “We can get it out of the water, but we just transfer it to something else, whether it’s a more concentrated water stream or granular activated carbon or ion exchange, but then, what do we do with it? It’s still there. Electrochemistry has promise; we’re showing that we can actually destroy these compounds and render them harmless.”


Listen Up

That result, on a broad scale, would be life-changing for many, Schneider said. And it starts with an increasingly fine ability to detect pollution in water.

“I use this line a lot: one of the best things I learned in high school was that the number-one cause of pollution is analytical equipment. What that means is, if we can’t measure something, we don’t know it’s there. Our measurement technologies are equivalent to a blade of grass in Central Park. It’s that fine; we can find so many things, and we’re finding adverse health outcomes from these compounds.

“The goal is not just removing them, but being able to destroy them to very low levels,” he went on. “We can destroy things down to the limits of detection that we have now, and there’s no scientific reason to think that we can’t go even lower. It’s just a matter of how much money it’s going to cost and how much electricity it’s going to use. But the science is there.”

He’s excited about the flexibility and adaptability of Aclarity’s process.

“While we are focused on PFAS now, there’s a whole market out there that we can potentially deal with. Also, in things like landfills, because we can treat multiple contaminants at the same time, that just makes us more cost-effective. So rather than have technology A for this compound, technology B for that, we can treat both of those at the same time. So, hopefully, we can be not just a solution, but a cost-effective and the go-to solution.”

After all, Schneider said, until PFAS are out of the manufacturing stream and the environment — and that day seems a ways off, to say the least — there’s going to be a need for technologies like Aclarity. “But there’s always going to be something else. The beauty our technology is that it works for so many different things.”

The key to advancing ideas like this and making them marketable is cooperation between government and the private sector, he added.

“We’re a small company. We want to be the industry leader, but it’s going to take a lot of different people, different technologies, different ideas to figure our way out of this problem. We need government support to help drive this; if there aren’t regulations, people aren’t going to pay to treat things they don’t have to.”

His advice to leaders everywhere?

“Listen to the public. This is one of the few environmental issues where it’s not just caught up in the science; the public is aware and want things done. So it’s going to take cooperation between the public, private industry, and government, all coming together to help solve this big issue.

“We’re not a solution looking for a problem,” Schneider added. “We want to be part of solving that problem. I’m a big believer in the public-health part of this as well as the environmental part. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.” u


Joseph Bednar can be reached at

[email protected]


Innovation and Startups

Spinning Ideas into Gold

The three partners of the Alchemy Fund

The three partners of the Alchemy Fund, from left, Chris Bignell, Chris Sims, and Brett Gearing, say the Pioneer Valley has no shortage of entrepreneurs with ideas that can be turned into profitable companies.

When BusinessWest first spoke with the founders of the Alchemy Fund four years ago, their vision of helping entrepreneurs spin their ideas into profitable businesses by providing funds, advisory services, business acumen, and more, was itself just an idea.

And as the Alchemy partners started raising the fund, their idea was met with some skepticism, they recalled, noting that some wondered out loud if there would be real need for the services they wanted to provide — if there would be any deals to be made.

In the four years since, those doubts have largely been erased.

“It turns out there are a lot of people in this area who have the urge to innovate,” said Chris Sims, co-founder and partner of the Alchemy Fund. “We’ve found a bunch of people who are dreamers and ideas people, who saw opportunities and started to act on them.”

And with help from the fund and its founders, many are moving well beyond the concept state and into operation. Overall, Alchemy now has 13 portfolio companies across its two funds that together boast more 73 employees — the majority of which are local.

“It turns out there are a lot of people in this area who have the urge to innovate. We’ve found a bunch of people who are dreamers and ideas people, who saw opportunities and started to act on them.”

Holyoke-based Clean Crop Technologies, which produces technology that removes contamination from foods, is one of those companies. Clean Crop could have located anywhere — but chose to be in Western Mass. and is making it happen here through the help of many components to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, including the Alchemy Fund.

“We were introduced through Forge, an innovation and manufacturing ecosystem support group with offices in Western Mass.,” said Dan White, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “They introduced me to Chris Sims. Chris and Alchemy were the first institutional capital commitment on Clean Crop’s seed-round raise.”

Alchemy helped Clean Crop create a battle plan to turn what it had, something that works in academic papers, into a working product — while also providing insight into how to bring it to customers. In the course of doing so, Clean Crop was able to do complete two rounds of major funding, both of which Alchemy participated in, from several investors, including the MassMutual Catalyst Fund.

“Chris is an extended part of the Clean Crop family; he has helped us sharpen our strategy at key intervals, and provides executive coaching and advisory office hours twice a month with our leadership team,” White explained. “He consistently helps sharpen our focus and prioritize resource deployment to the most relevant questions at that moment.”

There are several emerging success stories like Clean Crop in the Alchemy Fund portfolio, and together they confirm what the fund’s partners knew back in 2018.

“There’s some real validation to what we believed would happen,” said Brett Gearing, another of the founders. “We’re actually seeing and witnessing what we envisioned. It’s exciting for us for sure.”

Indeed, a lot has happened at Alchemy over the past years. For starters, its founders have launched two funds to invest in early-stage startups outside of the tech hubs of Boston and New York — with a focus on Western Mass. It has deployed all of the capital in the second fund, and will commence fundraising for its third fund soon.

“Within two years we will definitely have our third fund raised,” said Chris Bignell, Alchemy partner. “There might be some geographic expansion, and there might be a different mix of companies that we would invest in.”

Geographic expansions, yes, but Alchemy is keeping its focus local. Sims explained that in places like Boston or New York, venture capitalists typically end up chasing the same two deals as everyone else — in other words, they have an abundance of capital with a shortage of deals.

“Chris is an extended part of the Clean Crop family; he has helped us sharpen our strategy at key intervals, and provides executive coaching and advisory office hours twice a month with our leadership team. He consistently helps sharpen our focus and prioritize resource deployment to the most relevant questions at that moment.”

The reverse is true for Western Mass. Alchemy has run into what could be called a potentially good problem here — a situation where many companies are chasing a limited amount of capital. Competed deals like those in Boston are expensive, so by operating in Western Mass., Alchemy has been able to seize opportunities of the same caliber as those in major tech hubs for just a fraction of the cost.

Opportunities like Clean Crop, which has developed technologies that some are calling game-changers within the food industry.

“By definition, they are pushing the boundaries of something that hasn’t been done before,” said Sims, adding that as portfolio companies like Clean Crop grow and evolve, they attract top talent to the region.

“If you look at the folks we’re drawing into these companies, it’s not just the number — we’re creating a type of employment that literally didn’t exist here before,” he went on. “Now we’re saying you can go work at Clean Crop and help make Holyoke Massachusetts a stop on the road to the next green revolution.”

The seed-round raise White referred to was a start-up fundraising event in 2020 where Clean Crop Technologies raised $3 million — which was followed by a $6 million seed round in 2022, just two years later. He went on to explain that even before that commitment, Alchemy worked with Clean Crop for months to help sharpen its business strategy and target milestones in order to maximize its ability to raise capital.

This is an example of how the fund’s menu of services to portfolio companies extends beyond providing needed capital.

Similar to the way a sports coach would help out an up-and-coming athlete, Alchemy helps its clients upgrade their business model, assign veteran executives as mentors, add differentiating technology, and much more.

“It’s that first 10 yards that are the hardest for people who are disconnected from the norms that are obvious if you live in a major tech hub and everyone around you is doing this all the time,” Sims explained. “Here, it’s a pretty lonely experience because … who do you look to as an example?”

Alchemy has essentially bridged that gap. What the three Alchemy partners have found is that when they get entrepreneurs to the stage where their concepts can attract investments from a seed-round standpoint, they can then coach them all the way to the next level — and the next level, and the next. The companies they work with become competitive not just locally, but nationally.

“They are as good as anybody, which shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Sims.

And there’s another gap Alchemy is seeking to close. When Sims and Brett Gearing founded the Alchemy Fund, they identified a huge gap in venture dollars per capita in comparison to tech hubs like Boston and New York.

Sims, Gearing, and Bignell all concurred that startups like the ones they work with enhance and transform areas like Western Mass. into the type of place someone would want to live and do business. The Alchemy Fund sees the region between Boston and New York overflowing with opportunities, and aims to help make it just as alluring as those metro centers.

“There is something to be said for us getting in at the early stages so that these companies get a flag in the ground while it’s even harder for them to move to make the decision to go to Boston or New York at that point,” Bignell explained. “If we can get them in, get that flag in the ground… they start creating these jobs.”

And the jobs are generally well-paying jobs, he went on, the kinds of jobs that can bring people to an area like Western Mass. And as more of these jobs are created, and more people are drawn to the area, there is a snowball effect, seen in many areas around the country where startups flourish.

Yes, a lot has happened since the last time the Alchemy Fund and BusinessWest sat down together — and the story continues to generate new and exciting chapters.

“Whereas four years ago we got the reaction ‘there are no deals there, you’re wasting your time, you won’t find any entrepreneurs there,’ four years from now I hope we get the reaction, ‘of course there are deals there, why wouldn’t there be?’” Sims concluded.

Elizabeth Sears can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups

Cooking Up Sustainability

By Kailey Houle


UMass Amherst Dining is serving up a new dish. Sort of. It’s called sustainability.

The dining program, long ranked among the best in the country, if not the best, is adding a focus on foods and their carbon footprint to what has been a steady diet of information provided to students about how to make smart choices about what to eat each day.

Ken Toong

Ken Toong says that by serving more plant-based dishes, UMass Dining is helping students on campus reduce their carbon footprint.

UMass Amherst Dining is teaming up with MyEmissions, a food carbon-label company, to bring a sustainability factor to the table, an initiative that could be considered part of a broader, campus-wide focus on carbon footprints — and how to reduce them.

Indeed, in April, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy proposed a plan to be a net-carbon zero university by 2032. And a survey of UMass students conducted this spring shows 75% believing their food choices impact the environment, and 76% believing it is important to reduce their carbon footprint. But they didn’t know where to begin.

“We started incorporating kelp on the menu — talk about a superfood; it’s a carbon sink, meaning it puts carbon back into the atmosphere. We partnered with a group in Maine that works with off-season lobstermen to grow kelp, and it’s going really well. We’ve done research and development on it, and again, we’re educating students that not only is kelp a superfood for your health, but it’s also a climate superfood.”

Low-carbon dining — an experience UMass is striving to perfect — refers to making food choices that have low greenhouse gas emissions associated with their life cycle. Examples of low-carbon foods include nuts, soy products, local vegetables, and dairy alternatives; high- carbon foods include beef, lamb, cheese, chocolate, and coffee. To combat higher emissions UMass sources its high carbon foods locally, and all of the low-carbon foods offered are grown locally and, in some cases, on campus.

“My team and I researched the issue and we have partnered with MyEmissions,” said Kathy Wicks, director of Sustainability at UMass Amherst. “They analyze each recipe for its carbon footprint. So we export our recipe, they analyze it, and then they send it back to us so we can put it on the menu identifiers and on the app.”

Elaborating, Wicks said that such analysis involves giving a rating — A through E, with A being the highest, or best grade — to each individual recipe based on its carbon footprint. A carbon footprint, as it relates to food, is the amount of carbon emissions, methane, or carbon dioxide involved in the food’s production. It takes into account the life cycle of whatever one is measuring, its land use, processing, transportation, and packaging. UMass has been able to reduce some of its carbon emissions already by partnering with local farmers and facilities to feed their students.

MyEmissions has worked with European restaurants to help them reduce their carbon footprint, but UMass Amherst Dining is the first university program in the country to be introducing an initiative like this. And as an anchor institution in the region and a recognized leader and innovator among dining programs, UMass is looking to tell a story others will follow.

“Yeah it’s delightful that we did it first, but it’s a better feeling knowing we can help our students make a better choice,” said Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, which oversees the dining program. “Food matters and I think this is an important thing for the UMass community.”

Wicks agreed, and noted that through this new initiative, the university hopes to better inform students about foods and their impact on the planet and perhaps inspire them to consider options — like kelp.

“We started incorporating kelp on the menu — talk about a superfood; it’s a carbon sink, meaning it puts carbon back into the atmosphere,” she explained. “We partnered with a group in Maine that works with off-season lobstermen to grow kelp, and it’s going really well. We’ve done research and development on it, and again, we’re educating students that not only is kelp a superfood for your health, but it’s also a climate superfood.”

Overall, plant-forward dining, and that includes kelp, helps to reduce the overall carbon footprint. Low-carbon foods are able to be grown, prepared, sourced, processed, and transported in ways that emit minimal greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Food production in the United States makes up 20% of overall greenhouse gasses and globally it’s about 30%. UMass Dining works with local fair-trade-certified farmers and rely on permaculture gardens to source their meals.

Kathy Wicks

Kathy Wicks says educating students on their food choices gives them the ability to take action to help the planet.

“We’ve been working with our local partners for a long time, we also work closely with companies around their practices and how they relate to sustainability,” Wicks said. “And this is a way we can help students practice everyday climate action with every food choice that they make.”

Wicks and others we spoke with stressed repeatedly that they are not trying to tell students what to eat. Rather, they are providing information that will help them make smart choices about what they might want to eat — information that goes beyond calories and ingredients and dives into a food’s overall impact on the planet

“We play a role in educating them on food literacy, but we also love to talk about food,” said Wicks. “We added this to the conversation because it is top of mind for so many people and the campus community as a whole.”

Carbon-use identifiers will be added to each menu, along with previous identifiers for allergies, ingredients, sustainability, plant-based, and locality.

“We have a very comprehensive menu system — we have identifiers for allergies, ingredients, and now they can assess it through the apps or on signs,” said Toong. “We just add it on the carbon calculator and put the rating on the menu.”

Toong said the Amherst campus is perhaps more diverse than ever, with many students, including those who are Asian, Latin, and Indian students seeking authentic cuisine that is mostly plant-based. More than 70% of the school’s menu items are already plant based, catering to vegetarians, vegans, and those with a more plant-driven diet.

“We’ve been working with our local partners for a long time, we also work closely with companies around their practices and how they relate to sustainability. And this is a way we can help students practice everyday climate action with every food choice that they make.”

“We know that plant-forward meals are going to be a trend; there is still meat, but smaller portions,” said Toong. “We only give three-to four-ounce red meat portions, and same thing with chicken. We’re selling more seafood and more plant-based dishes. This has really helped us make the decision to start the program.

“We’re not saying ‘don’t eat red meat,’ — we’re just suggesting smaller portion sizes,” he went on. “We don’t tell them what to eat — we provide them with information. But we want to promote more than just food, we want to promote culture and cuisine. Our goal is to work with students and the community to try to make the world a better place. We can do it by working together.”

Those we spoke with said the partnership with MyEmissions is merely another step in efforts to promote sustainability. They stressed the need to back up the information being provided with conversation about how to make smart choices.

“We’re not just going to put the information up there — we’re going to continue dialogue with our students about it and show them and give them tips that low-carbon dining is as easy as A, B, C,” said Wicks. “We’ve been dedicated to healthy, sustainable, delicious food for a long time. We always want to do more to enhance the student experience.

“We listen closely to what the students have to say,” she went on. “We listen closely to what they’re concerned about and what they are interested in and what their values are… the entire campus’ sustainability and the current issues with climate change are at the top of mind for everybody. So our expertise is food and customer service — that’s the area we want to do more. We know it has an impact on our environment.”

By making simple changes like trying out some new A-Rated dishes, anyone can help lower the carbon footprint — and those at UMass Dining know small changes like that can make a huge difference.

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Celebrating Innovation

By Julie Rivers

The University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute (UMDI) turned 50 in 2021. It was a milestone, like many, that was marked in quiet fashion, and in this case, very quiet, because of the pandemic.

The actual celebration, in the form of an anniversary gala, came this year — May 3, to be precise. More than 150 people attended the event at the UMass Club in Boston, a gathering that offered UMDI and its supporters the long-awaited chance to reconnect, meet new people, and celebrate.

And there was, and is, much to celebrate.

Indeed, charged with social service, economic development, and community engagement, the Donahue Institute interfaces with many aspects of life in Massachusetts and beyond. In fact, UMDI has received global recognition for its economic research, program-evaluation capabilities, and workforce and educational initiatives.

Anticipating almost $25 million in revenues for fiscal year 2022, UMDI has about 175 employees with staff across the country, including all six New England states, Southern California, and Arizona. UMDI operates like a consulting firm, with 98% of its revenues being self-generated.

At the gala, recently appointed Executive Director Johan Uvin offered what amounted to a state-of-UMDI address, and in a Zoom call with BusinessWest that involved several leaders of the institute, he did the same, highlighting what’s changed over the years and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t for this vital resource.

“As someone coming in from the outside, this is a solid model — it’s not broken,” he said of the institute’s method of operation. “The Donahue Institute has the autonomy and intellectual freedom to pursue work that is meaningful to society but that also aligns with its mission and capabilities.”

Over the years, that work, has come in a variety of forms, including everything from housing to the national Census; economic data and ways to measure it, to office automation. And the institute’s work has often to led to changes in how things are done and how issues are addressed.

Johan Uvin addresses attendees

Johan Uvin addresses attendees at the recent gala marking the Donahue Institute’s 50th anniversary.

Slicing through it all, Mark Melnik, director of UMDI’s Economic and Public Policy Group, used terms not often applied to such an agency.

“We’re a dynamic organization, especially for a public-service institute,” he told BusinessWest. “While entrepreneurial mode can be exhausting, it allows us to push corners.”

This unique blend of public service and entrepreneurship provides the institute to recognize and seize what he called “opportunities that just make sense.”

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest looks at these opportunities while reviewing the institute’s first 50 years of work and asking UMDI’s leaders what will likely come next.


History Lessons

In the beginning, the Donahue Institute focused on providing consulting services to state and local governments. Named for former president of the Massachusetts State Senate, the late Maurice A. Donahue, UMDI branched out in the mid-1980s by helping clients in the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

According to J. Lynn Griesemer, who served with UMDI for 31 years, including several as president, and still acts as a senior advisor, a breakthrough assignment in the early days of the institute was to assess how to most effectively introduce office automation into workplaces. While automation is incontrovertible today, back in the paper-laden manual task days of 1970s office life, the project was just one of many groundbreaking concepts the institute would help launch.

Another early assignment that would shape the future of the institute involved improving floor operations at the General Motors assembly plant in Framingham. However, while the project was underway, the plant began laying off shifts — but UMDI was already there as an implant that was well-positioned to lend a hand. Shifting focus, the institute helped the newly dislocated workers create resumes, get additional education, and ultimately find jobs or even start businesses of their own. Through this fortuitous timing, the institute quickly became the largest services provider to dislocated workers in the Commonwealth.

Donahue Institute

From left, former director of the Donahue Institute Eric Heller, former deputy director John Klenakis, former director Lynn Griesemer, Director Johan Uvin, and Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan

The federal government’s Department of Defense would then present the institute with an opportunity to help make systems uniform across military branches. This project allowed UMDI to develop the national credibility to successfully bid on the Head Start program, one of its core initiatives to this day.

From there, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld asked the UMass President’s Office to assist with an economic development initiative for the state. With the help of economic experts from across the UMass campus, UMDI worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to forge the MassBenchmarks project. To this day, MassBenchmarks assesses the Massachusetts economy through reports and analyses that it then produces and releases twice per year in journal form.  

These early projects laid the groundwork for UMDI to get approved as a vendor by the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA). This designation allows the institute to bypass the lengthy bidding process usually required to win large federal contracts. 

Indeed, the institute’s keen eye for evaluating opportunities and strategically selecting those that will open doors has built the solid foundation it now stands on.

Today, the Donahue Institute is comprised of 10 business units. However, despite the ever-growing diversification of its core capabilities, a vibrant and robust research component remains at the backbone. This includes both UMDI’s Applied Research and Program Evaluation unit and its Economic and Public Policy Research group, led by Melnik.

This group operates as a project-oriented consulting firm, much like a think tank, bringing academic expertise and methods to real-world social problems. The group works with demographic, labor market, and economic data to help state and municipal governments, planning agencies, and nonprofits guide broad public policy discussions.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts.”

One current project examines how to leverage new apprenticeship models to minimize employee retention challenges. Another potentially groundbreaking study involves using data gathered for COVID-related purposes to develop new and more affordable ways of providing healthcare services to consumers instead of funneling people into highly complex systems that they have to navigate on their own.

A core assignment for Melnik’s group is its work with the Secretary of the Commonwealth preparing for census enumeration, which is the basis for federal funding allocation and congressional seats. With help from UMDI’s population- estimates program, the state’s census data is head of class in the nation. This is especially noteworthy since census data is relied upon heavily for resource allocations and predicting where jobs will be. It also informs decisions around population projections used by the MassDOT and Mass. School Building Authority for school district planning.

The group’s portfolio also includes a two-phase initiative with Way Finders that uses Greater Springfield as a case study on housing market affordability. With a focus on upward mobility and wealth creation, the study seeks to answer what it’s like for low- to moderate-income families to live in a high-cost state.

“Wages are so much lower in the Pioneer Valley that more than 54% of renters are housing cost-burdened,” Melnik says. Additionally, the majority of those burdened are people of color.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts,” he explains. This is because it tells the story needed to inform public policy, including the future of transportation.  

Another of the institute’s long-term projects is the Head Start program, which it has been involved with since 2003.

UMDI’s New England Head Start Training and Technical Assistance group is co-directed by Rosario Dominguez, M.P.A. Dominguez says that when people think of the Head Start program, early childhood education is often the only thing that comes to mind. However, that barely scratches the surface of what the program does, as it begins at pregnancy and continues to support families through college.

With this long-term intervention approach, the program addresses intergenerational poverty by using what goes on in the classroom as a lens for examining how families can reach their financial goals, ultimately strengthening entire communities. Through the partnerships it forms, the program has the reach to solve issues much larger in scale than early childhood development, including informing policies that move social equity and upward mobility forward by helping education and social service organizations improve their systems.  

Beyond its regional and national footprints, Ken LeBlond, Marketing Communications manager, said UMDI also handles international work. Funded by the United States Department of State, the institute has contributed to economic mobility at the global level since 2004.

This includes its exchange program in which groups of 20-30 people from about 60 countries, such as Argentina, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe, come to Western Massachusetts each summer. The groups travel the region engaging in active learning, helping at the Amherst food bank and senior center, and working on river cleanup projects.


A Look Ahead

In August 2021, the Donahue Institute welcomed Uvin as its executive director. Uvin had previously served as assistant secretary of Education under the Obama Administration. Working alongside Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan, Uvin holds the distinction of being the institute’s first executive director to be hired externally.

When asked what is ahead for UMDI, Uvin talked about alternative models for providing health care and exploring different educational models in challenged communities to lift entire neighborhoods through training and interventions.

Additionally, Uvin is interested in looking at both the supply and demand sides of regional economies to shape how employers and individuals work together to create wealth.

He explained that the engagement process might begin with going into neighborhoods and asking, ‘what are your aspirations?’ This is important because, according to Uvin, “we are moving headlong into a labor shortage with the babyboomers retiring,” making it critical to have intentional conversations around economic development across many different populations.

While this may be a current focus for UMDI, these issues are not new to the Pioneer Valley, where economists and policymakers have been wrestling with similar challenges for decades. Uvin says that while high-tech industry sectors have grown across the state, it has not been an equitable geographic or demographic spread, with Gateway cities such as Springfield and Holyoke — where nearly half of the region’s minority population lives — being left behind.

Part of Uvin’s vision for the future is to explore work in sectors such as life sciences, which play a key role in the success of Central Massachusetts’ biotech manufacturing and Greater Boston’s R&D and lab-based growth.

This, he says, would involve lifting up underserved communities, which is critical because, on the business side, there are simply not enough workers to grow unless we find ways to include all populations. Representation of people of color in the best-paying jobs of the higher-tech sectors lags severely. In terms of where UMDI is at this point in contributing to solving inequities that plague underserved populations, he says they are in the discovery phase, talking to others on the grassroots level.     

As for the future, the institute is positioned to make great strides. With an executive director from the outside, a new perspective brought on by the COVID pandemic, and an impressive 50 years of success to build from, the institute is at a nexus for bringing widespread change to the communities it serves.

“It’s an exciting time for reflection and renewal — to articulate what has happened, organically anyway, through the COVID crisis, which is the discourse around social equity and social mobility,” said Melnik. “This has been part of our work for a while now and has bubbled up even more.”

In reflecting upon how the institute has evolved over the past fifty years, Uvin and others said it is also important to highlight what hasn’t changed, especially the institute’s model and entrepreneurial approach to its work.

Dominguez adds that what was once called public service has evolved into economic mobility and social equity.

“Although we are further defining what we do, our core values will always be the same,” she said. “How can our work impact communities in need? That’s the core — and that won’t change.” 

Uvin concludes, “we’re not done evolving. COVID revealed what didn’t make sense, and business must respond.” Offering employee support, childcare, mental-health services, and other perks will be integral.

Perhaps what will carry the Donahue Institute forward another 50 years will be that which has stayed the same — a solid culture, a public service-focused mission, and the keen ability to find opportunities that align with core values while also having the potential to open doors.

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Moving Pictures


John Hazen stands beside displays

John Hazen stands beside displays of just a fraction of the products created at his company using holographic technology.

Hazen Paper, a third-generation family business that’s approaching a century in operation in the Holyoke mill district, has never stood still, expanding its operation over the years into facets like foil laminating, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. But its emergence over the past 15 years as an internationally celebrated producer of holographic printed products may be its most profound shift. Its entry into this niche was a calculated risk, the company’s co-owner said, but one that gradually paid off in a striking way.


John Hazen figured there was some risk in purchasing his first holographic printer back in 2005. But, as the third-generation co-owner of Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, he also saw the potential.

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk,” he told BusinessWest. “Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

But he was determined to build Hazen’s footprint in the world of holographic printing, and plenty of other technology at the company sprung from that first investment.

The results? Well, the numerous awards that pour in every year testify to the company’s success. Like a 2021 Product Excellence Award from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL), for a holographic consumer package.

“To magnify visual effect on a very small carton,” the press release for the award reads, “Hazen micro-embossed specially coated polyester film with ‘Mercury,’ a unique overall holographic pattern, then metallized the film and laminated it to a solid bleached sulfate board before registered sheeting. The film lamination delivers mirror-like brightness and a liquid-flash effect of full-spectrum color, as well as durable performance for clean scoring and folding.”

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk. Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

Most of those words won’t register with the average consumer. But the effect of the packaging certainly does. “This package really stood out,” one judge said. “The embossed areas are like a hallmark and impart a feeling of luxury.”

It’s the latest in a string of AIMCAL awards for Hazen, which also earned the association’s Product of the Year honors in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The latest was for a transfer-metallized carton, featuring custom holography, created for Nordic Premium Beverages’ Arctic Blue Gin, a project made with Hazen Envirofoil, which uses less than 1% of the aluminum of traditional foil laminate — one way the company continues to stress sustainability, which is being increasingly demanded by clients.

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil, earned Product of the Year honors in 2020 from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL).

In fact, it’s understanding customer needs that led Hazen to step into the world of holography with two emphatic feet in the first place. “In many ways, it’s requests from the customers, information coming in from the market — trying to identify opportunity.”

For background, he explained that the holographic industry saw significant consolidation between 2000 and 2004. In the late ’90s, holographic manufacturers were mostly small mom-and-pop shops, but that changed when larger players started buying them out. One of the catalysts was … well, toothpaste.

“When Colgate came out with a line of holographic packaging on their toothpaste … in the world of holography, the world of consumer packaging, that was a major event,” Hazen said. “They gained market share against Crest, and that’s what it’s all about. If they can pick up 1%, it’s massive. Once Colgate truly validated the use of holography, things got pretty exciting.”

Another growth area was DVD packaging — in fact, Hazen would go on to create holographic images for the DVD boxes for numerous major films, including for the likes of Pixar and Marvel. But its entry into that niche came in 2004, when it created the DVD packaging for the TV show Quantum Leap, which involved a custom hologram.

By that time, however, some of the small holographers Hazen used in the ’90s had been bought up, so it turned to one of the big conglomerates, Illinois Tool Works, or ITW, which had bought up several of the small, boutique holographers.

“We had to work with ITW, but we didn’t feel like they were using their power very well,” Hazen recalled. “We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

So, seeing the expanding opportunities in front of him, Hazen started creating an in-house holographic division.

Around 2005, “one of the companies that got acquired got busted into pieces, and we were able to start reassembling the pieces of the broken puzzle,” he recalled. “We set up our holographic lab, bought the holoprinter technology, hired some castoffs from the consolidation era, and set up a holographic lab in the basement. Since then, we’ve been able to expand.”


Shining Examples

Holography isn’t particularly new in the corporate world, Hazen said, noting its use on the dove image on Visa cards.

“That’s a hologram. They’ve had that on the Visa card for 40 years. A lot of times, holography is used as a branding feature, but also as a security feature. It authenticates, makes it hard to counterfeit. It’s done with money as well. That’s security holography, and it tends to be small.

“The holography we do for decorative packaging and some branding is larger format,” he went on. “We’re producing holographic plates as big as 60 inches by 60 inches. It’s not security holography and tends to be lower-resolution. But it is very unique; it’s hard, if not impossible, to replicate. And from a graphic point of view, it gives the graphic artist a mechanism for providing backlighting, for creating movement, for creating a 3D kind of effect.”

Hazen also uses a digital process — several different ones, actually, as opposed to Visa. “The Visa dove is analog — they created the model of a dove, set up lasers around a room, and got light to refract and bounce back.”

“We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

These days, Hazen Paper’s holography can be seen in hundreds of applications worldwide, from product packaging to the program covers for annual events like the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement (since 2013) and the Super Bowl (since 2004, although not in 2021, since there were questions early on about the game’s scheduling during COVID-19, and the design process has to start many months in advance).

Hazen showed off a copy of the 2020 hoops-hall enshrinement program, the class that includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It showcases 3D imagery of the Hall of Fame’s iconic dome and spire and its panoramic interior, juxtaposed with a collage of the year’s inductees in action. The back cover is a holographic treatment of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, where the enshrinement ceremony was held. Again, it used the sustainable Envirofoil process.

Hazen has created over the past two decades

Top: the holographic Kat Von D Metal Crush limited-edition powder highlighter carton won AIMCAL’s Product of the Year honors in 2018. Above: one of the many DVD packages Hazen has created over the past two decades.

Hazen has also added to its trophy shelf multiple times in the past year, including a Next Century Award from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which recognizes employers, individuals, and community organizers that have made unique contributions to the economy and residents of Massachusetts. The company employs 200 people and participates in an internship program with Western New England University that helps engineering students gain experience.

“We create opportunities for young people to learn about the industry in general and our operation in particular — and expand our future talent pool,” Hazen said when the award was announced.

And back in December, the International Hologram Manufacturers Assoc. (IHMA) named Hazen Paper’s 2020 holographic calendar Best Applied Decorative/Packaging Product at its Excellence in Holography Awards.

Featuring a fire-breathing dragon with three-dimensional scales, the oversized calendar utilized an array of innovative holographic techniques to create a decorative design the IHMA called “outstanding.” These holographic designs included gray-motion for the sky background, color-motion for the dragon, and two-channel color-motion lenses and fire-motion lenses to animate the flames.

And the company continues to innovate. For example, it announced back in August it had created an innovative, two-sided promotion to demonstrate cutting-edge holographic technologies. The Hazen team designed the artwork on both sides to showcase specific visual effects with nano-holography that delivers an even more dramatic three-dimensional effect.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the promotion is that it is two-sided custom holography, transfer-metallized on both sides. “It hasn’t been done before,” Hazen said last summer. “The ability to transfer-metallize a lightweight stock on two sides with custom holography opens up the potential for use in many applications where consumer impact is key. It’s very exciting.”


Changing Times

Clearly, Hazen Paper has come a long way from its origins in 1925, when Hazen’s grandfather, also named John, launched the enterprise as a decorative paper converter and embosser. His younger brother, Ted, joined Hazen in 1928 to help manage the growing company, which grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded into printing and foil laminating by the 1940s.

Ted’s son, Bob, joined the company in 1957, and John’s son, Tom, signed on in 1960, and the second generation expanded the company numerous times over the next three decades, as Hazen Paper became known worldwide for specializing in foil and film lamination, gravure printing, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. Hazen products became widely used in luxury packaging, lottery and other security tickets, tags and labels, cards and cover stocks, as well as photo and fine-art mounting.

The third-generation owners, John and Robert Hazen, joined the company at the start of the 1990s, and have continued to grow the enterprise and expand its capabilities, with a special emphasis on coating, metallizing, and — of course — holographic technology.

In 2005, Hazen Paper set up its holographic origination lab and design studio in Holyoke, and has since developed thousands of unique holographic designs and holds several patents on the processes it has developed. Shortly after, the company launched a holographic embossing and metallizing operation a mile away on Main Street.

“They always say it’s dangerous to go outside your traditional business model, outside your wheelhouse,” John Hazen said of those early days in this new niche, and particularly that plant. “We came in way over budget, at least six months behind, but that plant came to life right at the end of 2008.”

That’s right — at the beginning of a crippling recession.

“When you think about what was going on in the world, the first half of 2009 was really a scary time,” he said. “Fortunately, the business came back in the summer of 2009, and everything started to fall into place.

“Everyone’s system for making holography is different — they’re similar, but they’re different — but the one thing we knew was our system worked,” he went on. “But we went through some rough years from 2010 to 2016. We definitely overextended ourselves to get into the holographic business, and part of that overextension was the impact of the 2009 recession.”

In 2006, Hazen set up its first satellite plant in Indiana, a lamination and sheeting operation that ultimately operated 24/7, with more than 50 full-time employees. In 2016, however, it sold the plant as a strategic move away from commodity-type foil laminations to increase focus on growth opportunities in holography and specialty paper products in Holyoke.

Broadly speaking, packaging remains the broadest category of holographic work nationally, with designs seen on everything from boxes of golf balls and toothpaste to liquor packages. But the sky is the limit, Hazen said, and new uses emerge all the time — justifying that initial investment more than 15 years ago.

“It really was a startup, a technology startup in an older company. And ultimately, we really reinvented Hazen Paper,” he told BusinessWest. “The holographic technology ended up feeding the old business. So it’s like we installed a new heart in an old body.”

Not a bad return on that bag of beans.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups

Breaking Down the Silos

Barbara Casey

Barbara Casey says Pixel Health’s companies understand the technology underpinning healthcare, but spend more time on people and processes.


For Pixel Health, 2020 was a year of growth — double-digit sales growth, in fact, and a 30% staff increase despite the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare industry.

Or, perhaps — at least in part — because of the pandemic’s effect.

That’s because information-technology (IT) needs shifted dramatically during the pandemic, and health systems had a lot to sort through.

“There were a ton of digital-health startups funded in 2020,” said Barbara Casey, chief revenue officer at Holyoke-based Pixel Health, which comprises five separate but interconnected companies that assist health organizations in myriad ways. In fact, she noted, investment dollars in digital-health startups doubled last year, from $7 billion in 2019 to $14 billion in 2020.

“Digital health in general had a tremendous boom in 2020, which is good — and, in some ways, not so good,” Casey told BusinessWest. “It creates more noise in the market. If we can learn more about what our clients’ requirements are and what they want the experience to be like for stakeholders, we can help them sort through those vendors and see which ones match their requirements.

“There’s a ton of choice — that’s why we exist,” she went on. “There’s so much variability, so many ways you can do it. I think working with an organization like us, with as much depth and breadth as we have, is helpful to clients in finding a streamlined path to the end result.”

Pixel Health companies, which assist hospitals and health systems in creating IT infrastructure, improving operational processes, developing software, and facilitating financial efficiencies, has dramatically expanded its national client base since the pandemic began.

“Now we’re coordinating beyond the IT department, coordinating with the clinical side of healthcare, and that opens up a whole different range of consulting services we offer to healthcare providers.”

“While most healthcare-consulting groups specialize in either strategic planning or technical execution, Pixel Health companies do both,” company founder Michael Feld said.

In its marketing, Pixel Health claims its companies can “make healthcare better for patients, providers, and administrators alike by facilitating the use of technology, simplifying the process of using it, and overcoming the cultural and organizational constraints hindering its adoption. We help make the delivery of care better.”

President Brad Mondschein noted that the network’s first two companies, VertitechIT and baytechIT, “were really about how to coordinate the IT buildout and the provision of IT services to healthcare providers, and make those healthcare providers aware of what needs to be communicated internally and, frankly, even externally about their capabilities.”

With three other companies — Nectar Strategic Consulting, akiro, and Liberty Fox Technologies — now in the fold, “we’ve stepped beyond that — now we’re coordinating beyond the IT department, coordinating with the clinical side of healthcare, and that opens up a whole different range of consulting services we offer to healthcare providers,” he continued. “It’s also helped healthcare providers ensure that their IT services are focused so the clinical staff are getting what they need out of IT.”


A Quick Breakdown

The five Pixel Health companies are interconnected in some ways, but each brings unique atttributes to the table.

VertitechIT’s goal is to drive IT transformation for health systems. Its executive and clinical consultants, architects, and engineers design and implement IT roadmaps in line with the strategic plans of client organizations.

VertitechIT also touts its ability to implement transformational changes for clients at virtually no net new capital expense. As one example, a $2.5 billion health system constructed a three-site, software-defined data center and saved $8 million over previous designs with little to no impact on its budget. Senior consultants also took on interim leadership roles, working to transform the institution’s siloed work culture as well.

Brad Mondschein

Brad Mondschein says Pixel Health’s “secret sauce” is being able to bring many different areas of expertise to bear to meet a healthcare client’s needs.

Meanwhile, baytechIT is a managed service provider (MSP) and value-added reseller — one of the only health-centric MSPs in the country, in fact. The company operates a call center staffed by healthcare analysts, adept at meeting the unique and often time-critical needs of the clinical environment.

Nectar specializes in applying technology to serve the quadruple aim of healthcare delivery: delivering the right care at the right time, at the right cost, and improving the clinical experience in the process. It offers a boutique consulting environment, offering a unique perspective on unifying technology and driving healthcare transformation to achieve clinical objectives.

“Nectar is about the digital-health experiences of consumers, patients, families, but also clinicians, nurses, doctors, and other professionals,” Casey said. “There should be ease of use and frictionless quality with how those experiences happen for all those different stakeholders. That’s where Nectar comes in — we do know a lot about the underpinnings of technology, but we spend more time on people and processes.”

Next, akiro tackles the needs of healthcare from the revenue cycle and financial management to government-program assistance and complex merger-and-acquisition support. “They really focus on the business side of healthcare,” Mondschein said, “and they’re helping healthcare providers manage their mergers and acquisitions.”

“I don’t want to say we’re the only company that does it this way, but we think what we do is very unique.”

Finally, Liberty Fox, the only Pixel Health company acquired by the network and not developed inside it, takes a boutique design approach to software development, touting itself as a one-stop shop for all things technology and providing software solutions and recommendations that improve clients’ business.

“They can create software from scratch, write apps, but also do integrations between each system,” Casey said. “They make sure the integration that needs to happen on the patient-clinician side is seamless and makes sense.”

Some clients take advantage of the services of multiple Pixel Health companies, Casey said. “For example, Behavioral Health Network is an organization where baytech is helping them with delivery of IT services, Vertitech is also helping them with several things, and Nectar is working with them on telehealth strategy and implementation. So, several entities are all working in that organization.”

The model is an attractive one for clients, Mondschein said.

“I don’t want to say we’re the only company that does it this way, but we think what we do is very unique. There are MSPs out there that do some of these individual things, but don’t combine it the way we do it. Our secret sauce is our ability to take the different expertise we have in each of our subsidiaries and bring all of them to bear on an issue or a problem or project that a client might need.

“One thing that’s really important to remember is, at the same time we’re providing services, the goal is to make healthcare a better experience for patients and clinicians,” he added. “That’s our mission.”


Growth Potential

It’s a mission that has led to considerable growth, Mondschein said.

“Internally, we’re looking at how we can expand the services we’re offering while attracting really good employees and really good technicians as well. The large majority of our staff work in Western Mass. and provide services in Western Mass. We certainly have a national presence, but Western Mass. is still our headquarters, and we still have a great affiliation with the practices here in Western Mass. and with Baystate.”

As noted earlier, the pandemic didn’t slow the pace of growth.

“We were fairly lucky — we were well-prepared for the remote working environment because we do so much work around the country, not just in Western Mass.,” Mondschein explained. “Much of our staff was already remote; we were able to collaborate remotely prior to the pandemic.”

What became evident during the pandemic is that improvements in healthcare technology are allowing remote collaborations to work even better than they did prior to the pandemic, and that’s good news for providers.

“For our clients, the need for the telehealth strategies accelerated significantly, and the ability to go mobile and have the mobility pieces in place significantly increased,” he told BusinessWest. “Certainly, telehealth is going to be here a long time, so patients been very fortunate as well, because not everyone has access to healthcare, and telehealth can give people access they didn’t have before.”

And the increasing presence of IT in healthcare — not just in telehealth, but in any number of applications — has positioned Pixel Health well to help organizations turn all that ‘noise,’ as Casey put it, into solutions that work for everyone.

“We have the ability to translate among those different domains,” she said. “A lot of our clients have been operating within a lot of silos — operations does this, clinical does this, IT, marketing, strategy, all these pieces. Especially in digital strategy, they often don’t have the staff that can translate among all those different components. We’re able to translate and accelerate that implementation.

“That’s hard, and there aren’t a lot of other firms out there doing that,” she added. “It’s something that really differentiates us.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]