Some Bright Spots for the Region

EditorialBWlogoThere is quite a bit to like about the story surrounding the startup company SolaBlock, profiled on page 30 of this issue.

For starters, this is a venture involving renewable energy, one of the more potential-laden growth areas for this region,  and one where some of that potential is starting to be realized. Specifically, this initiative involves a new take on solar energy; instead of installing panels on rooftops, this company, founded by Patrick Quinlan, will build them right into cinderblocks, and then, hopefully, into walls of all kinds — for commercial and residential buildings, gardens, and even those built to block noise from highways. (There’s considerable potential there, because such walls are not usually obstructed by trees.)

The concept will be put to the test this summer — thanks to a $40,000 state grant — at a small building in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, just a stone’s throw (literally) from the Scibelli Enterprise Center, where SolaBlock is now a tenant.

And that’s the other aspect of this story that bodes well for this region.

Opened more than dozen years ago now, the Enterprise Center was launched by then-STCC President Andrew Scibelli with the hope that it would eventually become home to hundreds of startups that would generate commerce and, more importantly, create jobs across the region.

But while the center has played host to some success stories — in realms ranging from website design to a cross-border (Connecticut and Massachusetts) phone book that was eventually acquired by one of the larger players in that now-declining market — it has not lived up to its own vast potential.

However, it is enjoying what could be described as a renaissance under director Marla Michel, an executive STCC shares with UMass Amherst. Helped financially by another new tenant (Square One) that doesn’t exactly fit the startup description but needed accessible space after the June 2011 tornado leveled its headquarters building, the center is slowly building the tenant base in its business incubator.

Indeed, it now hosts ventures involved with everything from development of sporting goods to group sales for a wide range of shows and events.

But the center’s mission is obviously to offer much more than square footage to be leased. It also provides a wide range of support services and counseling designed to help fledging operations get off the ground and to that next level.

The center still has a ways to go to become the force within the local economy that its creators had in mind when the facility opened its doors in 2000. But it is certainly moving in the right direction after years of struggle following the Great Recession.

And this bodes well for Western Mass. because, as we’ve said many times, real growth and prosperity in this region is not going to come from a casino or through efforts to attract large employers. It will happen organically, through the development of new concepts and new companies that will create jobs and, hopefully, stay in this region and grow.

It’s too early to say how the SolaBlock concept will fare long-term — this summer’s testing of the product might yield some indication of its potential within the building industry. But at the moment, it’s an intriguing story in its own right, and part of another, more far-reaching story as well.

And they both involve building blocks that may yet change the landscape in Western Mass.

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