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Sustaining Success


From its inception in 1976, the Center for EcoTechnology has always responded to the needs of businesses when it comes to being more energy-efficient and reducing waste. But in many ways, the nonprofit has also been an innovator, introducing green-business concepts years before they would be considered mainstream. At a time when energy supply and climate change remain serious concerns, CET’s leaders believe the pace of change in this field will be even more intense over the next 40 years — and they’re helping to raise the next generation to meet those challenges.

In many ways, the 1970s was the birth of the modern environmental movement. The decade saw the first Earth Day, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and legislation in the form of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Energy Act.

And, of course, it was the decade when Americans wondered when they would run out of gas.

“We were a reaction to the oil crisis of the ’70s,” said John Majercak, president of the Center for Ecotechnology (CET), the Northampton-based nonprofit celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. “Everyone was worried about energy security.”

Instead of just fretting over this new normal, CET’s founders had an idea: to examine technologies and practices that could improve energy efficiency for businesses and reduce their environmental impact, all while increasing profits and raising quality of life.

John Majercak

John Majercak

“We started in the time of the oil embargo, and dependence on foreign oil was a major concern,” said Associate Director Nancy Nylen, who has been with CET since 1982. “There were environmental concerns as well, but this was before the conversation about climate change. Yet, the solutions were very similar. From the start, we were finding an intersection between what’s helpful for the environment and what’s practical and affordable so it can be adopted.”

At first, CET focused on energy conservation, in particular partnering with utility companies on the relatively new concept of ‘energy audits,’ whereby a consultant visits a home or business to talk about ways in which their building or operation could be revamped to save on energy costs.

“We were right on the cusp of that happening across the country,” Nylen said. “In Massachusetts, CET was really the one that got that started, the concept of going through a building and assessing opportunities for reducing energy and identifying waste. That was a new concept, and it was educational for the people; they really appreciated it. I run into people who remember us coming into their building 30 years ago.”

Other early initiatives included the development of a passive solar greenhouse at Berkshire Botanical Garden and Project SUEDE, a program that taught solar energy, energy-conservation theory, and carpentry to unemployed people, who then installed 31 solar space-heating systems in low-income households.

“We were looking to help people and businesses reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and right from the start we were providing this information in a technical-assistance role and through one-on-one workshops and information sessions,” Nylen told BusinessWest. “We were much smaller then — four people, just a tiny organization working on a couple of programs.”

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CET still conducts energy audits, helping homeowners and businesses understand the value of sustainable systems and educating them on the incentives available to make changes. But the organization, which now employs some 75 people, has become much more, expanding its mission into a host of new opportunities, from composting and food-waste reduction to recycling building materials through its EcoBuilding Bargains store in Springfield, just to name a few.

“If you look at what’s happened over the past 40 years, the pace of change has really accelerated; the whole environmental space has blown up,” Majercak said. “It’s really exciting and creates a ton of opportunities. It also means we have to keep on our toes to make sure we’re working in areas of the most need. Looking at the next 40 years, the pace of change will be even faster.”

For this issue’s focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest visits with the leaders of a nonprofit that has been a leader, innovator, and model for the growing green-business industry, and how they expect their work to continue to evolve.

CET’s fellowship program,

From left, Claire Cuozzo, Brittney Topel, Kelsey Colpitts, Coryanne Mansell, and Diana Vazquez, the 2015-16 cohort of CET’s fellowship program, spent 10 months gaining experience to help them prepare for a career in the environmental field.

Dollars and Sense

CET has long used the slogan “we make green make sense,” stressing the intersections between environmental awareness, good business sense, and positive community impact. That goal has always been shaped in part by events outside the Commonwealth.

Take the ‘garbage barge’ of 1987, the vessel that carried 3,168 tons of New York trash — originally headed for a methane-production project in North Carolina but then rejected by that state’s officials — along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, with no place to land.

“With the garbage barge, waste management and recycling became a huge issue,” Majercak said. “It galvanized the media and policy makers and organizations like CET, who started saying, ‘let’s do something about it.’ We worked to get the first recycling bylaws in the city of Springfield, and we helped towns and residents set up their first recycling programs. We also started working with businesses around recycling.”

Those efforts have grown significantly over the years, including a program — funded by the state Department of Environmental Protection — called RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts, through which CET offers technical advice and assistance to companies regarding recycling and composting waste.

“We’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of businesses across Massachusetts,” he said. “We help them set up or improve their recycling or composting programs.”

That work is more important after the state passed a law in 2014 limiting the amount of food waste businesses may dispose of. “We’ve done some award-winning work in Massachusetts in places like Big Y, Whole Foods, and Stop & Shop, as well as lots and lots of restaurants and food manufacturers,” Majercak said. “We’re now doing similar work in Connecticut and looking to take it across New England.”

Nylen referred to such efforts as “innovating and mainstreaming,” the effort to identify the next big need or trend in green business and help popularize it. For Lorenzo Macaluso, it’s more about showing companies how such practices benefit them and their customers.

“For businesses, we’re really adept at understanding their needs and adapting opportunities for them, and then being a neutral solutions finder for them, whether we’re talking about recycling, composting, or energy-efficiency work,” said Macaluso, CET’s director of Green Business Services. “We’re not there to sell them on a product — we’re not going to install a specific type of boiler; we’re not going to compost the food waste ourselves. What we will do is say, ‘here are your options, here are the business implications, the costs, and the incentives.’”

In doing so, CET has worked with companies ranging from small shops to large entities like Big Y and Titeflex.

Nancy Nylen

Nancy Nylen says CET was born from a desire to help people reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and that goal is still a driving force today.

“We’ve been working with Big Y for over 20 years, way before it was cool,” Macaluso said. “They’re now recycling and composting at all their stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and when you factor in the avoided costs of trash disposal and a little bit of revenue from the materials they’re recycling, it’s like a $3 million annual boost to the bottom line. For them, that’s a big deal. They’re also able to take that information about their savings — how they’re not throwing things into the trash, how much greenhouse gas they’re saving  — and share it with their customers.”

That public-information aspect is important for many CET clients, who recognize the popularity of green practices in what has long been a very progressive region. “They want to share the good work of what they’re doing. They can use that to market themselves, or just market internally, sharing the information with their employees.”

The bottom line benefits in other ways as well, Macaluso added. Insulation upgrades, air-quality improvements, and other efforts can also improve employee comfort, which in turn helps with productivity.

“Green business is now half of what we do. There’s so much potential in the commercial space,” Majercak said. “It’s a benefit to their business, and something their customers and shareholders expect. This whole world of greening your business has become pretty much mainstream. Not every business is going green, but the idea that it should happen is pretty well accepted.”

Second Life

Another success story at CET has been EcoBuilding Bargains, which began life as the ReStore in 2001 before undergoing a move and rebranding five years ago.

In its first incarnation on Albany Street in Springfield, the ReStore dealt in recycled building materials, aiming to save builders and do-it-yourselfers money while reducing the burden on landfills. A move to Warwick Street in 2011 involved a $900,000 energy retrofit on the existing building on that site — an example of CET practicing what it preached.

Those improvements began on the exterior of the building, including a white roof to deflect heat, and insulated panels lining the building that interlock in a way that seals out all air leakage. EcoBuilding Bargains also ‘superinsulated’ its roof, using insulation donated from MassMutual when that company installed a solar array on its roof.

In addition, the 3 million-BTU, oil-fired boiler in the basement was replaced with a 500,000-BTU gas unit, while infrared tube heaters located throughout the structure heat building occupants but not the air. The efficiency extends to lighting as well; much of the store features sensor-controlled lights that maintain a low level when no one is around them, but become brighter when someone walks in.

CET4RestoreMost importantly, though, EcoBuilding Bargains has met an ambitious goal set when it moved, doubling the amount of materials it recycles (and keeps out of landfills). Over the next couple of years, it will seek to increase that figure by another 50%.

“There’s a lot of opportunity — lots of stuff being thrown away, a lot of people on a budget who want to fix their homes affordably,” Majercak said. “What’s different now is that reuse is becoming trendy. This new generation of homeowners in their 20s and 30s really like this style of ‘upcycling’ and believe in the mission of upcycling. So we’re getting the bargain-hunting, weekend-warrior type of shopper, but also the mission-style shopper, too.”

CET has also found success in its Go Green Campaign, a three-year effort (2014-16) to help 80,000 people take green actions, reduce energy usage equivalent to taking 40,000 homes off the grid, lowering carbon emissions equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the road, and creating $100 million in lifetime energy and waste savings for residents and business owners.

“A number of years ago, we decided to focus on measurable impact, to see if we’re doing a good job or not, and also to get people excited about working with us,” Majercak told BusinessWest. “We’ll meet or exceed all these goals by the end of the year. People say, ‘does it really make a difference if I start up a recycling program or change the lights in my house?’ Yes, it adds up over time; it makes a huge difference. And we’ll have new goals at the end of the year.”

These numbers are important because demonstrating impact is the most effective way to build public support for CET’s work, he went on. “They want to know we’re making good investments, and this is one way we can make the case to the community that supports us.”

The center is also making an effort to raise up the next generation of green innovators, through a fellowship program it launched five years ago. Five fellows per year — recent college graduates from across the U.S. — are chosen to work with CET for one year and receive training in environmental science, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and other aspects of green business. They’ve gone on to work at similarly minded nonprofits, and also corporations looking to go green.

“We see it as a way to develop tomorrow’s leaders. This generation is actually going to be responsible for how we deal with climate change,” Majercak said. “They’re super-bright, super-motivated, and when you interact with them, it gives you hope for the future. It’s a very exciting program.”

Nylen agreed. “We started with them doing primarily education and outreach. But it became clear they were really interested in different aspects of what we were doing at CET, helping with green businesses, helping with EcoBuildingBargains,” she said. “We saw it as a way to bring a new set of eyes to our work and be a training ground for new leaders. It’s been quite rewarding.”

Greener Landscape

Majercak is gratified when he surveys the business landscape in Massachusetts and recognizes how ingrained environmental concerns and energy efficiency have become in the Bay State, in industries ranging from architecture and construction to healthcare and food service.

“We love working here. We’re very fortunate to be where we are, with the amount of community support we get and the participation in the things we offer,” he said. “It’s a really phenomenal business community here in the Valley and Western Mass., and Massachusetts and New England in general — very forward-thinking and supportive of our work and very actively engaged, and that’s important because organizations like us need to show it’s possible so our work can be replicated elsewhere. And that’s certainly happening; people call from all over the country.”

Nylen agreed. “We’ve been in an environment in Massachusetts where policy has been beneficial to promoting energy efficiency, and we help bring that to different target audiences, whether homeowners or businesses.”

Majercak knows there’s plenty left to do. For one thing, the next 20 to 30 years will likely see more building retrofitting than new construction. Then there’s the looming threat of climate change, which, if the direst models come to pass, will force everyone to move more quickly toward more sustainable practices.

“If we want to be in a place where we have a low-carbon or no-carbon economy, that’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of innovation,” he said. “It’s going to take not just technology or policy, but getting it to work in the marketplace, getting people to actually practice the behavior, get businesses to make the change.

“It doesn’t matter whether you believe in climate change, or care,” he added. “Everyone knows that wasting energy is not a good thing. Businesses care about the bottom line. Homeowners don’t want to spend too much money. We do a lot of work educating the public on what the benefits are.”

The changing needs of businesses when it comes to green practices lends Nylen’s work a certain freshness, even after 34 years with CET.

“I feel fortunate to do this work as my profession, and to work on each of our new initiatives as they come along. That’s kept me really interested,” she said.

“I’ve always felt we were relevant, but it seems the work we do now is more urgent than ever before,” she added. “Whether we’re reducing costs, reducing waste, or reducing impact on the environment, we can usually find something that addresses what people are interested in. We meet people where they are.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Environment and Engineering Sections
The Goat Girls Offer a Green Solution to Invasive Plants

Hope Crolius, seen here with Dan

Hope Crolius, seen here with Dan, says the goat business came with a steep learning curve.

Hope Crolius remembers that it all started … well, quite organically.

She had left a career as a writer — she started as a reporter with the Daily Hampshire Gazette and later freelanced, working for several area colleges — and was doing well with her next entrepreneurial venture, known as Artemis Garden Consultants, LLC, what she described as a “garden-revival company.”

The customer inquiry that changed and enriched her life in several ways came in 2010 from a landowner in Shutesbury who had a barn and pasture that hadn’t been visited by grazing animals in some time and was starting to fill in with what Crolius called “early-succession woody plants” — red cedar and certain kinds of cherries.

“I said flippantly — I wasn’t serious, but in a way, I was — ‘you should really just get some sheep,’” she recalled. “And he took me up on it — he said, ‘go for it,’ and I went for it.”

Actually, before going for it, she did a little research and quickly discovered that what this landowner really needed were some goats, not sheep, because the former ‘browse’ while the latter graze, an important distinction. And she went about getting some — not for him, as it turned out (although she didn’t really know it at the time), but for her.

“I was driving by a farm in Amherst and saw a herd of goats wandering around the farmyard,” she recalled. “I knocked on the door and said, ‘would you ever be interested in selling any of these goats?’ and she said, ‘I’d definitely be interested; we have too many of them.’”

Crolius eventually acquired three mixed-breed ‘mongrels’ that would form the foundation of an enterprise known now as the Goat Girls.

It’s known not only throughout this region, but across the state and in other parts of New England. That’s because there aren’t many operations like this in the Northeast — they are more popular in other regions — and also because there is a rapidly growing constituency that, like the landowner in Shutesbury, would prefer to clear brush and invasive plants in a decidedly green fashion.

Indeed, while this is definitely the off season for the venture’s 19 goats — who are spending their time enduring the cold (something they do rather easily) while dining on a large supply of donated Christmas trees, among other things — the spring’s schedule is filling up, and fast.

And it’s been that way almost from the beginning.

“Right away, the phone started to ring; people would say, ‘I hear you have goats to rent,’” she told BusinessWest. “This thing just happened, and it just took off.”

The Goat Girls’ 19 goats

The Goat Girls’ 19 goats are currently feasting on hay and Christmas trees, but soon they’ll have tastier fare, such as poison ivy and bittersweet, to munch on.

Today, teams of goats (usually six or seven to a team) are dispatched to jobs large and small, at a rate that averages $575 per week. Clients have ranged from homeowners looking to clear a portion of a two-acre lot to the administrators of the 64-acre Boulder Brook Reservation in Wellesley, who hired the goats and their herders to clear the poison ivy, wild grape, and bittersweet that started invading the premises after crews for a nearby landowner cut down nearly 100 trees in 2011, letting the sunshine in.

There is no five-year plan for this venture or something approaching a firm, long-term strategy, but there is already talk of expansion and perhaps even licensing or franchising the operation. Meanwhile, one new, and popular, twist is an intensive training course the company offers to those from outside its service region who may want to start something similar.

It all sounds easy, but there was actually a steep learning curve involving everything from pricing to goat maintenance and veterinary care; from the ins of outs of electrified fencing to simple math — how many goats does it take to clear a certain amount of acreage?

For this issue and its focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest takes a look at that learning curve and how the Goat Girls, even though it remains a very small venture, has became a rare breed of business success story.

Branch Offices

While quite proud of what she’s done with the Goat Girls, Crolius stressed repeatedly that this concept is certainly nothing new or imaginative — at least not the part about goats doing the work of lawnmowers, pruners, and herbicides.

Indeed, she said goats are second only to dogs in terms of the origin of their domestication, and there are those who say they actually predate canines in that regard. Meanwhile, goats have been used to clear brush and unwanted plant species for centuries; during World War II, when gas was heavily rationed, homeowners, golf courses, and park superintendents used sheep and goats to keep their grounds in order.

More recently, goats have been used in forest-fire-prone states like California to clear the undergrowth that can fuel such a blaze and extend its life, and sheep now patrol a number of landmarks in Paris as an alternative to lawnmowers.

What is relatively new — again, at least in this region — is the notion of goats as a viable, profitable business, said Crolius, stressing the importance of both those adjectives.

This brings her back to that learning curve she mentioned, because, in her estimation, it took probably three years to “figure all this out” and enable this subsidiary to finish a year in the black.

By ‘all this,’ she was referring to everything from goat diet and nutrition to determining how much the animals could clear in a day, week, or month; from understanding good goat working conditions (they don’t mind heat or cold, because they’re essentially desert animals, but really don’t like rain or wind) to determining how many times a crew would have to return to a site to effectively subdue a patch of poison ivy (three or four, by her count).

There were also lessons in worker productivity (only females and spayed males, known as wethers, are used, to make sure the help is focused solely on their work).

The process of learning these and other things began not long after that Shutesbury landowner said ‘go for it,’ said Crolius, adding that her foray into goats was a natural extension of what she was doing at the time.

And that was fulfilling an entrepreneurial urge that took her far afield from journalism, quite literally.

“I gave up writing for something more physical, and also to have my own time,” she explained. “Of course, I learned that going into business for yourself does nothing of the sort — a 9-to-5 job looks positively luxurious right now.

“But I still wouldn’t trade what I’m doing for a 9-to-5,” she went on, adding that Artemis Garden Consultants specializes in what she called “non-mechanical dimensions of landscape care — anything but mowing and blowing,” with a heavy accent on weeding, edging, and mulching.

The Goat Girls

The Goat Girls venture now has a wide array of clients, each one looking for a ‘green’ solution to their landscaping problem.

“If someone’s yard is tired and overgrown, or they don’t have time to take care of it, we’ll come in and prune small trees and shrubs,” she noted. “We’ll weed … we give definition to things.”

Over the years, she had built up a large portfolio of residential and commercial clients, most of them in Hampshire and Franklin counties, and wasn’t exactly looking to diversify into four-legged brush clearing, but, as they say, opportunity knocked, even if she didn’t realize it at the time.

Crunching the Numbers

The goats Crolius purchased from that farm owner back in 2010 went for roughly $100 each, or a fraction of what a purebred Labrador retriever puppy might run.

But while the animals, at least the mixed-breed varieties, certainly won’t break the budget, the overall startup costs, though light compared to some other businesses, are not insignificant, she told BusinessWest. One must factor in housing for the animals — she’s renting about a quarter-acre within a large farm in East Amherst and built an elaborate pen/office complex on it — as well as transportation to get the goats to and from a job; the electrified fencing that keeps them focused on their assignment and not the roses, hostas, or geraniums that they will also eat; and other factors.

But there is certainly enough demand for ‘green’ landscaping services, not to mention the frequent requests for goats for children’s birthday parties, festivals, and other occasions, to recover those costs, said Crolius, adding that the key to profitability is analyzing the numbers, making smart decisions with resources, and creating a workable model, which, as she said, took some time.

Dan Green, president of the Green Internet Group, who helped Crolius get the operation off the ground and expand it, and currently handles the Goat Girls website, agreed, saying this amounts to a new business sector, one where the entrepreneur has to learn by doing.

“If you want to start a dry-cleaning operation or a photo studio, you have many other ones to compare benchmarks to so you can figure out where that curve should be,” he explained. “There are not a lot of comparison-shopping opportunities for a goat business.”

Over time, Crolius calculated that a team of seven goats could clear a quarter-acre in a week, or an acre a month, performance that varies with the density of the brush and the frequency of fence moving. This allowed her to effectively price and allocate her services for what usually amounts to a 28-week season.

But as she became more experienced, Crolius, like all successful business owners, learned new ways to become more efficient and, therefore, more profitable.

For example, she realized a few years in that she could reduce expenses significantly, and make customers even more happy (in most cases, anyway), by leaving the goats with a client for the duration of their assignment (they hang in a portable pen), rather than dropping them off and picking them up every day, along with their herders.

“You instruct the client on how to take care of them, and believe me, the clients can’t get enough of them; they change their water, they talk to them … they hate to see them go,” she said, adding that, because most clients have gardens, they’re even grateful for what the goats leave behind after all that munching.

While making her foray into goats profitable, Crolius has, along the way, taken a number of steps to make it more rewarding personally. One is an extension of what she called an apprenticeship program at Artemis Garden Consultants that enables young people to join the venture as interns and gain invaluable experience toward a variety of different careers.

“My joy in life is hiring young people and giving them the opportunity to have hands-on, on-the-job field training,” she told BusinessWest, referring to her gardening business while noting quickly that she has taken that same passion to the Goat Girls.

Indeed, as she was saying those words, as if on cue, Emilie Rabideau, a pre-veterinary-science major at nearby UMass Amherst, arrived to help tend to the goats.

“It’s a really good résumé builder,” she said, “as far as experience and learning how to manage a business at the same as you work with the animals.”

As for the training program, set to commence in a few weeks, Crolius stressed that she is not breeding competition, but rather creating opportunities for more goat businesses and, therefore, more ‘green’ landscaping.

Over the course of two intense days, attendees can learn about everything from field work to care for the animals to marketing their goat venture, said Crolius, noting that there are three sessions slated for this spring, and a great amount of interest has been shown.

Looking ahead, but not that far, because that’s difficult to do in this business, Crolius said expansion is possible, although there comes a point where simply adding more goats is not cost-effective. Meanwhile, licensing the concept is an option that’s being explored.

For now, she’s focused on honing that business model, providing opportunities for young people to learn while doing, and making the region more green while also making some overgrown areas, well, far less green.

Brush with Fame

As she wrapped up her talk with BusinessWest, Crolius went to assist Rabideau with letting the goats into the front portion of their pen for a late-afternoon meal of hay.

Before doing so, she issued a recommendation — more like a warning, actually — to steer clear, because the goats will not go around anyone who happens to be standing in their way once the gate is opened.

It was a warning well-heeded.

Soon, the extreme energy the goats exhibited as they raced for their dinner will be directed toward the eradication of brush and invasive plants of all types and at all manner of venues.

Spring is almost here, which means it’s time for the goats to shine and give a new definition to the phrase ‘green business.’

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

Environment and Engineering Sections
FloDesign Continues to Ride a Wave of Innovation

Stanley Kowalski says FloDesign

Stanley Kowalski says FloDesign and its spinoffs are continuing a pattern of turning ideas into breakthroughs — and new companies.

Stanley Kowalski III says filters will soon become obsolete.

“They will never be needed in anything again — during manufacturing, in automobiles, airplanes, furnaces, faucets — anything you can possibly think of,” Kowalski, chairman of the board at Wilbraham-based FloDesign Inc., told BusinessWest, adding that he and his team at FloDesign Sonics, a spinoff venture, are developing technology that will use sound waves for that work.

That technology is based on a scientific discovery made two years ago by a team of engineers at FloDesign Sonics, co-founded by Kowalski, Bart Lipkens, Louis Masi, and Walter Presz, after Lipkens received a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to figure out how to rid reservoirs of anthrax.

“During a process of trial and error, we discovered that acoustics could play a vital role in detection,” said Kowalski. “It led to the discovery of a three- dimensional wave that we did not predict, and since literature didn’t capture what we saw and the theory for it was not fully developed, we went on a quest to find out why and how it worked.”

The principle they discovered is complex, but Kowalski provided a simplified way to explain it. “First, think of sound waves as an invisible force field that can be used to manipulate and hold things in space,” he said. “Next, imagine a chamber filled with fluid; if you generate a consistent flow of sound waves through it, then introduce living cells or debris into the wave, it will be held there by the invisible force field, and the cells will be gently pushed together and form clumps. When they get big enough, they either fall out of the solution due to gravity or rise to the top due to buoyancy.

“The 3-D wave is like an invisible catcher’s mitt,” he continued. “It retains the contaminant, and, because the diameter of the debris is increased due to acoustic forces, the gravity or buoyancy becomes dominant, and the clumps rise or fall out.”

This invisible catcher’s mitt has a seemingly unlimited number of practical applications, including drug manufacturing and filtering blood during surgery, said Kowalski, adding that the sound-wave technology is one of many interesting developments at FloDesign and its many spinoffs.

These include work on a firearms noise suppressor for the military, a development that will reduce high incidences of hearing damage, as well as new prototype development for a diverse set of clients.

Wayne Thresher, who took the helm at FloDesign three years ago, said engineers who work for the company and its spinoffs pride themselves in thinking outside of the box, executing a design efficiently, and manufacturing a prototype.

“We recently finished a product for a company related to fluid flow; they had needed it for three years, but couldn’t figure out how to make it. But Dr. Presz and I went to their location, and within 20 minutes, we came up with two concepts,” he said. “We like a good challenge, and a lot of things relate to fluid flow and air flow. This is our 25th year in business, and we have some really good success stories.”

For this issue and its focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest looks at some of those success stories and others that are still being written.

Down to a Science

Kowalski said FloDesign Sonics’ sound-wave technology was patented and has earned the company several prestigious grants in a highly competitive market.

The first was from the National Science Foundation, which issued a challenge to find a way to separate oil and gas contaminants from water. This is critical work because a number of states have had their water supplies polluted due to a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It involves pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to break apart rock and free the gas inside, which is problematic because some of the water that returns to ground level is contaminated.

From left, Bart Lipkens, Stanley Kowalski, Brian McCarthy, and Matthew Wilander

From left, Bart Lipkens, Stanley Kowalski, Brian McCarthy, and Matthew Wilander show off new technology used to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

FloDesign Sonics received a grant in 2012 for the initial phase of the project, and another in 2013 to build a prototype, said Kowalski, adding that, later that year, it also tested a prototype for a life-sciences application that involves harvesting and filtering cells derived from the ovaries of Chinese hamsters that are used to make injectable monoclonal antibody drugs, which are being used to fight cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses.

“Most drug manufacturers use a process called ‘harvesting’ in which the Chinese hamster cell is separated via filtration or centrifuge and then killed. Genetic engineering has enabled cells to reproduce readily and create higher concentrations per batch, but the higher concentrations put a burden on the current filtration and centrifugation methods that results in fouling of filters and loss of product,” Kowalski explained. “But FloDesign Sonics’ new method does not touch the cell. We can handle higher cell concentrations for batch processes and enable continuous manufacturing where the cell is kept alive; it is continuously fed with nutrients and continues to express the protein.

“This is the holy grail of drug manufacturing. All future drugs will be made this way, and FloDesign Sonics believes they have unlocked this potential,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company used venture-capital money to perform more than 100 trials with leading biopharmaceutical companies, which resulted in six prototypes and a machine it is now selling.

In March 2014, the company hired 14 new employees, and in September of that year, it received another prestigious grant from the National Institute for Health, which came with a new challenge: devising a better way of filtering blood during bypass surgery.

“Although it’s the most popular surgery in the world, it is so invasive that incisions to the body cause fat and debris to be released into the bloodstream; the particles can get caught in the brain and cause strokes, which is referred to as ‘pump head,’” said Kowalski, explaining that this phenomenon occurs because the particles are not captured when they go through the centrifuges and filters used in the bypass process.

FloDesign Sonics used the $100,000 grant to put its acoustic-separation technology to work in a new machine that captures the particles, which it is testing on pigs. “We hope to have human trials with it shortly,” Kowalski said.

So, although the company has yet to create its own website or launch a marketing campaign, it has undergone remarkable growth over the past 18 months, including the securing of $10 million in investments, $3 million in grants, and frequent offers to buy the firm out.

“The discovery we made has limitless possibilities, which range from cleaning the planet’s water supply to use in the life-science field and manufacturing adaptations,” Kowalski said. “When we first started, we were really just replicating what others had done, but when we began getting into theories of acoustics, we found missing holes that we probed. We had already developed a system that worked through trial and error, but it was kind of a 3M moment when we understood the depths of what we had discovered.

“Recall that 3M discovered a glue ideal for the Post-it Note and didn’t realize how important the invention was,” he went on. “We had also discovered an amazing tool, but had to identify needs for it in industry. It blows us away that we’re now helping get life-saving drugs to people faster and cheaper.”

Lipkens, who secured the prestigious grants, said it’s exciting to take new technology and put it to use in successful commercial applications.

“It was always my dream to take a discovery in the lab and transform it into a startup company and see everyone involved, including students, become part of a successful endeavor,” he said, adding that he taught a course with his wife, Kirsten, in how acoustics work in musical instruments before the discovery was made at FloDesign Sonics.

Designs on Growth

Taking discoveries and turning them into products and companies, while also involving students in those developments, has been the pattern at FloDesign from the start.

The aerospace firm has designed, prototyped, and developed products ranging from noise suppressors for jet engines to something called a RAP nozzle, which transmits a fluid force, gas, or fine particles over a distance with minimal loss. The company recently purchased a new CNC mill and lathe, which will allow it to manufacture more prototypes in its Wilbraham location.

This ability to take a concept from the design stage to production is important to Thresher, whose former employers included United Technologies. “They outsourced all of their machine work, eliminating local mom-and-pop operations, and I thought it was the wrong way to do business,” he said.

Although FloDesign is not set up to do mass production, it has the capability of manufacturing up to 2,000 parts for a company, which sets it apart from other contract-engineering firms in the area.

“Engineering companies don’t usually have their own machine shops or the ability to manufacture what they design,” Thresher said, adding that, as a result, many engineers don’t consider factors such as cost when they create a design. “But we do, as we specialize in prototype development.”

Presz created the company in 1990 while he was an engineering professor at Western New England College so he could give his students an opportunity to put theory into practice, and, as a result, FloDesign has a history of using student interns. The experience has proved invaluable for many, including Amanda Kalish, who was unable to find a job after graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“Employers want you to have work experience, so this allowed me to bridge the gap while giving me the flexibility to finish my master’s degree in mechanical engineering,” she said.

It has also given her the opportunity to take an idea from concept to prototype and, in some cases, a finished product. “What they do here is unique,” she told BusinessWest. “In a larger company, you are only assigned one aspect of a project and don’t get to see the whole cycle.”

Kowalski said FloDesign Sonics is just one of several spinoff companies that have come out of FloDesign. They include FloDesign Wind Turbine, which was founded in 2008, and FloDesign Water Turbine, which was established in 2009. “They all have something to do with fluid dynamics and acoustic solutions. We have the best people in the world working on this.”

A new product may soon spawn another company. It’s a firearm suppressor that FloDesign developed for the U.S. Marine Corps, and Kowalski said there is enormous potential for it.

He explained that almost every soldier in combat returns with hearing loss, which costs the government more than $2 billion each year. “If they can put a suppressor on every firearm, it could result in a paradigm shift,” he noted.

Although suppressors have existed for some time, they are prohibitively expensive and last only one-tenth as long as the barrel of a gun. “But the prototypes we have developed last longer than the barrel,” Kowalski said.

Expanding Horizons

Mike Harsh, who has recently been appointed to FloDesign Sonic’s board of directors, spent almost 36 years in medical instrumentation and imaging at GE Healthcare, he told BusinessWest, and he has never seen anything like the technology FloDesign Sonics has developed.

“It has the potential to fundamentally change entire industries and the way they think about filtration,” he said. “The entrepreneurial spirit in this company is contagious, and the convergence of this unique and innovative application of acoustics to filtration will unleash a new tool in healthcare that can also be leveraged into other industries.”

Kowalski is also enthusiastic and describes FloDesign’s Wilbraham location as a “think tank.”

“We have created more than 300 jobs, and, although this is our hub, we also have offices in Charlton and Waltham. But it all started here,” he said, as he watched fluid circulate in and out of the machine created by FloDesign Sonics to solve filtration problems related to the manufacture of new pharmaceutical drugs.

“We plan to save people’s lives and eventually clean the planet with our invention,” he said, describing what has become a very fluid path to success.

Environment and Engineering Sections
WNEU Team Chosen to Compete in Prestigious Solar Decathlon

E-Board members, from left, Garrett Bieksza, Samuel McLaren, Adison Vanina, Tiffany Behuniak, and Justin Parlapiano

E-Board members, from left, Garrett Bieksza, Samuel McLaren, Adison Vanina, Tiffany Behuniak, and Justin Parlapiano, will have leadership roles in the biathlon project.

Samuel McLaren was talking about anxiety, a few sleepless nights, 16-hour days, and the pressure of meeting tight deadlines.

And that was just the application process.

There is certain to be much more of all of the above as he and more than 100 other students at Western New England University, which will lead one of 20 teams that prevailed in that application phase, take part in something called the Solar Decathlon.

Over the next 22 months or so, students across a number of disciplines, from environmental engineering to mathematics to mass communications, will design, fund, and build a completely solar-powered, net-zero home, then test it, disassemble it, transport it to Irvine, Calif., where it will compete with those 19 other entries, disassemble it again, and ship it back to Springfield.

“This is an enormous task, obviously,” said Kenneth Lee, professor and chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at WNEU, who was on hand for the 2013 Solar Decathlon, and pronounced it a working display of energy innovation in action. “It’s going to require teamwork, lots of hard work, and a strong focus on innovation.”

McLaren, a junior who transferred to WNEU from Housatonic Community College, and one of several students on the project’s leadership team, or Engineering Board, or E-Board, agreed.

“It’s already been a lot of work — we worked on this tirelessly last semester, getting our application ready,” he said, adding that those long days and sleepless nights, which extended into the intersession, were obviously worth it.

Indeed, on Feb. 13, the U.S. Dept. of Energy, which stages the decathlon, announced that WNEU and two collaborating partners, Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Centroamerica in Honduras, would be competing against the likes of Stanford, Yale, California Polytechnic State University, Vanderbilt, and many other top schools, in this country and abroad.

The winning team will receive a cash prize, said Lee, adding quickly that the more important rewards — which will go to all of the more than 2,000 contestants — include the experience of working with others to plan and execute the project, and also working on the cutting edge of innovation in energy efficiency.

The biannual event is called a decathlon because, as the name suggests, there are 10 contests within the larger competition. Teams will be judged on architecture, market appeal, engineering, communication, and affordability — components that will be juried — as well as ‘comfort zone,’ hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance, which will be measured (home entertainment will also be juried).

For this issue and its focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest talked with Lee and several of the students who will be leading WNEU’s participation. They all described it as a unique opportunity to take what is being taught in the classroom and put it to work in a real world that is searching for ways to become more energy-efficient.

Bright Ideas

The scope of the Solar Decathlon became clear at a meeting involving many of the students who will participate.

The auditorium on the ground floor was packed with more than 100 students across a number of disciplines. More than a dozen would move to the front of the room to discuss specific aspects of the project that they would lead, and essentially recruit members for those teams.

These specific assignments ranged from planning and design to public relations; from interior design (led by a young woman who admitted she knew nothing about engineering, but didn’t need to) to fund-raising and soliciting sponsors.

And Lee summed up the principle that will drive each of these tasks, but especially the design phase, when he told those assembled, “we need innovation, innovation, innovation. We’re going to have to separate our house from everyone else’s, and the only way to do that is to apply innovation to everything we do.

“This is going to be the experience of a lifetime,” he went on,” he went on, during what could be described as an informational session presented in the form of a pep talk. “This is probably the best experience you’re going to get in your undergraduate career. You’re going to work hard — I’m going to make sure of that — and you’re going to have to earn your way on this team.”

Innovation has been the watchword since the Solar Decathlon was first staged in 2002. Since then, a total of 192 teams and nearly 17,000 students, representing 33 countries, have taken part.

Those numbers will increase with the 2015 competition, which will include eight returning teams and 12 new squads; four of the teams will have partners from international schools. The field looks this this:

• California Polytechnic State University;

• California State University in Sacramento;

• Clemson University;

• Crowder College and Drury University;

• Lansing Community College, Kendell College of Art and Design, and Ferris State University;

• Missouri University of Science and Technology;

• New York City College of Technology;

• Oregon Institute of Technology and Portland State University;

• Stanford University;

• State University of New York, Alfred College of Technology, and Alfred University;

• Stevens Institute of Technology;

• University of Florida, National University of Singapore, and Santa Fe College;

• University of Texas at Austin and Technische Universitaet Muenchen;

• University of California Davis;

• University of California Irvine, Saddleback College, Chapman University, and Irvine Valley College;

• Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University;

• West Virginia University and University of Roma Tor Vergata;

• Western New England University, Universidad Tecnologica de Panama, and Universidad Tecnologica Centroamericana; and

• Yale University.

Those teams will looking to duplicate the success of Norwich University in Vermont, which took home the Byron Stafford Award of Distinction (named after one of the event’s original organizers, who passed away last year) for something called the Delta T-90 House, which, according to last year’s program guide, “is guided by the beliefs that high-performance, solar-powered dwellings should be available to all and that good design is not a function of cost.”

Seeing the Light

At present, the WNEU team’s entry doesn’t have a name, a design, or even a budget, said Tiffany Behuniak, a sophomore studying civil and environmental engineering and project engineer for the decathlon bid, noting that these pieces to the puzzle will fall into place over the next several months.

She conjectured that the WNEU team’s application struck a chord with those reviewing the entries because of the international partners, the fact that the school had committed $24,000 to the project and raised another $26,000, and other tangibles and intangibles.

And since word came from the Department of Energy that WNEU’s team had been chosen to compete, the process of filling out that team and assigning work has commenced with the necessary degree of urgency.

“We’re getting all of members together and splitting people into groups based on what they want to work on,” Behuniak explained. “And then we’re going to start all of our training and design work, getting more sponsorships and doing more fund-raising. There is a lot going on all at once.”

Students at the partnering international schools will be working with those at WNEU on individual projects, mostly via skype, said Lee, adding that, when the endeavor reaches its final stages, some of these students will come to the Springfield campus for actual hands-on involvement.

Adison Vanina, a sophomore electrical engineering major and project manager for the decathlon bid, said that, for all those involved, this will be experiential learning of the highest order, and an invaluable experience that could help open doors to careers in the green-energy field.

“When Dr. Lee first introduced this to us, it seemed like a great opportunity to build our experience in engineering,” he said, “and also take what we’ve learned in the classroom and put it to practical use, while also working in a team environment.”

While many of the aspects of the project involve science, architecture, and engineering, there are other components that make it a truly campus-wide initiative, said Lee.

He cited, for example, the communications segment within the decathlon. In that competition, a jury of communications professionals evaluates Web content, an audio-visual presentation and information, the quality of on-site graphics, the delivery of messages to target audiences, and the use of innovative (there’s that word again) methods to engage audiences.

And then, there’s the fund-raising aspect to the project, which, while it is not scored as part of the actual competition, is obviously vital to its success. The Department of Energy provides some funding, as does the university, said Lee, but the team must pound the pavement and be creative to cover the full cost of building the home (projected to be $250,000 or more) and also additional expenses, especially those involving getting the house — and the students who built it — to California and back.

All those we spoke with said this project is at its very earliest stages and there are many unknowns ahead, which is one of the more intriguing aspects of this effort.

What is known is that there will be many more of those long days and possibly sleepless nights in the months to come.

Whether the WNEU team can take the top prize in the 2015 competition remains to seen, but one thing is clear: this will be a well-earned day in the sun for all those involved.

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

Environment and Engineering Sections
With the I-91 Viaduct, Future Prospects Are Up in the Air

91ViaductDPartNick Fyntrilakis, vice president of Community Responsibility for MassMutual and frequent spokesperson for the financial-services giant, urged the state to hit the ‘pause’ button when it comes to a planned $260 million project to replace the stretch of Interstate 91 that runs through the center of Springfield and is known as the ‘viaduct.’

He used that term at a well-attended public hearing on the massive public-works project late last month, and in reference to another, much broader possible plan for the stretch of I-91 that slices through the very heart of the city’s central business district — taking it down to street level or perhaps even below street level, thus facilitating the process of reconnecting the city with the Connecticut River for the first time since construction of the highway began a half-century ago.

“We see this as a possible game changer, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix a 60-year-old problem in the city of Springfield — being disconnected from the riverfront and the access to economic-development opportunities that exist there,” he told those assembled, and especially Michael O’Dowd, project manager for the Mass. Department of Transportation (DOT). “If this [repair] project proceeds as proposed, it’s going to be very difficult to see $260 million of work just go away based on another design that comes up through the planning effort.

“If we go down this road,” he went on, again referring to the repair project, “we’re going to miss an opportunity, and we’re going to have this viaduct for the next 40 or 50 years, which I don’t think the majority of the community is looking for.”

And therein lies the problem, or controversy, arising at a time when most would expect public officials and business leaders to be thrilled, or at least happy, with the prospect of the federal and state governments spending a quarter of a billion dollars to fix a very tired stretch of road.

repairs of the viaduct section of I-91 cannot wait

Officials with MassDOT say the proposed repairs of the viaduct section of I-91 cannot wait due to the deteriorating condition of the roadway and cost of continually patching it.

But there are other concerns as well. They include logistics — the proposed repair project, even on a planned accelerated construction schedule, would take probably three years to complete, and prolonged closings of several off-ramps and partial closures of the parking garages under the highway would be unavoidable — as well as timing. Indeed, the project could coincide with the now-likely construction of an $800 million casino between State and Union streets, just a block or so from one of those aforementioned off-ramps.

But the pause that Fyntrilakis and others are seeking — to study a potentially bolder endeavor involving the viaduct — is not likely, or even advisable, said O’Dowd.

That’s because this section of I-91 is deteriorating rapidly, and the state is spending about $2 million a year annually on what amount to patch jobs that do little but buy the city some time. And, in his opinion, it can’t buy any more.

“This is something that needs to be done now,” he said at the public hearing, putting the accent on that last word as he talked about the financial and safety considerations that he believes should deter any delays in getting started.

But beyond those aspects of hitting ‘pause’ on the viaduct work, there are also economic-development concerns, said Jeffrey Ciuffreda, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield.

He told BusinessWest that discussions about an extensive ‘repair-in-place’ project involving the viaduct have been ongoing for some time. But they took a far more serious tone — and the initiative moved into a faster lane, if you will — after the second level of the I-91 South parking garage had to be closed for an extended period due to falling concrete from the deck above.

“That convinced people that this was serious — it really showed the economic impact upon Springfield,” he said, adding that there are several buildings downtown that don’t have attached parking and rely on the I-91 lots. “When they closed that floor of the parking garage and told everyone to park in I-91 North, that overloaded that system, and we started realizing how dependent downtown Springfield is on two or three parking facilities.”

Frank DePaola

Frank DePaola says accelerated bridge construction, or ABC, should allow crews to complete the repairs of the viaduct section of I-91 in three construction seasons.

So it appears that the repair project will proceed as planned, with a contract slated to be awarded later this year and work to commence possibly next spring. This will be a long and likely painful period for those who live, work, and do business in the downtown area, said Ciuffreda, adding that it will be his agency’s goal to help minimize the disruptions through planning and communication.

For this issue and its focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest focuses on those steps and many other aspects of what is turning into a controversial project long before any work actually begins.

Concrete Examples

It’s called ‘accelerated bridge construction,’ another term simplified to the acronym ABC.

And, as the name implies, it involves processes and materials — such as pre-fabricated sections of highway decking — that enables projects such as the proposed I-91 initiative to be completed in less time than under more traditional methods, said Frank DePaola, MassDOT highway administrator.

Before elaborating on just what’s involved, he told BusinessWest that the state has already had some experience with ABC, and it’s due to get quite a bit more in the years to come, because there are many elevated sections of highway like Springfield’s I-91 viaduct, most of which were built about the same time — the mid- to late ’60s, as the Interstate Highway Project was reaching its zenith — and they’re in generally the same condition: poor.

A partial list would include the I-90 (Mass. Turnpike) viaduct in Boston, the Route 79 viaduct in Fall River, the McCarthy Overpass in Sommerville, and a section of I-93 North that also passes through Sommerville, he said, adding that some have been repaired and others are awaiting work.

Reiterating O’Dowd’s comments, he said the work in Springfield cannot, and should not, be put off much longer.

“Over the years, the water, the salt, and just the weather elements have weathered the deck, so that without predictability, sections of the deck fall out, and we have to go out there and patch holes in the deck,” he explained. “We’ve spent, on average, $2 million a year patching the holes in the deck.”

Beyond this cost, and the safety element driven home by the closing of the upper level of the parking garage, there is a “nuisance factor” as well, he said, noting these patch jobs he described entail shutting down lanes of the highway for sometimes long stretches at a time.

Rather than continue with this frustrating, Sisyphean approach, the state has proposed an ambitious, and expensive, plan to replace the decking on the 67 spans of northbound highway within the viaduct and the 62 spans on the southbound section.

If all goes as planned, the contract for the repair project will be awarded later this year, and work is expected to commence late this fall. The plan is to keep two of the three lanes in both the north- and southbound sections open at all times, said DePaola, noting that, while 14 sections of I-93 were replaced in 10 weeks by shutting that section of the highway down completely, a similar strategy is neither necessary nor recommended for Springfield’s viaduct.

Keeping two lanes of traffic open on both the north- and southbound sections of the highway will reduce the overall inconvenience from the project, but there will undoubtedly be an impact on commuters as off-ramps are closed and traffic is detoured onto East Columbus and West Columbus avenues and other arteries, said O’Dowd at the public hearing.

Exits 6 and 7 on I-91 South will be closed, and traffic detoured to a temporary ramp to be constructed north of exit 8 to provide access to downtown Springfield via West and East Columbus avenues. The on-ramps to I-91 North from both State and Union streets will also have to be closed, he went on. I-91 northbound access will be provided via East Columbus Avenue, with I-291 access provided via a detour off East Columbus Avenue to Liberty and Dwight streets.

Ramping Up

Ciuffreda, who has many not-so-fond recollections of the I-91 ramp-reversal project that accompanied the opening of the new Basketball Hall of Fame, said residents, business owners, and those who work downtown couldn’t be blamed for being skeptical about vows to minimize the disruption from the planned I-91 project.

Indeed, the ramp project took far longer than originally estimated, and the impact was considerable. And those same things can be said about the Memorial Bridge reconstruction that took place 20 years ago, and the more recent repairs to the South End Bridge.

But Ciuffreda believes there is also room for optimism with regard to the I-91 initiative.

“The state has come a long way with how they go about construction projects like this one,” he said, citing the I-93 repairs as one example. “It’s going to be a major, major construction project, but they feel pretty comfortable — and I feel pretty comfortable — that they can minimize the downside of it.

“Clearly there will be disruptions — you can’t do a major construction project without them — but I think they’ve learned enough to expedite it and to minimize the adverse effects.”

But the 17-day run of the Big E each fall will severely test the patience, and the abilities, of those trying to keep the traffic flowing, he added quickly, noting that construction might have to be shut down during the fair’s run, and other steps, such as shuttling visitors from remote locations, might have to be undertaken.

And if a license is granted for MGM’s proposed South End resort casino, as expected, and construction begins later this year — that’s the current timetable — two of the biggest construction projects in the region’s history would be going on at the same time, and within a few hundred feet of each other.

Overall, effective communication with the public about the project, specific phases, lane and off-ramp closings, and other considerations are vital to efforts to minimize disruptions and the impact on commerce, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer.

“My issue is to make sure there’s enough communication so that we know where they’re working so we can tell people who work and come to downtown Springfield and use our parking facilities what’s going on and what the best route to get here is going to be,” he said. “It’s going to uncomfortable for a while, and no one likes that, but the idea that we can get a good fix, rather than a patch job, is good for Springfield in the long run.”

As for that broader vision for the viaduct and improved access to the river that Fyntrilakis mentioned, there is a study, being conducted independent of the repair project, that is exploring options.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has repeatedly called for something “bold and visionary” in his public comments on the matter, and State Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said it might be possible to take some sections of the elevated highway down to grade level or just below.

But there are myriad questions that will be need to be answered, about everything from what the soils can handle to how other barriers to the riverfront, such as East and West Columbus avenues  and the rail line just east of the river would be negotiated; from how such a project would be funded to whether the state and federal governments would invest heavily again in a road they just paid $260 million to fix.

“Once the repair project starts, it will take some of the options off the table for getting to the riverfront, but I’m not sure it takes all of them off the table,” said Ciuffreda. “We may have to settle for a lesser connection than we ideally would like. That’s just the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s a crumbling road, and if it ever went down to one lane, that would just cripple the economy.”

Bottom Line

How that hand will be played remains to be seen, but it appears that the pause sought by Fyntrilakis and others is not in the cards.

And for that reason, projecting down the road, for the short and long term, will be difficult. That’s why, when it comes to Springfield and its controversial, half-century-old viaduct, so many things are still up in the air.

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

Environment and Engineering Sections
The Dennis Group Becomes a Leader in Food Engineering


The 120,000-square-foot Sabra hummus plant near Richmond, Va., which the Dennis Group built in 2009, will double in size by 2014.

A large poster hanging in the stairway of the historic Fuller Block building in downtown Springfield effectively tells the story of the company now occupying most of that landmark.
Well, sort of.
The black-and-white image, affectionately titled ‘The Geeks’ by staff at the Dennis Group, presents what looks like three college students eating hamburgers, with some accompanying verbiage: “we were fascinated by food even before we become engineers.”
It all makes sense — if one is familiar with the company and the niche it has successfully cultivated over the past quarter-century. This would the field known simply as ‘food engineering,’ although that phrase is somewhat of a misnomer and certainly needs some clarification, said Dan McCreary, one of the firm’s four partners.
The company doesn’t actually engineer food, he noted, adding that it designs and builds specialized plants that process many of the convenience-based foods consumers buy every day, from prepackaged lettuce to energy drinks to frozen, ready-to-heat sandwiches.
“We’re actually architects and process engineers for the food industry,” McCreary went on, acknowledging that the latter term itself requires explanation.
And he provided one, noting that there is an elaborate process involved with building such facilities — from selection of a location (more on that later) to operations to energy efficiency, a subject of increasing importance as fuel costs rise and the desire to be ‘green’ increases.
By excelling in the art and science of helping clients navigate this process, the Dennis Group has witnessed explosive growth since it was launched by founder Tom Dennis in his attic. It now boasts nearly 200 employees in its Springfield headquarters (now spaced over four of the renovated Fuller Block’s five floors) and another 100 in satellite offices strategically located in Salt Lake City, San Diego, Toronto, and Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the client list has grown to include many of the household names from the food industry — Nestle, Dole, Tropicana, PepsiCo, and numerous others — and the Dennis Group now books projects totaling more than $500 million annually.
Some of this success can be traced to timing — specifically, an explosion in the popularity of convenience-based foods and the almost (that’s almost) recession-proof nature of the food industry, said McCreary, noting that “people have to eat.”
But beyond these realities, the firm’s remarkable growth can be traced to its relationship-building abilities — it has drawn repeat business from many clients as they have grown and expanded into new business opportunities — as well as an operating philosophy based on calculated risk taking and what often would be considered unorthodox thinking.
As one example, McCreary, who spoke for the company while Dennis was attending to business at one of the satellite offices, cited some aggressive action during the recent economic downturn.
At the height of the Great Recession, two of the firm’s $100 million projects were essentially halted, he noted, but Dennis’ response was not to trim staff and hunker down, but rather hire some of the the talent that was becoming available.
“He said, ‘we’ve often struggled to find the right people when the economy was good, and now, with the engineering, architectural, and construction industry being hit so hard, there’s talent out there,’” McCreary recalled. “So we went on a hiring spree.”
The bold move paid off for the company, he went on, because it was well-positioned to seize the opportunities that came about as economic conditions improved — and it did, adding a number of projects to the portfolio.
For this issue and its focus on environment and engineering, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the Dennis Group, its appetite for growth, and its status as a true leader in the large and still-expanding realm of food engineering.

Salad Days
They’re called Uncrustables.
That’s the name Smucker’s has put on a simple yet fascinating product — a frozen, ready-to-eat peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one that comes, as that name suggests, without the crust.
“It’s every kid’s dream — they stamp out the center of the sandwich so there’s no crust,” said Tony Graves, another senior partner at the Dennis Group, noting that Smucker’s reached out to the Dennis Group to design and build what eventually became the largest automated bakery in the world, in Scottsville, Ky., to produce Uncrustables.
Smucker’s addition to the supermarket’s frozen-foods aisle is just one example of the direction the nation — and the food industry that serves it — is taking, said Graves and McCreary, noting that there is ever-greater demand for convenience products, including some that probably couldn’t have been imagined a decade or two ago.
Like packaged salad.
“It’s the simplest ideas that are amazing,” said McCreary, who was vice president of Finance for Dole when it ventured into the packaged-salad business more than 20 years ago. “I mean, how hard is it to make a salad? Who is going to buy this? But, as it turned out, everyone did.”
And this phenomenon is one of the many reasons why the Dennis Group has enjoyed steady growth for the past 26 years, said McCreary, who hired the firm (then with 20 employees) to expand Dole’s facilities in California to accommodate the new product lines, and then was recruited by Tom Dennis to join him in his growing venture.
McCreary said he was attracted to the Springfield-based firm by everything from its already-established reputation for excellence to its decidedly different operating philosophy, or culture.
McCreary described the style as “informal,” and as an example, he referred to his business card, which lists only his name and contact information.
“We don’t have titles … we have very little in terms of a management structure,” he explained. “We have 300 people, but we don’t have an employee handbook — not because we forgot or it’s too hard, but because we want people to use their own judgment.
“Our philosophy is that we hire bright, ambitious people,” he went on, “and if we trust an employee to handle millions of our clients’ dollars, then we trust them to know what a sick day is.”
But what ultimately attracted McCreary to the Dennis Group was its vast growth potential, which he recognized while the firm handled Dole’s expansion efforts.
Taking such a facility from the drawing board to reality is a lengthy, complicated process (there’s that word again), he went on, adding that the Dennis Group ultimately owes its sweeping success to its ability to effectively guide clients through the many steps involved.

The Complete Package
The firm’s full menu of services includes everything from design to construction management; from identifying and handling environmental concerns to waste disposal and energy consumption, he told BusinessWest, adding that the process usually begins with the all-important questions of what to build and, perhaps more important, where.
Indeed, geography is a key consideration in the food-production industry, McCreary and Graves explained, adding that location has an impact on everything from energy costs to distribution.
“With these large companies, if you’re trying to distribute a product nationwide, you want to be more toward the center of the country, rather than up in the corner in some cases,” McCreary said, pointing in the air to the Western Mass. region.
“The process begins with questions like, ‘where do your raw materials come from?’ ‘where do you distribute the product?’ and ‘where is the most beneficial location to meet those needs?’” he continued, adding that, once a preferred geographic region is identified, the Dennis Group works with the client to select a specific location.
And there are a number of factors that go into picking a site — from cost and availability of power (food-processing plants consume huge amounts of energy) to the ability of a given community to handle the large waste streams such plants generate.
“A lot of what we solve with a simple checklist of site needs is an educated guess for what the building size will be and how it can be laid out on the site,” said Graves. “It’s what we try to accomplish before the client makes a mistake.”
Ten sites that might be favorable for new building, he added, will quickly turn into only two sites, due to the complexity of the food-production processes and distribution needs.
With assistance on the economic-development side for regional tax-incentive financing, grants for employee training, etc., the Dennis Group is able to identify and design a purpose-built structure around a customized site, and provide construction management for production of a variety of foods and beverages.
In food engineering, as in most business sectors, success breeds more success, said Graves, who has been with the company for 21 years. He said the food industry, while large in terms of dollars, is much smaller in terms of players and the individuals managing them. In this environment, a good track record can help foster relationships that bring new additions to the portfolio.
“You run into the same people year in and year out,” he explained. “They move around within the industry and bring us along with them.”
One example of such relationship-building is the Sabra hummus company. The Dennis Group started working with it in 2009, when it was a $40 million enterprise that wanted to go national. Currently, the firm is leading a project that will double the size of a 120,000-square-foot plant for what is now a $500 million company.
While repeat business is a leading contributor to the firm’s continued growth, the need within the food industry to reduce energy consumption and retrofit aging plants so they are more efficient has also become a source of new business.
“In food, it’s ‘heat things up, cool things down,’ and you’re always cleaning things in these plants,” said Graves. “So that’s where all their energy usage is, and sometimes energy costs more than the raw materials.”
One of the firm’s recent projects, the Frito-Lay Sun Chips plant in Casa Grande, Arizona, is a net-zero facility, meaning that it has annual zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions; its energy is supplied by solar-powered facilities.

Food for Thought
Looking ahead, McCreary and Graves said the Dennis Group is well-positioned for continued growth in a number of respects, from those aforementioned relationships within the food industry to simple geography, especially in the form of its satellite offices in Salt Lake City and Atlanta, areas clients are increasingly targeting for new building and expansion.
Meanwhile, the nation’s consumers have a seemingly unlimited appetite for convenience food, and an imaginative and resourceful food industry continues to find new and different ways to meet that demand.
These trends and developments bode well for a company that has always had designs on being a business leader — in every sense of that phrase.
Those who don’t know the story of the Dennis Group probably won’t understand the relevance of that poster in the Fuller Block stairway.

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]