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Becoming a Resource

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—George O’Brien

Features

Getting Creative

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz says the inaugural Innovation Fest will provide a solid foundation on which to build.

HUBweek in Boston. Denver Startup Week. The Tom Tom Summit & Festival in Charlottesville, Va. South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

These are just a few of the many highly successful and very well-attended entrepreneurship and innovation events now taking place across the country.

Some of them go on for a few days, others for a whole week, as their names make clear, said Kristen Leutz, executive director of Springfield-based Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who has been to Startup Week and will likely attend some of those other gatherings in the months and years to come as she seeks to learn more about entrepreneurship ecosystems, how they work, and how they can be developed and expanded.

For right now, though, she’s busy putting together the latest addition to that list of summits. It will be called the Springfield Innovation Fest, or SIF for short, although its probably too early for an acronym to take hold.

Indeed, Leutz and her team at VVM are essentially starting from scratch and scrambling to pull things together for the June 12 event, to be staged at the Innovation Center on Bridge Street in Springfield. As she tells the story, those at VVM had been thinking about and talking about a summit — an event that would showcase this region’s burgeoning entrepreneurship ecosystem (and the many other things that are happening in and around Springfield) and take VVM’s Accelerator Awards banquet to a new and much higher plane. But they were initially focused on 2020, a round-number year with all kinds of meaning — until they decided not to wait that long to get the ball rolling.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame,” she said. “Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

Leutz told BusinessWest that the Springfield Innovation Fest certainly has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same sentence as those events in Boston, Denver, Central Texas, and Northern Virginia, but one has to start somewhere, create some buzz, and continually build on the foundation that’s been laid, and that is the very informal business plan for the festival.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame. Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

“Startup Week certainly wasn’t built in a day — or a week,” she said. “We want to see if we can gain some excitement and momentum for next year.”

The inaugural event, still very much in the planning stages, as noted, will feature a number of speakers, ample amounts of networking, and opportunities to get a taste of Springfield — figuratively and quite literally, with tours of the Springfield Museums and Fresh Paint mural art, as well as a visit to What’s on Tap Wednesday.

There are many goals for this year, said Leutz, listing everything from celebrating this region’s history of innovation and ‘firsts’ to recognizing the winners (and all the companies) in this year’s VVM Accelerator class, to moving the needle when it comes to putting Springfield and this region on the map as a startup and innovation hub.

“In the vein of these other festivals that showcase the startup and innovation economies, I thought that, given all that’s happening in Springfield, it was time for our own startup event,” she explained. “I want visibility for the work of entrepreneurship and innovation and how it affects our economy and how it affects traditional businesses as well as startups.

“The idea of being innovative goes beyond a startup company — it infiltrates everything that we do,” she went on. “Springfield is a city of firsts, and we really believe in that heritage and history, and we want people to see that it still is a city of innovation.”

For this issue and focus on business innovation, BusinessWest talked with Leutz about the launch of the SIF, what to expect this year, and where this summit can go in the years to come.

Summit Meeting

“How to Bootstrap the Bejeezus out of Your Startup.” “Think Like a Placemaker Transforming Neighborhoods.” “Future Forward: Live Better with Innovation in Healthcare.” “How to Help Female Founders Succeed (and Every Other Founder, Too).”

These are titles for just some of the presentations scheduled for the SIF, said Leutz, noting that they will cover two tracks — a startup track and an innovator track — and feature speakers that include both young entrepreneurs and leaders of several of the groups within that aforementioned entrepreneurship ecosystem.

And these presentations represent just one aspect of the festival, she went on, adding that there will be, as mentioned, several breaks for networking and collision-making, a showcase and lunch at which attendees can meet the VVM Accelerator and Summer Collegiate Accelerator startups as they showcase their businesses and compete for ‘VVM bucks,’ and also a pitch competition featuring the top five in the Accelerator and the awarding of prizes.

The full lineup is still very much a work in progress, even at this late date (remember, they started late), and the general ideas are to both call attention to the growing startup community and innovative energy in the region, and also give attendees something to take back home — whether that’s across the state or maybe cross-country (although that’s more likely to happen down the road).

This is the formula that those festivals mentioned at the top have followed, said Leutz, noting that many of them are works in progress as well.

That’s certainly the case with HUBweek, which was launched just three years ago, but now brings together attendees from 59 countries, 46 states, and 38 industries, according to the event’s website. Marketed as a gathering “where art, science, and technology collide,” HUBweek was founded by the Boston Globe, Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital, and its website describes it as “a giant petri dish welcoming impact-oriented artists, entrepreneurs, researchers, executives, makers, and up-and-comers. HUBweek brings together the curious, those building our future.”

Startup Week in Denver is in many ways similar, said Leutz, adding that she attended last fall’s festival and came away inspired to bring something with the same vibe, and energy, to the City of Homes.

“It was incredible,” she said, using that adjective to describe the scope of the show, the depth of the speakers, and the amount of planning and marketing that went into the event. “They had 1,000 applications for talks.”

While something to aspire to, these shows more importantly represent a model that can be replicated on a considerably smaller scale, she said, adding that, like the Boston show, she wants an event where worlds can collide, and, like Denver, she wants a “community-created event,” where people submit ideas for talks.

For this first show, organizers have put together a schedule of talks targeted toward entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, and ‘innovators,’ a broad constituency to be sure, said Leutz. Speakers, many of them still to be confirmed, include Christian Lagier, executive director of TechSpring; Mo Reed-McNally of the MassMutual Foundation, and Laura Masulis, transformative development fellow with MassDevelopment (they’re handling the talk on transforming neighborhoods); Bill Cole, leader of Living Local, and Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of SPARK EforAll Holyoke, who will lead a discussion titled “How to Revive Main Street”; and Daquan Oliver, president of WeThrive, the first-prize winner in last year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

As for this year’s Accelerator class, it is smaller — by design (16 companies) — in order to provide more in-depth, customized support to the startups, said Leutz, adding that a smaller group enabled VVM to have a higher ratio of entrepreneurs in residence to startups.

Meanwhile, some of the cash traditionally handed out at the annual banquet as prizes has been awarded already in order to help the startups advance their ventures, said Leutz, adding that there is still plenty at stake at the June 12 showcase and final pitch.

All-day passes to the SIF are $50 each ($45 each for blocks of three or more), and potential attendees can buy an extra ticket so an entrepreneur can attend for free, said Leutz, adding that the admission charge is essentially to cover the cost of the event. Sponsorship opportunities are available, starting at $1,000. For more information, visit www.valleyventurementors.org.

Getting Started

Like the companies taking part in the VVM Accelerator, the SIF is essentially a startup venture, Leutz acknowledged, and one with considerable promise to grow well beyond its current size and scope.

It will likely never be on the same level as HUBweek or Denver Startup Week, but like those other events, it provides an opportunity to bring several worlds together and spark more innovation.

SIF is not part of the local lexicon yet, but Leutz and her team believe it soon will be.

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

Business of Aging

On the Path of Discovery

Skip Matthews says Louis & Clark

Skip Matthews says Louis & Clark is continuing a process of evolution and response to changes in the marketplace that began in 1965.

By now, a good number of people in this region know the story of how the second-generation, 55-year-old company known to most as Louis & Clark came to take that name.

The sign over the pharmacy on Memorial Drive in Chicopee in the mid-’60s read ‘Airline Drug,’ an obvious nod to what was then known as Westover Air Force Base, just a few hundred yards away. But before long, many customers had unofficially renamed it, using the first names of the partners — and pharmacists — who had acquired the business, Louis Demosthenous and Clark Matthews, who just happened to share names with those famous explorers (sort of).

“There weren’t really marketing companies back then,” Skip Matthews, Clark’s son, explained with a laugh. “It was just … we were Airline Drug, the customers started calling it Louis & Clark, and they kept calling it that, so they changed the name. I imagine that feeds your ego pretty well, too.”

Perhaps a less-known story (although the company is investing considerable time and energy in telling it, as we’ll see later) is how this company continues to evolve and respond to change — within the industry, in societal needs, in demographics, and even in the way companies are operated.

We’ll start with the much longer name over the door. Under the ‘Louis & Clark’ in large type (with a stick figure in a wheelchair taking the place of a traditional ampersand) are the words ‘Pharmacy & Home Medical Supplies,’ and they go a long way toward telling this story.

“Our employees possess a world of knowledge. Our emphasis is on unlocking all that knowledge instead of having people place an order, come in and pick it up, and leave.”

Indeed, a company that once had several pharmacies scattered across this region has seen that division of the company remain vibrant while also taking on a different look and feel. There are fewer locations — in fact, just one — but also a greater focus on convenience and delivery.

It’s all on display at the company’s recently opened pharmacy on Brookdale Drive in Springfield.

Formerly located on Page Boulevard in the same city, the company calls this a ‘long-term-care-facility’ pharmacy, one that focuses on delivery, packaging, and medication management, especially through a relatively new service called the MediBubble, its new medication-management system delivered to those in assisted-living facilities, group homes, nursing homes, and independent-living situations within the community.

The MediBubble is a medication package that helps individuals safely manage what prescription medications they take, and when, he explained, adding that each package contains all of one’s medications for a specific time of day, this reducing confusion when taking multiple medications.

Diane Cordeiro says one of the main focal points for Louis & Clark

Diane Cordeiro says one of the main focal points for Louis & Clark is to build relationships and boost awareness of its many products and services.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to remember if they’ve taken their pills,” he went on. “With MediBubble, they simply have to look at the sheet. If that bubble has been opened, they’ve probably taken their pills.”

Meanwhile, the medical-supplies side of the operation, which itself dates back to 1978, has grown considerably and also evolved to meet new and different needs and bring a higher level of service to customers. Matthews explained this by stressing that the company doesn’t simply supply medical equipment. It also provides education and advice, something that isn’t available to those who might be tempted to merely order something online.

“The big point of emphasis now is becoming more and more knowledge providers as opposed to order takers,” he explained. “That’s a challenge for us and a challenge for our industry; people have options — they can go to a pharmacy, or they can try to find something online. For people to come into our location, there has to be a reason — it’s too easy to buy things anywhere else.

“Our employees possess a world of knowledge,” he went on, adding that some have been in the business for three decades or more. “Our emphasis is on unlocking all that knowledge instead of having people place an order, come in and pick it up, and leave.”

Over the years, the company has developed a number of specialty services, including the Pink Mermaid Mastectomy Boutique, located in the medical-supplies location in Groton, Conn., and a focus on foot care in all its medical-supplies locations — in Springfield, Easthampton, and East Longmeadow.

And it continues to find new ways to bring quality service and convenience to customers, a pattern that has continued for 55 years. For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this ability to respond, adapt, and evolve has positioned Louis & Clark for continued growth in an always-changing healthcare landscape.

Blazing New Trails

Before talking about the present and especially the future, Matthews first stepped into the way-back machine and returned to 1965 — and actually a few years before that, when his father and Louis Demosthenous were classmates at the Hampden College of Pharmacy in Chicopee, long since merged into the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston.

After graduation, they went in different directions — mostly work at pharmaceutical chains — before deciding to go into business for themselves. They acquired Airline Drug, and as you now know (if you didn’t know before), the partners’ first names, not their last, as is so often the case, became a brand.

And a brand that quickly expanded its presence across the region as the partners opened additional pharmacy locations.

Indeed, just a few years after acquiring the Chicopee facility, they opened a second on Breckwood Boulevard in Springfield, across from Western New England University. Additional pharmacy locations were opened in the center of Wilbraham (1970), Ludlow (1971), Page Boulevard (1972), Baystate Medical Center (1988), Mercy Medical Center (1992), and Holyoke Health Center, among others. The first medical-supplies facility was located in one of the company’s pharmacies in West Springfield.

Kim Vigliotte, seen here in the fitting area

Kim Vigliotte, seen here in the fitting area in the East Street, Springfield location, is a compression specialist and pedorthist who consults with 25-30 customers a day.

As the landscape changed and pharmacy became much more of a volume business, the company consolidated those operations and focused its attention on the types of business that the large chains dominating that landscape were not interested in — specifically delivery and packaging, like the MediBubble, said Matthews, who has been involved with the business since graduating from college in 1987 and assumed full ownership a few years ago.

The recently opened facility on Brookdale Drive will deliver to individuals and facilities within a wide geographic radius, from Greenfield to the north to Westfield and beyond to the west, to Monson and Palmer to the east.

As noted, the service specializes in bringing packaged medications to those who take anywhere from five to 15 medications a day, and it is becoming increasingly popular, said Matthews, adding that the pharmacy side of the business remains vibrant — but different than it was decades ago.

And the same can be said of the medical-supplies division, which has seen more dramatic growth over the years.

Indeed, there are now four locations — what Matthews calls the ‘hub,’ a large showroom and warehouse on East Street in Springfield; a satellite location in Easthampton; a recently opened retail location in the Heritage Plaza in East Longmeadow; and the location in Groton, which was an acquisition of an existing facility.

As was noted earlier, Matthews said the focus is on not merely supplying or resupplying a wide range of items — from catheters to compression socks; from incontinence products to wheelchairs — but also supplying information, education, and guidance.

“People need help, and sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there to help them — like a different product or a different size of a given product,” he said, again stressing that the company strives to move well beyond merely taking and filling orders and dispensing more knowledge.

This is especially true when it comes to foot care, said Kim Vigliotte, a compression specialist and pedorthist, who spends much of her time at the East Street location, but rotates to all of the company’s medical-supply locations.

She told BusinessWest she assists individuals with a range of foot problems, including diabetes, vascular disease, and non-healing wounds, and sees, on average, 25 to 30 people a day at the Springfield location.

“A patient comes in with a prescription from their podiatrist or primary-care doctor, and we do a foot evaluation or evaluation of their legs, and determine which product would be most appropriate for them to address whatever issues they’re having, be it pain, swelling, or ulceration,” she said, adding that there are a number of products on the market now that can improve quality of life for such patients. Her work is focused on matching them with the right ones, and she acknowledged it’s very rewarding work.

Charting a New Course

While working to improve service to customers, Louis & Clark has also been working to improve efficiency and develop and then follow a roadmap for continued growth, and it has been helped in this regard by adaptation of what’s known as the entrepreneurial operating system (EOS).

In simple terms, EOS is a system by which companies large and small can manage and strengthen six key components of business operation: vision, data, process, traction, issues, and people.

Rachel Duda says Louis & Clark has been very proactive

Rachel Duda says Louis & Clark has been very proactive in its outreach to a number of constituencies.

The company now has separate leadership teams for its two divisions — pharmacy and medical supplies — thus enabling Matthews to focus more on the vision side of the equation and long-term strategic planning.

This new structure has allowed for better, sharper focus within each division, said Diane Cordeiro, the company’s marketing manager and also the integrator, or chief operating officer, for the medical-supplies division, adding that it also enables them to work better together toward the same goals.

“The integrator is the individual who is responsible for keeping all the different business units working together — finance, HR, operations, marketing — and just make sure that each unit is working to the best of their ability and that their leader is having them maximize everything they do on a day-to-day basis,” said Cordeiro, who joined the company in 1990 as a cashier and moved steadily up the ladder. “We want to have everyone working toward the same goals and being enthusiastic about their day-to-day, helping customers, working with referral groups, and enabling us to stand out from every other standard medical-supply location.”

Elaborating, she said one of the emerging priorities for the company is to make the public fully aware of all it does — and all the knowledge its employees possess, work that dovetails nicely with the main title on her business card: ‘marketing manager.’

“I want to see that part of the business grow,” she said, referring specifically to medical supply. “And, obviously, this involves making new relationships with new referral groups, maximizing outreach for relationship building, and just letting people know who we are and what we do.”

Rachel Duda, a marketing assistant for the company, said Louis & Clark has been very proactive in its outreach to a number of constituencies, including physicians’ offices, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, and group homes, in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, in an effort to build awareness of the company as a resource.

“It’s all about education — individuals don’t know what they don’t know,” she explained, adding that the company has taken things to a higher level in recent years with a program called ‘lunch and learn.’

As the name implies, it involves lunch and learning — about Louis & Clark and its various services, said Cordeiro, adding that lunch is very often the only time to get the full attention of a staff at a physician’s office or residential facility.

“We offer these to any new opportunity or referral group,” she explained, “including doctor’s offices, home-care agencies, physical-therapy offices, rehab facilities, anyone who would be prescribing products that we dispense.”

The lunches are definitely having an impact, Cordeiro went on, adding that company is receiving prescriptions from a number of new sources. And they are just one example of more aggressive outreach that benefits both parties.

Another is a relatively new initiative involving on-site visits to senior centers and senior-living facilities for everything from ice-cream socials to hot lunches to what are known as ‘tune-up clinics.’

“Our in-house technician will go on site on a scheduled day, and any individual who is from that community can bring down their walker, their wheelchair, anything that might need some sort of adjustment, new wheels, new brakes, whatever,” she told BusinessWest, adding that for parts under $5 there is no charge, and for parts over that amount, the individual pays just the retail cost.

That explains why these tune-ups have become hugely popular and also a huge part of the company’s efforts to tell its story and build new relationships, something it’s been doing since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

Making More History

After Louis Demosthenous retired more than a dozen years ago and Skip Matthews took on a leadership role, there was brief — as in very brief, apparently — discussion about changing the company’s name again to Skip & Clark.

Those talks were brief because it was decided this name didn’t roll off the tongue as well and didn’t have the historical connection. Besides, Louis & Clark had become a regional brand, one that had become synonymous with service and innovation.

So, while the name hasn’t changed, the company remains, in a word, fluid as it continues to discover — pun intended — ways to better educate and better serve its customers.

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

Technology

Pipeline to Progress

When the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released a study last fall examining potential locations for water-technology demonstration centers in Massachusetts — thus raising the Bay State’s profile and potential in the increasingly critical field of water supply, treatment, and sustainability — UMass Amherst was a natural choice, because it’s been making connections between water research and industry for some time. A host of key stakeholders believe it can become even more so in the decades to come.

Talk to experts in the broad realm of water technology innovation, and it doesn’t take long for Israel to come up, at least in terms of government investment.

It’s not exactly by choice.

“There are countries facing severe water issues right now,” said Loren Walker, director of the Office of Research Development at UMass Amherst. “Israel is the world leader in terms of state-led efforts to purify water — because they have to. They have a real water-constraint situation there.”

But several entities in the Bay State — from the university to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to a host of industry players, both established companies and startups — are intrigued by the potential to make Massachusetts an international leader in water innovation as well. And they’ve got plenty of progress to build on already.

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on, so there’s a need to innovate ways to treat water, both wastewater and surface water,” Walker told BusinessWest.

“It’s an active area of university research, an active area of industrial research,” he went on, “but there’s a gap between the kind of research the universities do — federally funded, more basic or fundamental — and technologies being developed by industry that they can ultimately commercialize and sell. There’s a gap between that fundamental research and the later applied research where you’re prototyping, scaling up, and seeing what technologies really work — and that’s where you need a pilot site. You need a way to go from fundamental laboratory research to commercial-scale research.”

UMass could be that site, he said.

Loren Walker

Loren Walker says the Amherst Wastewater Treatment plant provides UMass researchers and partnering companies a flow of wastewater on which to test new technologies.

Last fall, MassCEC released a comprehensive study that evaluates the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers across Massachusetts, including one at UMass Amherst. Such centers, proponents say, could offer a test bed to pilot new water technologies and position Massachusetts as a global leader in the water-innovation and energy-efficiency sector, providing significant business and employment opportunities.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, said one of the EDC’s goals is to help identify and develop sectors where Massachusetts could become a center of excellence. Back when he served as secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs under then-Gov. Deval Patrick, he and the governor traveled to several locations, including Israel, to learn about water innovation, recognizing this was an issue of growing international concern.

“Water is just a really big issue, and becoming more important every day,” Sullivan said. “So we started asking, ‘can Massachusetts actually play in this water cluster?’ The short answer is, yes we can — because it’s already a multi-billion-dollar business in the Commonwealth.”

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on.”

That figure includes everything from delivery systems to public-works projects; from filtering, purifying, and clarifying water to security of freshwater sources like the Quabbin Reservoir, he noted. “So it’s a bigger field than I think a lot of people realize.”

UMass Amherst has long been involved in water research. Then, in 2016, a $4.1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — on the heels of a state earmark of $1.5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection for water innovation — helped launch one of only two national research centers (the other is in Boulder, Colo.) focused on testing and demonstrating cutting-edge technologies for drinking-water systems.

All things considered, Sullivan said, UMass Amherst is an ideal spot to develop a demonstration center. A conference last October, called “Innovations and Opportunities in Water Technologies,” brought together the business and startup community, area municipal leaders who spoke about challenges to current water and wastewater systems, and UMass experts who detailed some of the cutting-edge work already being done on campus.

“At the end of the day, all of those panels and all the discussion and information kind of led back to reinforcing the idea that this is a really smart investment for the Commonwealth,” Sullivan said, noting that the investment to create the three centers was approved as part of the state’s 2014 environmental bond bill, but has not yet been appropriated in the state budget.

“When you talk to the companies that are in the innovation sector, one of the biggest needs they have is to be able to take their product and demonstrate that it works in real life — and to be able to do that not just in a lab, but out there in the real world,” he continued. “UMass has the ability to provide that infrastructure with some investment from the Commonwealth.”

In the Flow

The MassCEC study analyzed the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers around the state: the so-called Wastewater Pilot Plant at UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center in Barnstable, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor.

Establishing this network could create jobs, lower energy costs, and optimize municipal operations in addition to supporting water-technology research, the study noted. A test-bed network could serve existing Massachusetts-based water technology companies, help attract new companies to the Commonwealth, advance new solutions to both local and global water challenges, and provide a strong foundation for innovation.

Key to UMass Amherst’s feasibility as a demonstration center is the fact that it already acts as a pilot site for industry — albeit on a limited basis — because of its access to flowing streams of municipal wastewater at the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant, located next to the university’s Water Energy Technology (WET) Center.

“You need flowing streams of municipal wastewater and surface water; you need to have access to this to test your filtration membrane or electrochemical treatment technologies, whatever they may be,” Walker said.

“Those facilities are few and far between,” he added. “But we happen to have one of just a couple facilities in the country that have some of the key attributes necessary to do some of this pilot testing — access to flowing wastewater and flowing surface-water streams, proximity to a research university, and access to stakeholders and end users.”

The issue, he said, is size and scale.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

“We have the fundamental key attributes needed to make this kind of pilot facility, but we’re limited,” he went on. “We have bays now and already have companies using the facility to do their own research and scale up. It’s already an active space for research and development collaborations — but it gets filled up very quickly, so we would love to expand it, see even more companies come in and use this space, both established companies as well as new startups.”

The center was established in the 1970s and ran as a research pilot site for decades, but fell into disrepair in the late 1990s, he explained. Since its grant-funded renovation in 2016 as a research and collaboration space, it has hosted numerous industrial collaborators. “But it’s limited how many projects can happen in parallel. So there’s a case to be made for investing in infrastructure improvements, expansion, and modernization, do more projects in parallel.”

As an example of the kind of research being done there, Walker brought up ultrafiltration membranes — nanoscale membranes that can remove contaminants when water is forced through. One problem is that the membranes tend to get fouled up by materials in the water and eventually don’t work so well, and have to be replaced regularly, which is costly.

But Jessica Schiffman, an associate professor of Chemical Engineering at UMass Amherst, recently received a National Science Foundation grant to study the use of naturally occurring biopolymers that can be used as a nanofiber’s mat to prevent fouling in these ultrafiltration membranes, he explained. “Then you have a membrane that lasts longer and is more valuable, more efficient, and processes water more effectively.”

Then there are startups like Aclarity, whose CEO, Julie Bliss Mullen, presented at the fall conference. Her company specializes in electrochemical advanced oxidation, which is essentially using electricity to decontaminate water.

“Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here.”

“Then there are companies developing their own technologies we don’t even know about,” Walker said. “When they get to the stage where they’ve tested it at the lab scale and they know it works at that scale, they still can’t sell it; they can’t turn it into a technology and market it to anyone until they’ve tested it at the municipal scale, and that’s where a facility like the WET Center comes in.

“We already know there’s interest here, and we have more interest than we can serve presently,” he went on. “And we’re hoping we can find ways to expand and renovate the facility so we can meet that interest.”

It’s not just companies that benefit, he added. “Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here. So it’s a very fruitful partnership, to have our basic researchers working with companies, and companies hopefully getting some value out of the investigations we can lead, and we get a lot of value from the questions they ask, which informs the research we do here at the university.”

Current Events

One end result of all this innovation and connection, Sullivan said, is a real economic-development boost in a field that promises to become more critical over the next several decades.

“Companies these days are looking for direct ties to the university for two reasons: one, the students are graduating and they need the talent, and they also want to tie back to the research and development that’s occurring with the grad students and professors and other staff, so they can stay on the cutting edge,” he told BusinessWest.

The test-bed potential, to have a site big enough to accommodate real-life testing for more companies, only enhances that potential, he added, noting that it’s only one way UMass is leading the way in connecting scientific research with real economic development, with the core facilities at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences being another.

“It’s such a resource and economic opportunity for the region,” he said of the university as a whole, “and I think a lot of people don’t understand and appreciate the potential it has and the importance it has.”

Walker was quick to add that the state and region have been taking the water-technology issue seriously for some time. For example, the New England Water Innovation Network is a nonprofit trade group that examines the water cluster in Massachusetts — companies developing water-purification technologies, university researchers at UMass and other universities, and industry — and connects those dots to help foster collaboration and innovation that will develop technologies, attract companies interested in developing these technologies, and hopefully create more jobs and an economic boost, all while attacking a major global problem.

“So there’s a need, and it’s likely only going to grow,” he said. “UMass Amherst is going to help develop some of the solutions to solve that problem and, hopefully, in the process of doing so, create some economic opportunity for Massachusetts and Western Mass. in particular.”

While UMass is ahead of the curve, Walker noted, this isn’t an unknown area for innovation potential, and other states, like Georgia, are currently looking to develop similar pilot-scale and commercial-scale projects.

“Right now we’re in a good place. We have a lot of interest, and we have a lot of expertise here, but I think that, going forward, we’ll see a lot more competition from other states and other regions that want to get in on this game. But to be successful, you have to have combination of physical infrastructure, stakeholder relations, and, critically, the expertise. That means having experts at the university level, which we have in spades here.”

David Reckhow is one of the more prominent of that group. The director of the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems at UMass Amherst, he has traveled to Israel, Singapore, and other places to learn about global water needs and the innovation occurring worldwide to meet those needs.

“They talk about water being the next oil,” Reckhow told BusinessWest in December 2014. “We’re running out of quality water. There’s plenty of water on the planet, but most of it is not usable; the water in the ocean is not usable, or, at least, it’s very expensive to use. So, as we move forward, there’s going to be more conflict over existing high-quality water sources. We have seen it in the Middle East for a long time, but it’s going to be more widespread. It’s an issue of national security around the world.”

The intervening years have only made it more of one. And UMass Amherst has the potential, Walker said, to be a national center for water innovation that will benefit the region, but also attract players from across the U.S., both industry and academic collaborators.

“I do think it’s new enough of a cluster that it’s just starting to get some real recognition of its importance,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Western Mass., and UMass in particular, to play a role here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Collision Course

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

As Valley Venture Mentors completes its move into Springfield’s Innovation Center on Bridge Street, it is also moving into a new era in its history, one that is very entrepreneurial in nature — in keeping with its broad mission — and strives to continually expand and strengthen the region’s ecosystem for supporting and inspiring entrepreneurs.

‘Pivot.’

In the startup world, this term has become incredibly versatile, now serving as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. It has become the subject of lectures, books, and articles bearing titles that hint at its emergence — as in “The Art of the Pivot,” “Three Rules for Making a Successful Pivot,” “Five Steps for Pivoting into Entrepreneurship,” and countless others.

In simple terms, to pivot means to adapt, or to change the course or strategy of an emerging business based largely on customer wants and needs. Some of the most prominent companies in the world owe their success to a pivot, or several of them.

There are various methods of pivoting, as indicated by those article titles above, but the bottom line — both literally and figuratively — is for entrepreneurs to understand the importance of flexibility and the need to pivot, and to not be afraid to so.

Administrators and mentors at Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) have been preaching the need to pivot and showing people how since the nonprofit was launched eight years ago now. And these days, one might say it is practicing what it’s been preaching.

Well, sort of.

What VVM is engaged in now could be called a pivot, although its overall mission and strategy are not really changing. They are evolving, though, and being taken to a new and higher level as the organization completes its move into the long-anticipated, $7 million Innovation Center on Bridge Street in downtown Springfield.

“One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industry.”

The move began last summer, said Kristin Leutz, who assumed the role of CEO at VVM about the same time as the moving trucks started unpacking furniture. And it is ongoing, she said, as new furnishings arrive and new strategies emerge for making the best and most efficient use of the intriguing 10,000 square feet of space VVM now commands.

The agency will be using a small percentage of that space for its own administrative needs, with the rest devoted to revenue-producing, entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building endeavors, from signing on tenants for various co-working spaces and small offices to renting out the large, 175-seat auditorium that dominates the ground floor of VVM’s suite.

And this is where the pivoting comes in, said Leutz, adding that VVM is moving to a slightly adjusted, more entrepreneurial model, necessitated by the need to cover the expenses of what is, in many respects, a growing business in its own right.

These include the nearly $4,000 in monthly rent — a great bargain given the amount of space and the going rates downtown these days — as well as a growing staff and the myriad other costs of running such an operation.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

“This space represents a micro entrepreneurship venture of our own,” she explained, adding that, like the startups mentored and supported by VVM, it has a business plan and a strategy for executing it.

In simple terms, it involves making the Innovation Center not merely a revenue center, although it will become that as well, but an entrepreneurial hub and a place where collisions can and will happen — collisions between fellow entrepreneurs, business owners and mentors, entrepreneurs and potential investors, and more.

“When we think about how to introduce people from Springfield and Western Mass. to the entry point when it comes to entrepreneurship and remove any barriers that exist, we come back to the all-important concept of place-making,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that’s smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industries.”

Summings things up, Leutz noted VVM’s working slogan (“Give. Get. Grow.”) and said the new location and all its facilities — from different kinds of co-working space to a nursing room for new mothers; from a shared kitchen to areas where startups and mentors can meet and collaborate — provide individuals, startups, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a whole with more opportunities to do all of the above.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the staff at VVM about not only the move into the Innovation Center, but the organization’s pivoting action and the next crucial steps in its history.

Right Place, Right Time

VVM will stage a grand-opening ceremony at its new space on Thursday, Feb. 7, when it co-hosts the annual State of Entrepreneurship Conference with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. The invite list for that event, and the ribbon cutting to follow, is rather lengthy, said Leutz, noting that it includes representatives of a number of entrepreneurial ecosystem partners — from the Grinspoon Foundation to TechSpring to area colleges and universities — as well as a number of other constituencies, including elected officials, VVM alums, mentors, and long-time supporters.

“We’re checking our occupancy level to see how many we can have in here legally,” she said, adding that the agency will test the upper limit of that number, whatever it is.

Getting to this ribbon-cutting ceremony has been an adventure, she noted, and a long journey that started when she and many other representatives of this region toured the Cambridge Innovation Center and came back determined to create a similar place-making facility in this region, preferably in downtown Springfield.

Fast-forwarding somewhat — this story has been well-chronicled — the historic structure at 270-276 Bridge St. was eventually chosen, and a number of funding partners, including MassDevelopment, MassMutual, Common Capital, and others, were secured. The project got underway in 2017, but as work proceeded and walls were taken down, it became clear that the cost of the work would far exceed preliminary estimates — and the amount raised.

Work was stopped for several months before eventually starting up again last spring. Leutz recalled the occasion.

“It was like a reunion — we got the architects back together with the contractor, we were meeting weekly in the space, there were holes in the floor … there was drama, but we were doing it,” she said. “And things moved fast; we knew in June that we were going to fast-track this thing and get it open by January, and we did.”

But as work was starting up again, VVM was going through a transformation of its own, starting at the top, where Leutz, who joined the organization as COO in the fall of 2017, was chosen to succeed Liz Roberts as CEO.

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

“I’ve always been a big fan of VVM,” said Leutz, who was a mentor with the organization in its earliest days and is perhaps best-known locally for the decade she spent as vice president for Philanthropic Services at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

She noted that, while at the Community Foundation, she helped VVM secure one of the first innovation grants awarded by that organization, a three-year commitment made to help launch its accelerator, among other programs. “I understood early on that this was something unique in Western Mass. and that it would really take off.”

And now that it has, she and fellow team members take on the assignment of plotting an ambitious course — and keeping it on the course, again, much like the startup businesses it helps mentor, she said, adding that when she came on board as COO it was to essentially help blueprint a new strategic plan for the nonprofit centered on its home and the new opportunities it offered, and she was intrigued by the assignment.

As was Ron Molina-Brantley, who joined VVM a few months before Leutz did and would eventually succeed her as COO.

Formerly an employee of the city of Springfield, working first in the Finance Department and then the Facilities Department as senior program manager — a perfect blend of skills for an organization moving into new space and also assuming new fiscal responsibilities — Molina-Brantley said he was looking to grow professionally, and VVM and the next stage in its development offered an intriguing challenge.

“VVM was the right place at the right time,” he told BusinessWest. “The environment and ecosystem they were trying to build really appealed to me; there was an instant love affair between me and VVM and the community. The atmosphere is amazing, the startups are amazing, and you just want to be part of it. It’s contagious.”

It was, and is, for Stephanie Kirby, as well, VVM’s director of Mentorship. An alum of the agency’s collegiate accelerator program, she started her own business (a music label) at age 14, and has continually honed and reshaped it over the years — so much so that she was known as the “pivot queen” when she took part in VVM’s first collegiate accelerator while attending Five Towns College in New York.

“I would pivot a lot within my business, and when you come to VVM, that’s what they teach you — how do you actually build your business,” she said, adding that she’s now working to help others master that skill.

Writing the Next Chapter

Together, these and other team members have taken on the assignment of moving VVM into a new era, if you will, one that poses some challenges for the agency, but myriad new opportunities for entrepreneurs and those mentoring them — and for strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem the region has built and that has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

To explain it in simple terms, Leutz said the VVM operation is in some ways similar in structure to a pyramid. At the base is the place — in this case, the Innovation Center — where things, meaning those collisions she mentioned, can happen. The next level in the pyramid is programming, which at VVM means mentorship and acceleration, specifically its two popular accelerator programs — a startup accelerator and a collegiate accelerator. And the top of the pyramid is what she called “an ecosystem builder,” meaning systems to support what others across the region, like the Grinspoon Foundation and the area’s colleges and universities, are doing.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

“Within these realms, we hope to serve everyone, from the ideation stage, early, early, person-with-an-idea-on-napkin type of entrepreneur, to someone who has a venture and is on their way to raising their first round of capital or beyond,” she said. “It’s usually seed stage for us, and our programs are customized for that entrepreneur’s unique goals and challenges. What’s new for VVM, and what we’re really zeroing in on, is ‘how do we take a particular venture and uniquely help it to succeed?’

“Our big focus now is to think about 1,000 startups in the Pioneer Valley — what would that look like and how would that change the success rate, because we know a large number of startups fail,” she went on. “The more that you create, the greater chance you have for seeing transformational companies.”

And the Innovation Center and VVM’s new facilities are designed to help make that vision reality, she went on as she offered a tour that started on the ground floor, devoted to programming, and the auditorium, which is community space in every sense of that phrase.

“We encourage anyone and everyone to think about how to promote entrepreneurship in their industry, their business, or their community, and come talk to us, and we’ll make this space available,” she said, adding that the space was essentially created to showcase people’s ideas and their notion of entrepreneurship.

That first floor also includes a mentorship lounge, which represents a major upgrade from the spaces where mentors and entrepreneurs would get together in recent years when VVM was located in donated space in Tower Square. “We’ve never had a space like this; before, people were just hanging out on folding chairs in a big, open room.”

It also includes two private offices that can be rented out and café space as well.

The second floor, what she called the “beating heart of our startup community,” is where the co-working space is to be found. Half of the floor is dedicated to people who rent permanent spots on a month-to-month basis, she said, adding that three startups are currently doing so. There’s also the so-called ‘hot desk’ space — unassigned space that be rented for $25 a day, with other rates for more regular use — as well as a ‘brainstorming nook,’ a community kitchen, private phone rooms for entrepreneurs seeking some privacy, the private room for nursing mothers, and more.

Roughly 50% of the space that can be rented is now under lease, she said, adding that the goal is to get that number to 75% and perhaps 100% by the end of this year.

Describing the look and feel of VVM’s new home, Leutz noted that, while these spaces may have been inspired by similar facilities in other communities, they don’t look like those spaces.

“This space is meant to feel like it belongs in Springfield,” she said, adding that there is furniture made by local artists and the walls will feature what she described as ‘community-driven’ art. “It’s beautiful, and it’s aspirational, but it also feels like it’s home. It won’t feel like you’ve stepped into some place in downtown Manhattan, and it shouldn’t. It should feel like Springfield.”

Bottom Line

Summing up what’s been created on Bridge Street, Leutz went back to the goals put down on paper after the group visiting the Cambridge Innovation Center returned to Springfield and set about replicating what they encountered.

“This intention of this project was always to have it be a community-driven space focusing on the innovation economy and enlivening the economic activity downtown,” she said, adding that this is a broad mission, and, as noted, somewhat of a pivot for VVM.

An exciting pivot, for sure, and one that certainly bears watching in the months and years to come.

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

Healthcare Heroes

This Unique Venture Exists at the Intersection of Innovation and Technology

Christian Lagier

Christian Lagier, managing director and co-founder of TechSpring.

Christian Lagier has a deep background in entrepreneurship, business operations, and strategic business development.

He’s been involved with startups and high-growth companies in Paris and Copenhagen, and he spent 10 formative years in Silicon Valley’s high-octane startup environment at arguably its zenith (the ’90s).

Thus, he’s an expert in … collisions.

That’s a word you hear quite often within the realms of innovation and entrepreneurship. Generally, it refers to the art and science (because it’s both) of bringing people together and making things — meaning products, services, and the companies to provide them — happen.

Soon after leaving the San Francisco area behind to come to Western Mass., Lagier became a key driver in an effort to bring collisions to a different, higher level, and to a sector where you don’t hear that word as much as you do in others — healthcare.

The result was TechSpring, a unique venture that is based in Springfeld. But its exact location, as Lagier likes to say, is at “the intersection of healthcare and technology.”

“We’re trying to bring these sides together in a place where we can democratize technology development, or bring people into the process.”

That phrase speaks volumes about not only what TechSpring is, but why, more than three years after it was launched, it has met or exceeded both expectations and goals. And why a panel of judges determined that it (meaning the sum of all its parts and the all the people behind it) is the Healthcare Hero in the highly competitive category called simply ‘Innovation in Health/Wellness.’

Summing it all up, Lagier, the venture’s managing director and co-founder, said TechSpring has realized a vision established four years ago to take external innovators into a partnership of sorts with Baystate Health, its 1 million patients, and thousands of providers to accelerate innovation in healthcare technology.

“We’re trying to bring these sides together in a place where we can democratize technology development, or bring people into the process,” he explained, “and do it in a way that’s aligned with the goals of an organization that is working hard to deliver high-quality, high-value care every day.”

In the process of democratizing the innovation process, TechSpring has become a real force within the region’s economy and, especially, its innovation sector. It serves as an innovation hub in every sense of that word, said Lagier, noting that brings people together in all sorts of ways.

Christian Lagier, seen here with team members at TechSpring

Christian Lagier, seen here with team members at TechSpring, says the facility, and especially its kitchen, were designed to promote collisions.

First, as co-working space — there are about 80 people working there now — but also as a conference center and site for programs such as its monthly innovation open house, known as Tap into TechSpring.

“It was important to us as we were doing this project to have healthcare come out of the ivory tower, if you will,” Lagier explained. “We wanted to open the doors and create a public forum, a physical hub for all the people in Western Mass. and beyond who are working at that intersection of healthcare and technology.”

There is mounting evidence that this model works and should be emulated. For example:

• It has grown from one employee to eight;

• There have been more than 30 completed innovation projects, all with learning or operational outcomes;

• Tap into TechSpring, has attracted more than 4,000 participants since it was initiatied more than three years ago;

• The venture has received trade delegations and leadership visits from Israel, Denmark, Ireland, Singapore, Australia, and other countries;

• At any given time, there are between five and 10 projects in development or active execution; and, perhaps most importantly,

• TechSpring has generated more than $7 million in revenue or savings for Baystate Health.

Which means that the sizable investment made by the system in TechSpring has more than paid for itself.

Maybe the best example of how TechSpring works, and why it was named the hero in the Innovation category, is Praxify, an intuitive, easy-to-use mobile application designed to enhance the provider experience by bringing patient information directly into the palm of one’s hand.

“We heard clearly from our organization, and specifically from our physicians working at Baystate, that the electronic medical record system had grown unwieldy and that it was consuming too much time to get information in and out,” Lagier explained, adding that NTT, one of TechSpring’s innovative partners, introduced people there to a startup in India that had developed a mobile app that was user-friendly and fast to use.

When representatives of that company came to Springfield with their demos, they were introduced to roughly 30 Baystate doctors who, long story short, helped them refine the concept into something that works.

Thus, Praxify is an example of just how well the original vision for TechSpring has, in fact, become reality.

“When we started this project, it was big ideas and PowerPoint slides,” he told BusinessWest. “And you have this vision. Looking back on it four or five years later, after making many of these come to life and become real … that’s a great point of pride.”

Food for Thought

As he talked about collisions and the ongoing work to bring them about, Lagier said everything about TechSpring’s facility on the fifth floor at 1350 Main St. was designed with that goal in mind.

Even the kitchen. Or especially the kitchen, as the case may be.

With the old-fashioned water cooler pretty much a thing of the past, the kitchen is the place where people gather now, he told BusinessWest, adding that, in addition to politics, sports, and what TV shows they’re binging, people at TechSpring also talk about what they’re doing.

And they listen to other people talk about what they’re doing, and when there’s two or three or four people having such conversations, this is how collisions take place. So the kitchen was designed to promote this kind of activity.

“It’s large, open, and has seating,” Lagier explained. “This is the place where people connect informally and begin chatting, and where a wonderful thing happens every day at TechSpring — someone finds an opportunity to help someone else, and that’s what we need to accelerate change in healthcare.”

Kitchen design is one of the few things not on Lagier’s résumé. As for what is, well, it’s an interesting mix.

Out of high school, he actually worked as a foreign-language tour guide in bustling Copenhagen (he’s fluent in six languages, including Danish, French, and English). He also worked as a deck hand on an offshore oil rig in the North Sea and hitchhiked his way around the world for a year.

He eventually settled down and earned master’s degrees in economics and business administration from Copenhagen Business School and Université Catholique de Louvain in Brussels and then went to where the action was.

“I moved to Silicon Valley to seek adventure and the application of technology to real-world problems,” he said, hitting upon what could be considered a theme to his career. “I was there in ’95, which was an exciting tine to be in Silicon Valley.”

After starting out in management consulting, Lagier held management positions in companies such as Memolane, Vivino, and Proxicom. He spent a decade in Silicon Valley, but decided, in collaboration with his wife Allison, who had ties to this region, that Western Mass. (Williamsburg in Hampshire County, to be exact) was the place to raise a family.

“It was a lifestyle choice for us,” he said, adding that, while he’s lived in some fast-lane places — Paris, Copenhagen, and San Francisco are all on that list — this is home, and the mailing address he’s most fond of.

Fast-forwarding a little, Lagier worked in administration at Smith College for a few years. Just over five years ago, had lunch at Max’s Tavern with Joel Vengco, chief information officer for Baystate Health. It was a lunch that would eventually pave the way for TechSpring and begin to change both the innovation and healthcare landscapes in this region.

“Joel, like me, has broad experience from different geographies and parts of life, and when he came here, he had a vision for an opportunity that presented itself to a region like this one and an organization like Baystate to be a better participant in the transformation of healthcare that we all know is necessary,” he explained. “He presented this vision to me of creating a small and nimble organization that could facilitate the collaboration between external technology innovators and a full-size, real-life health system.”

That vision represented something very different from anything that existed at that time, he went on, adding that there was no real model for TechSpring and that those who launched it created a new model. But it was also something very necessary given the way technology was advancing and healthcare was evolving.

“We all know that healthcare needs to change,” he explained. “We know that part of the solution is process and people, and we know that technology needs to support these changes that are necessary. TechSpring is an effort to help those two sides — the people and the technology — come closer together in solving these problems.”

While doing that, there are broader goals as well, he said, adding that, from the beginning, those involved with TechSpring clearly understood that innovation had to “pay off,” as he put it, meaning there had to be a direct line of sight to the value that comes from innovation.

“We talked a lot about how this can’t be science experiments, and it can’t be long-term R&D — there have to be some concrete outcomes from this, and also financially,” he explained. “We had also set the goal of TechSpring being self-funded, and we’ve achieved that goal.”

Getting the Idea

At the core of this unique model, made possible by a $5.5 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, TechSpring becomes a consulting company of sorts, said Lagier, one that supports external technology innovators that have ideas for effective solutions in healthcare and helps them collaborate more closely with healthcare professionals and even patients, and then brings all these parties together in the technology-development process.

Over the years, the list of innovative partners has grown and now includes such companies as:

• Cerner, the leading provider of electronic-medical-record (EMR) and population-health systems worldwide;

• Imprivata, a Boston-based company focusing on solutions that make access to IT systems easier for employees and patients;

• NTT Data, a worldwide leader in systems integration and delivery of technical solutions;

• Kordova, a Boston- and Springfield -based startup focused on creating cost visibility in surgery supplies;

• athenahealth; a Boston-based provider of EMR systems; and

• Firefly Labs, a local startup originated at Baystate Health that has created a solution that makes case reporting and the accreditation process easier for surgery residents.

Connecting such innovators with a large health system like Baystate sounds simple and rather obvious, but such collaboration between these two worlds has mostly been missing, and is still missing in many markets.

“There’s been too much technology that has been developed and sort of pushed into healthcare,” he went on. “It’s our ambition to turn this around and have it be more of a pull from users, the healthcare professionals and patients, who say, ‘these are the solutions that we need,’ and then enabling the technology innovators to solve for that.”

“He presented this vision to me of creating a small and nimble organization that could facilitate the collaboration between external technology innovators and a full-size, real-life health system.”

While doing that, the broad goal is to create those aforementioned collisions.

“They’re a key piece of innovation theory,” Lagier explained. “Innovation is not linear — it’s not something you can plan out or mastermind. Innovation depends on a lot of coincidence, but, as Pasteur said, ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’ At TechSpring, we’ve created an environment that is conducive for coincidences to happen.”

And there were a number of coincidences and collisions behind Praxify, which was born, as most innovative concepts are, out of a need to solve an identified problem.

“To this day, this industry has a challenge — that doctors are spending too much time at the computer, and that takes away time that they can spend with a patient,” said Lagier. “There are many facets to that challenge, and we put that challenge out into the world, saying, in essence, ‘what solutions are out there that we can bring to our physicians that might improve this problem?’”

As noted earlier, a startup in India had a solution — or the makings of a solution. And to refine its concept, the company worked in tandem with doctors at Baystate.

“Rather than sitting in a conference room or drawing something up on whiteboards, we said, ‘first, you have to experience real healthcare,’” Lagier noted. “And they got to just follow a physician and watch over his or her shoulder and get direct feedback — ‘this works for me,’ or ‘this doesn’t work for me.’”

With that feedback, rapid prototyping ensued, he went on, adding that the innovators went back and said, in essence, ‘is this what you’re looking for?’ Some said yes, some no, and more collaboration followed.

A prototype was developed, validated at Baystate, and put into production for a pilot user group comprised of 80 physicians. The development was so successful and promising that the startup was acquired by athenahealth, another of TechSpring’s innovation partners, for $63 million.

For Lagier, the key takeaway from the example of Praxify is how the collaborative model — bringing innovators together with healthcare providers to accelerate new-product development — works not just in theory, but in reality.

“I had dozens of physicians who were energized by the process — just having a voice, just having an opportunity to be part of the technology-development process,” he told BusinessWest. “That they got an app out of it that they could use and that made their life better was a bonus.”

Healthy Collaboration

As Lagier noted, there have been a number of delegations from different states and different countries that have come to the TechSpring suite to see how the unique concept works — and how it might work for them.

The kitchen is usually part of the tour because that’s where a good number of collisions happen — collisions that can lead to practical solutions to the issues and problems facing those providing healthcare in today’s challenging and always-changing environment.

Those tours — a world apart from those Lagier led before busloads of tourists in Copenhagen — represent one of the best indicators of the success of the TechSpring model and its ability to bring innovators and healthcare providers and patients together in collaboration — something that’s needed to solve these complex problems.

As much as anything else, they show why all those at TechSpring are Healthcare Heroes.

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

Cover Story

Growth Industry

Matt Yee stands outside a room

Matt Yee stands outside a room equipped to simulate ‘summer.’ Access inside is extremely limited.

Green Thumb Industries’ marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke is not like most other businesses — or any other business, for that matter. There is no sign over the door, there was no elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opened, and, with a few minor exceptions, no one will visit this place. It is like all other businesses, though, in keeping the focus on innovation and putting out a quality product.

The ‘flowering room,’ as it’s called, is climate-controlled to simulate early fall.

And it does that so well that when Matt Yee, president of the Massachusetts market for Green Thumb Industries (GTI), walks inside … he has flashbacks of a sort.

“This is perpetual September. I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

“This is perpetual September,” he told BusinessWest, referencing the temperature, the warmth of the sun, and a slight, cool breeze. “I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

Perpetual September? Welcome to GTI’s 45,000-square-foot marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke, a recently opened venture that is, in just about every way you can imagine, not like any other business in this region.

That much becomes abundantly clear after one short visit — only, you really shouldn’t expect to visit this place anytime soon. They don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat — not because they’re not friendly, but because they don’t want or need company.

For starters, there’s no signage on the property, at least for GTI (there are other tenants in this old paper mill), and for a reason. The company doesn’t exactly want to broadcast its location, although its address, 28 Appleton St., in the so-called Flats section of the city, is commonly known.

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.v

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.

Also, there is no front door, really. You enter through the back, and only after using a coded key to get through a tall gate and passing under several surveillance cameras. Once inside — again, if you get that far — you can’t go any further without checking in with security, leaving a copy of your driver’s license behind, getting a badge with a recorded number on it, and being escorted by an employee through some more locked doors.

But before going through — and unless you’re an employee, an elected official on business, some other sort of VIP, or a business writer on assignment, you probably won’t be going through — one must step onto a large mat of sorts covered by about an inch of water.

That’s because marijuana plants are somewhat fragile and susceptible to contamination that might be brought into their home on the soles of one’s shoes. For the same reason, no one gets further than the security desk without donning a white lab coat.

“Contamination of the system can cause millions of dollars in damage,” said Yee. “Even walking across the parking lot, people can pick up some powdery mildew — one of the biggest issues we have — or various aphids and bugs, and those can be issues as well.”

To help keep these plants — which give new meaning to the phrase ‘cash crop’ — safe, GTI has enlisted the help of what are known as “beneficials” — tiny mites that feast on many of the known enemies of marijuana plants. There are hundreds of them in small packets placed next to each plant.

“If there’s an invasion of aggressive bugs, they’ll eat those little guys,” Yee said of the mites. “It’s an interesting process — signing the invoice for 25,000 bugs was kind of interesting; they’re very, very, very small, but you can see them, although it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

These are just some of the steps (ladybugs and other beneficials are also deployed) being taken to ensure that the first crop, and all those to follow — the business plan calls for cultivating 120 pounds per month — will be as healthy and profitable as possible, said Yee, who came to this job and this industry thanks to a chance encounter with Pete Kadens, president of Chicago-based GTI at the restaurant Yee was managing (more on that later).

The flowering room he showed BusinessWest was empty, but by the time this magazine went to the printer, it was full of plants enjoying those cool fall breezes. From there, it’s only a few more steps until the fruit of the plant is processed into product, such as the small joints called ‘dog walkers’ — because you can start and finish one in about the time it takes to walk the dog — to be placed in tins already stored in the so-called trim room.

“It’s a great little product — everybody really loves these all across the nation,” he said, adding that, starting in several weeks, these dog walkers and other products will be shipped to GTI’s recently opened dispensary in Amherst and other locations across the state.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look inside GTI’s facility in Holyoke, and also inside a business that is new to Massachusetts and this region, but appears to have a future that might be as bright as the high-pressure sodium lights inside the flowering room.

Branch Office

Those are 1,000-watt units, and there are 88 of them in the room, Yee explained, adding quickly that it gets so bright in those rooms that employees wear protective sunglasses when inside.

That was one of many bits of information Yee passed along while serving as tour guide, one of many functions he’s taken on (although, now that growing has started, the volume of tours has subsided) while carrying out a role he probably couldn’t have imagined for himself a few years ago.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

But the picture changed quickly and profoundly after Kadens ventured into Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley for dinner back in 2016. Yee, as noted, was general manager of that eatery (one of many owned and operated by his family), with the emphasis on was. Indeed, the two started talking, and the more Kadens talked about the cannabis industry and its potential in the Bay State, the more Yee wanted to be part of it.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, Yee joined GTI and has taken a lead role in opening the Holyoke facility and getting the first plants in the ground, if you will.

First, though, there was a lengthy learning curve for Yee, who said his education in cannabis and the business of cultivating and distributing marijuana took him to GTI facilities across the country, including those in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia.

“It was a really intense drop into the cannabis world,” he recalled, adding that GTI has facilities similar to the one in Holyoke operating in several states.

The operation on Appleton actually represents what Yee called the third iteration of a GTI growth facility. Lessons have been learned over the years, he said, in everything from production to automated systems to air handling, and they’ve all been applied to the Holyoke plant, which came to be after a lengthy review of options regarding what to build and where.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’ And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

Indeed, as Yee walked through the facility, he noted that, while it provided one key ingredient in the form of wide-open spaces and high ceilings, the old mill required quite a bit of expensive work to be retrofitted into a marijuana-cultivation facility.

But in the end, GTI determined that rehabbing such a facility is a better alternative to building new, even it is the more expensive alternative.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’” he recalled of the decision-making process. “And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

‘This’ was a retrofit in the middle of an urban setting, granted one that has embraced the cannabis industry with open arms.

Thus, security is extremely tight, he said, noting the facility is outfitted with cameras, motion detectors, glass-break sensors, and more.

“Visitation is very, very restricted,” he said, adding that the state has access to the facility’s camera systems and monitors what goes on. If someone watching sees someone in the building without a badge, inquiries are made.

Joint Venture

Yee’s ability to learn quickly about the industry he joined was in evidence on the tour, as he talked about marijuana and, more specifically, how it will be cultivated in this old mill.

“Marijuana is an annual,” said Yee, who walked while he talked. “Typically, the seeds will pop in the spring, it will grow through the summer, and then, come the shorter days of late summer and fall, its flowering process is triggered — and it’s those flowers that we’re harvesting; it’s the fruit of the plant.”

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

There are no seasons, per se, indoors, so cultivators like GTI have to replicate them, he went on, as he stopped at a room simulating early- to mid-summer. Through a large, thick window, Yee pointed to and talked about the already-tall plants inside.

Taking visitors in that room, even after they’ve put on a lab coat and stepped on a few of those water-covered mats, constitutes far more risk than the company is willing to take on, he said, adding that these plants are much too valuable to risk contamination.

The sign on the door gets this point across. “Do Not Enter — Limited Access Area,” it reads. “Access Limited to Authorized Personnel Only.”

“There are about 18 hours of light in this room,” said Yee, returning to the subject at hand and the process of simulating summer-like conditions. “We’re really just pushing the plants to get to a proper size, and then we stimulate them to get to their flowering stage.”

Actually, the ‘summer’ room is the second stop for the plants, which start off as cuttings from other plants, known as ‘mothers,’ and take up residency in the ‘cloning room.’

Their third stop will be in that room that simulates September, where it is a constant 72 degrees, Yee went on, adding that the first plants were due to arrive there in early June.

In that setting, a shorter day, with the lights on for maybe 12 hours, is created. That difference in the amount of light is what actually triggers the plant to move into its reproductive cycle, he explained.

“The male plants will develop pollinating elements, and the female plants develop the flowers,” he noted. “We only have females here; there are no males on site.”

The plants will double or triple in size in the flowering room, he went on, adding that, when they’re ready for harvesting, they’re removed from their pots, the iconic fan leaves are removed, and the flowers are put into a drying room, to be hung on what are known as ‘Z racks.’

Once the flowers reach a certain level of dryness, they can be processed, said Yee, adding that the product is weighed and then moved into the ‘trim room,’ a space where the flowers are “manicured” (Yee’s word) into their final, saleable form, such as those aforementioned dog walkers.

From beginning to end — from the nursery to that tin of dog walkers — the process covers about three months, and, starting with the second batch, there will be continuous yield at this facility, which will be needed to recover the significant investment (nearly $10 million) in this facility.

“We’ll be harvesting about half a room a day,” he projected, adding, again, that the overriding goal is to keep the crops safe — from invading insects and anything else — until they’re harvested.

Yield Signs

Getting back to those packets of beneficials, Yee said the mites are really small and quite hard to see, and he’s essentially taking the distributor’s word that there were 25,000 of them in that last order.

“If you crack one of the packets open and pour the contents in your hand, there’s sawdust or whatever it is … and if you look hard, you can spot these little critters rolling around.”

What’s somewhat easier to see is the vast potential for the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, although that picture is still coming into focus, on both the medicinal and recreational sides of the spectrum.

GTI intends to be well-positioned to capitalize on whatever market eventually develops, and the Holyoke facility will play a huge role in those efforts.

It is really unlike any business you’ve ever visited — only, you won’t know, because you probably won’t be visiting.

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

Business Management Sections

Spotlighting Innovation

Matt Bannister says the Innovation Series, by relating stories of entrepreneurship, will hopefully inspire more of them in the years to come. Photo courtesy of PeoplesBank

Matt Bannister says the Innovation Series, by relating stories of entrepreneurship, will hopefully inspire more of them in the years to come.
Photo courtesy of PeoplesBank

Throughout its 133-year history, PeoplesBank has touted innovation as one of its core values. But until very recently, this emphasis on innovation has been focused inward, on products, services, and ways of doing business. With a new program, called, appropriately enough, the Innovation Series, the bank is turning that focus outward, telling stories of entrepreneurship with the broad goal of inspiring more of it.

Matt Bannister sounded more like the producer of a new television sitcom than a bank’s first vice president of Marketing and Innovation.

“If it goes well, it will get renewed for a second season,” he told BusinessWest, laughing as he did so. “Right now, we have a pilot and a handful of episodes — let’s see where it goes from there.”

He was referring not to the latest candidate for binge-watching on HBO or Netflix, but to something PeoplesBank is calling its Innovation Series. And yes, you can binge-watch this, too. Well, eventually.

There are now three ‘episodes’ available for viewing on the bank’s website and on YouTube, including that so-called pilot and an interview with the braintrusts at Valley Venture Mentors, and there will soon be more installments in the can, as they say, as Bannister sits down with more entrepreneurs.

As the name of the series denotes, this is a program about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Or what Bannister, who plays host/interviewer for the series, also simply called ‘it,’ a not-so-casual reference to that collection of qualities, talents, and intangibles it takes to not only have an idea (we all have those) but advance it, hopefully all the way to the marketplace. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, but first, more about this series, how it came about, and why.

Bannister started by saying that innovation has always been one of the bank’s core operating principles. But for just about all of the institution’s 133-year history, this emphasis on innovation has been focused inward — on the development of new products, services, and ways of doing business.

Some Tips for Entrepreneurs
to Stay Sane

Entrepreneurial life has been described as a rollercoaster — incredible highs that can follow take-your-breath-away descents.

Several mentors and startup founders offered the following tips to help smooth out the ride:

• You’re not crazy! Most people would never take the leap into starting their own business, but that’s what makes you different — not crazy. When you have that idea, the one that has been burning inside you for years, and act on it, you’re following the same path as Gates, Jobs, and Edison — and they weren’t crazy.

• Make sure to have clear expectations about ownership and compensation amongst the founding team. Write down your agreement, even if on the back of a Post-it Note, but ideally with the help of an experienced lawyer.

– Scott Foster, attorney and co-founder, Valley Venture Mentors

• Be able to pivot. Having a plan is great, and you certainly need a direction, but as you learn more about your customers and your product, you may find that you need to change the business plan, go-to-market strategy, or even change the product completely. You cannot be myopic in your immediate future, and hard pivots are what separate failed startups from those that succeed.

• Find team members that you can work well with. You will be spending more time with them than your family, so it is important to be able to have a good working relationship with them.

– Barrett Mully, co-founder, Aclarity

• Know what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from others. There are so many resources out there to help; all you have to do is ask.

• Find mentors who have experience and that you can trust. They are the ones who will introduce you to your next investor, help you understand your industry ecosystem, and be there when you just need to talk. Our mentors have been key to our success.

– Julie Mullen, co-founder, Aclarity

• You’d be surprised what you can do on a budget or for free. You don’t need to spend money on everything. In fact, the more you can avoid spending money without needing to, the better. You can get surprisingly good results without breaking the bank, and there is a plethora of free resources for almost anything you can imagine a few Google searches away.

• Resilience and the ability to adapt to change are the name of the game in the world of startups, and being able to effectively recover from problems is the difference between life or death. Never be afraid to ask for help or consult your advisors and mentors for advice on what to do, and always lay everything out on the table for your team to discuss the best course of action.

– Evan Choquette, co-founder, AnyCafé

• Don’t be afraid to share and talk about your idea. This is how you will get feedback and find mentors, customers, and co-founders. Remember the adage “the idea is 1% and the execution is 99% of success.” You have so much more to gain by sharing and collaborating than keeping your great idea locked up.

• Entrepreneurship can be isolating and lonely. Find and build a great support community of peers, mentors, and advisors.

– Liz Roberts, CEO, Valley Venture Mentors

With this new series, the bank is turning that focus outward, Bannister went on, by turning the spotlight on entrepreneurs working to take innovative ideas to the marketplace.

Like the team at AnyCafé. Now graduates of Western New England University (they started this venture while still in school), the team members want to “mobilize your kitchen,” as Logan Carlson, president and CEO of the company, told Bannister in the second installment of the series, with a product that enables someone to brew a cup of coffee just about anywhere.

And the team at New England Breath Technologies, comprised of professors at Western New England, which is developing the first pain-free glucose detector. And also the team at Aclarity, formerly Electropure, a startup launched at UMass Amherst that designs, tests, and develops innovative water-purification devices for various applications. It is the next company to be profiled, with more to follow.

Bannister said the bank has a number of informal goals in mind with this series. The ultimate goal, of course, is to strengthen the region’s economy by increasing the population of startups and next-stage companies — a development that would certainly bring benefits for all the players within the banking community.

More short-term, if you will, the goal is to hopefully inspire others to innovate and motivate them by showing some success stories in the making (these companies certainly aren’t there yet) and what lies on the path to success.

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest turned the tables on Bannister and asked him some questions. He and the others we spoke with expressed confidence about the innovation series’ ability to not only spotlight innovation but inspire it — and get picked up for a second season while doing so.

Getting the Idea

As he and Bannister talked with BusinessWest about the innovation series at VVM’s headquarters in Tower Square, Scott Foster, one of the founders of that nonprofit and one of those interviewees in the pilot episode, said one of the program’s goals is to convey the message that anyone — and he meant anyone — really can be an entrepreneur.

It will do that, he went on, by showing the vast diversity of people who have taken advantage of VVM’s array of programs over the years — a demographic that includes college students and college professors, retirees, housewives, and more.

But can anyone really be an entrepreneur? Foster clarified his comments by saying that people from all of those demographic groups can become entrepreneurs, if they have the necessary qualities in the right quantities, a formula (if it’s even a formula) that is hard to put into words.

Foster gave it a try.

“The best description I heard, and I heard it years ago, is this: if you’re in a conference room and there’s a meeting, and the temperature isn’t right, the entrepreneur is the one who gets up, finds out where the thermostat is, and changes it,” he explained. “Because they can see that things aren’t right, they can see that other people aren’t comfortable about it, like them, and they’re going to solve that problem.

“That spirit is the entrepreneurial spirit,” he went on. “It’s seeing a problem, not being content with the status quo, and getting up and doing something about it.”

In a nutshell, the Innovation Series was created to share the stories of some people clearly not content with the status quo and also quite determined to change the equation.

Such a mindset was articulated by Carlson as he related the genesis of AnyCafé for Bannister.

“It was a freezing cold Northeastern day, and I had walked into my Marketing class,” he noted. “I looked around, and everyone had Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and I said, ‘why can’t I brew a cup of coffee here? We have mobile phones, we’ve got all these crazy travel technologies where we can do everything on the go…”

At that moment, the camera panned to Evan Choquette, the company’s co-founder and chief information officer, who fast-forwarded nicely and took the conversation in a different direction.

Scott Foster says there are no overnight success stories, and the Innovation Series helps articulate the wild rollercoaster ride most entrepreneurs experience.

Scott Foster says there are no overnight success stories, and the Innovation Series helps articulate the wild rollercoaster ride most entrepreneurs experience.

“When Logan came up with the idea for the Travel Brewer, it was like ‘that would be really cool to be an inventor and start your own company and try to make a product,’” he noted, adding that “we basically created our own careers and our own destiny by creating this product and building it up from nothing.”

New England Breath Technologies (NEBT) was born from a similar desire to solve a problem. The company is developing what it calls a ‘breathalyzer’ for diabetics.

“We’re a technology company, and our main goal right now is to try to change the way that diabetes is managed,” said Michael Rust, co-founder and chief technology officer of NEBT. “We’re trying to develop a breathalyzer that would allow the patient to simply breathe into and give the same kind of reading as a blood glucometer, and really take out a lot of the pain and a lot of the cost of managing diabetes.”

His partner, Ronny Priefer, the company’s chief scientific officer, said their journey took a serious turn when he “stumbled” — a word you hear often in entrepreneurship — onto the fact that people with diabetes have elevated acetone in their breath. Through his work in nanotechnology, the company is advancing a product that will essentially measure those acetone levels.

Some clinical trials have been conducted, with considerable success, and more will take place in the near future, he said, adding that, if all goes smoothly — a phrase most entrepreneurs are reluctant to say out loud — the product might be on the market in 2019 or 2020.

The Company Line

‘Pivot.’

Bannister told BusinessWest that he’s never heard that word as much as he has the past several weeks, or since he took up the role of interviewer for the Innovation Series.

It’s a verb put to use extensively by entrepreneurs as they talk about how their original idea is often reshaped on the journey involved with taking an idea to the marketplace. Entrepreneurs do a lot of pivoting, because the path to success is neither smooth nor level. There are a lot of ups and downs, and they are part of the process.

How entrepreneurs cope with the twists and turns, good days and bad days, is what ultimately determines whether they have it, and the Innovation Series succeeds in getting that message across as well.

“It’s very much a rollercoaster,” said Carlson when Bannister asked him what life was like as an entrepreneur. “There are some days when you have this huge win and you’ll feel amazing, and the next day everything will come crashing down. If you don’t have a very good support network of people to back you up as an entrepreneur, things can just get so difficult.”

The team at NEBT offered similar thoughts, but also many others about how the business world, and the life of an entrepreneur, is much different than what they’ve experienced in academia.

“Being in the academic world, we’re trained to be independent researchers and to really dive deep into a particular subject, and mine is engineering,” said Rust. “As an entrepreneur, I’m really trying to make connections with the broader community, networking for the business side to try raise funding for our company, but also to create partnerships that are going to move our technology from our lab into the marketplace.

“It’s really exciting, and it actually kind of changes the way we view our day-to-day life and how we view society in general,” he went on. “Now at the dinner table, I think about new ideas that can really affect people in our community and people around the world.”

Both teams of entrepreneurs talked about the importance of support systems and mentorship, especially for those new to the world of business.

Carlson’s partner, Choquette, may have summed up things best when he related to Bannister — and his audience — what Carlson’s father told the team at AnyCafé a while back.

“He said, ‘life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it,’” Choquette recalled. “Being in business is all about being able to adapt to change and new problems and circumstances; it’s being able to take in new information and then change based on that.”

Foster would agree, and noted that this series was designed to help take the viewer on that rollercoaster ride Carlson described, and show the many emotions, and many aspects, of taking a product or idea to market.

“There are no overnight success stories — that just doesn’t happen,” he told BusinessWest, speaking from considerable experience mentoring entrepreneurs developing everything from beer to apps to wedding dresses. “It’s a long slog, believe me.”

Warming to the Idea

As noted earlier, PeoplesBank leaders had a number of motivations for creating the Innovation Series.

It’s doubtful that anyone in the room when the discussions were going on talked about inspiring those types of people who would be so inclined to get up, find the thermostat, and turn the temperature down if the room was too hot — or words to that effect.

But that’s certainly one of the goals.

And based on early returns, it is meeting that goal and seems well on its way to getting picked up for another season.

 

Go HERE to view the Innovation Series ( bit.ly/pb-innovation)


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