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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]

Cover Story

Form and Function

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

The Isenberg Innovation Hub, a $62 million expansion and renovation of the business school’s facilities on the UMass Amherst campus, will open its doors to students later this month. The building’s exterior design is stunning, and it gives a new face to Isenberg and perhaps the university, but the architects have made it functional as well.

Dramatic. Striking. Stunning. Powerful. Distinctive.

Those are some of the words that come to mind as one takes in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, a $62 million, 70,000-square-foot addition and renovation to the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and its copper cladding, circular design, and falling-dominoes effect.

And those who conceptualized this project and then went about raising the money for it certainly had all those adjectives in mind when they went about hiring architects to create something that would effectively, and loudly, announce the Isenberg school’s ascension to the ranks of the best business schools in the country — and also help recruit the next generation of top students.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools. And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space.”

But that’s certainly not all they wanted — or demanded.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools,” said Tom Moliterno, interim dean at Isenberg. “And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space; there is a requirement, much like a football team needs good facilities, for facilities of a certain caliber in order to ensure that we get the best students.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

“But there’s more to it than that,” he went on. “You need more than a pretty building; you need a building that’s designed to train students and to prepare students for careers in the 21st century.”

Elaborating, he said business schools today require space that is geared far more toward student collaboration, team working environments, distance learning, and career services than even a decade or two ago.

And all of this is reflected in what’s behind the flashy exterior of the Business Innovation Hub. Indeed, as he conducted his formal tour of the new facility, Moliterno seemed to be constantly pointing out places where people, and especially students, could come together and collaborate.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

In the learning commons, which doubles as event space, there are dozens of soft chairs and small round tables at which people can gather; in the classrooms, the chairs have wheels, and for a reason — so they can be moved and maneuvered to face in any direction, toward the instructor in the front of the room or the student across the table; in the hallway outside the classrooms, there are more soft chairs and gathering spaces; in the courtyard, there are stone benches; on the grand stairway, there are wooden planks affixed to one set of the concrete stairs — again, for a reason.

“If you’re heading up the stairs and you see someone coming down that you want to talk to, you can pull over, sit down on the stairs, and talk,” said Moliterno, adding that the architects — Boston-based Goody Clancy, in partnership with the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of New York and Denmark — went to extremely great lengths to inspire and facilitate collaboration, and this, perhaps even more than the stunning exterior and interior designs, is what the new addition is all about.

Roger Goldstein, the principal at Goody Clancy who headed the Isenberg project, agreed, and said the firm applied lessons from two decades of work designing college business schools and additions to the Isenberg initiative.

An aerial view of the expansion project

“Their aspiration was for something with real distinction — something that would be forward-looking and quite contemporary,” he explained, referring to Moliterno and Mark Fuller, the former dean of the Isenberg School and now associate chancellor at UMass Amherst. “But also a building that works really well and will stand up in the long run.”

Yu Inamoto, lead architect for the BIG group on this project, concurred. “One of the desires put forth by the dean, the faculty, and all the others we interacted with was to have a space that was not only impressive, but a place for gathering, and this is reflected throughout.”

Faculty and staff are currently moving into the new facilities, said Moliterno, adding that the building will be ready when students return to classes later this month.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

What they’ll find is a state-of-the-art, user-friendly facility that does a lot for Isenberg, and UMass Amherst on the whole.

It gives the business school — and perhaps the university itself — a bold new face. It also gives the school a powerful new recruiting tool and perhaps the ability to rise still higher in the rankings, something that’s difficult to do as it moves up the ladder.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Business Innovation Hub and learned how it blends form and function and punctuates the Isenberg School’s ongoing ascent among the nation’s top business schools.

Space Exploration

While obviously proud of the expansion’s ground floor, with its learning commons, courtyard, hallways crowded with gathering spaces, and generous amounts of glass, Moliterno was anxious for his tour to reach the second floor.

Because this is where more of that all-important functionality can be found. And it manifests itself in a number of ways, from greatly expanded and enhanced space for the Chase Career Center to separate lounges for students waiting to be interviewed and recruiters waiting to do some interviewing, to the small interviewing rooms that, when not being used for that purpose, can double as additional gathering spaces for students, thus maximizing each available square foot of space.

“Those rooms are sized and furnished to swing one way or the other depending on what the need is,” said Goldstein. “And that improves efficiency because you’re not creating spaces that have only one use and are empty half the time.”

Before elaborating on this mindset and what the Business Innovation Hub means for Isenberg, its students, faculty, the recruiters who will visit it to query job candidates, and other constituencies, Moliterno first went back to roughly the start of this decade, when the seeds for this facility were planted.

And they were planted out of need, he went on, which came in many forms.

The first was simply spacial. Indeed, while the original Isenberg building, built in 1964, was expanded with the so-called Alfond addition in 2002, by the start of this decade, and actually long before that, a growing Isenberg was busting at the seams.

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

“What we used to say is that we were a family of eight living in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Moliterno, noting that undergraduate enrollment at Isenberg had risen from 2,500 in to 3,400 in just a few years earlier this decade.

Facilities were so cramped that some departments within Isenberg, such as Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, were spread out in other buildings, said Goldstein, creating an inconvenience for students and faculty alike. The Business and Innovation Hub brings all of Isenberg’s departments and offices together under one roof.

Beyond the need for more space, though, Isenberg also needed better space, said Moliterno — space that reflected its climb in the rankings in the U.S. News & World Report listings of business schools — both public institutions (it’s now 26th nationwide and first among undergraduate programs in the Northeast) and overall (44th in the nation). And space that would help Isenberg compete for students applying to the other schools just above or below them on those lists.

“Relatively early in his tenure, Mark Fuller realized that the school was on a trajectory, both in terms of growth and in terms of quality, that was going to necessitate new physical space,” said Moliterno, adding that the first discussions and estimates on square footage required date back to 2010 or even 2009.

At this point, the project essentially “went into the queue,” as Moliterno called it, noting that there were a number of building projects being forwarded for consideration and funding. To move up in the queue — something deemed necessary as the school continued its torrid pace of growth as well as its ascent in the rankings — the Isenberg School took the unusual step of committing to provide 60% of the funding for the project, with the rest covered by the university.

This commitment translated into the largest ever made by a specific school for a campus building project, he went on, adding that this bold step did, indeed, move the initiative up in the queue. And in 2014, formal planning — including specific space requirements and preliminary cost estimates — began in earnest.

However, in the two to three years since the initial discussions and rough sketching were undertaken, construction costs had increased 50%, he said, bringing the total cost to $62 million.

While raising that sum was a challenge — met by tapping into a growing base of successful Isenberg alums — it would be only one of many to overcome.

Another would be fitting the building into that crowded area of the campus while also negotiating a veritable rat’s nest of underground utilities in that quadrant.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines,” said Moliterno. “And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Designs on Continued Growth

Creating a road map for navigating this bowl of spaghetti was just one component of the assignment eventually awarded to Goody Clancy and the Bjarke Ingels Group — a partnership that Moliterno called a ‘perfect marriage’ of an emerging force in the design world (BIG) and a company with vast experience in designing not only academic buildings, but business-school facilities.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines. And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Indeed, BIG has been on a meteoric rise, with a portfolio now boasting Two World Trade Center in New York, Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters building, and several dozen other projects either under construction or in the planning stages.

As for Goody Clancy, as noted, it has spent the past 20 years or so developing a strong niche designing new buildings and additions for business schools, and the portfolio includes recent work at Harvard, Boston University, Georgetown University, Texas Tech, and the University of New Hampshire.

Development of this niche wasn’t exactly by design, to use an industry term, said Goldstein, but as often happens in this business, a single project or two can lead to additional opportunities.

And that’s what happened after the firm took on a project for Babson University, known for its programs in entrepreneurship.

“We then did a few more, and before you knew it, we had three business-school buildings, and we thought, ‘OK, this looks like a specialty,’” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company has another four or five business-school projects in various stages of completion, a reflection of the need for such institutions to keep up with the Joneses, if you will, so they can effectively compete for the best students.

“Business schools have wealthy donors and want to build buildings that will advance their brand,” he said. “They want something that will differentiate them.”

Inamoto agreed. “Schools definitely want to make a statement with these buildings,” he said, adding that the Isenberg addition is the first academic project taken on by the firm in this country, and thus it sought to partner with a firm with a deep portfolio in that realm.

As they went about designing the addition, the team of architects focused on both of their priorities — form and function. They conceptualized an exterior that would fit in — sort of — and respect the brutalist style so prominent in other buildings in that part of the campus, such as the Fine Arts Center and the Whitmore Administration Building.

The circular design, meanwhile, would create a dynamic look that would also connect, in dramatic fashion, with the existing Isenberg facility (as the aerial architect’s rendering on page 18 shows) and “close the loop,” as Goldstein put it.

As for the copper exterior, Inamoto said it was chosen — after aluminum was first considered — because the material, like the school itself, isn’t stagnant; it changes over time.

“As a firm, we like the look of copper, and we like to recommend naturally aging materials,” he explained. “The copper panels are already starting to weather; when they’re first installed, they’re a bright, shiny orange, and within weeks, that starts to become darker and brown, and over time, they’ll oxidize to a green copper look.

“Over time, the building weathers,” he went on. “And we didn’t want something that was too flat or too plasticky, if you will. That’s part of our design strategy; we try to select something that’s authentic and real.”

In designing what’s behind the copper façade, they started by gathering extensive feedback, via focus groups, from a number of constituencies, including Isenberg administrators and staff, students, faculty, and others. And they incorporated what they learned into the final design, said Moliterno, citing everything from a café to greatly expanded space for the career center and undergraduate advising.

“They brought in Career Services and said, ‘walk us through everything you do — what are your space needs? You have interviewers here — how many, and what do they need?’” he recalled. “And then, they had that same conversation with Undergraduate Programs and with a committee of faculty who talked about the classroom space.

“And they had the same conversations with students,” he went on. “And this is where we learned that students are often here from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, and thus they want a place to eat in the building, because if they leave the building, they break up their team process.”

As for the career center and undergraduate advising facilities, these are as important to the ultimate success of Isenberg students (and the school itself) as the classrooms, said Moliterno, adding that these facilities provide more services to far more students than they did even a few years ago.

“Students don’t just show up when they’re juniors and look for job postings,” he explained. “They’re working with the career services offices constantly in order to get internships, résumé review, and structure their social-media profile. The hands-on career prep, the number of hours one spends in career services, has grown dramatically over the years, and this is reflected in the design of this building.”

Seeing the Light

As he walked through the expanded career services office during his tour, Moliterno put the Business Innovation Hub and the chosen designs for it in their proper perspective.

“At the initial bid process, when I was speaking to all the architects who were bidding, I said, ‘I want to be clear about something: this might be the most beautiful building in the world, but if it doesn’t work for the students, if it doesn’t enhance and improve the student experience, it will be a failure — full stop,’” he recalled.

‘Most beautiful building in the world’ is a purely subjective matter for discussion, he went on, while the matter of whether a building works for students certainly isn’t.

He’s quite sure that this one does, and while that quality generally doesn’t warrant adjectives like ‘dramatic, ‘striking,’ ‘stunning,’ or ‘powerful,’ it probably should.

And it explains, even more than that façade, why the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub is such an important development for the school and the university.

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

Features

Venturing Forth

Gregory Thomas says he’s energized by working with young entrepreneurs

Gregory Thomas says he’s energized by working with young entrepreneurs as the new executive director of the Berthiaume Center.

People may know the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship from its public events, most notably the Innovation Challenge, where UMass Amherst students compete for seed money to turn entrepreneurial ideas into viable businesses. But the center’s new director, Gregory Thomas, wants to broaden the center’s reach and help more young people understand that the goal isn’t to win a competition — it’s to develop a true entrepreneurial mindset that will serve them well no matter where their lives take them.

On the surface, the UMass Amherst students who competed in the recent Minute Pitch at the university’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship were vying for a top prize of $1,000 and the ability to move to the next stage of competition in a program known as the Innovation Challenge.

But, on a broader level, there’s a lot more at stake.

Take, for example, the winner, an app called Find a Missing Kid, which aims to help identify missing or exploited children in public settings like schools, routine traffic stops, and public transportation. It was proposed by Grace Hall, Arta Razavi, and Cameron Harvey.

Earning second prize was Let’s Talk About It, developed by Ashley Olafsen and Thomas Leary, which seeks to provide relevant wellness-related curriculum to schools and individuals, with a focus on topics like mental health, self-esteem, consent, eating disorders, and relationships.

Third prize went to Devin Clark for Digital Mapping Consultants, with the goal of producing crop-health maps for the agricultural industry in order to guide precision agriculture to increase yields while reducing inputs throughout the growing season.

These are all with the potential to change the world — or, at least, dramatically change the lives of individuals who use them.

Gregory Thomas likes when ideas like that emerge, and are given the support to advance beyond the idea stage. And, as the new executive director of the Berthiame Center, he wants to see more of them.

“We need to figure out how to get more stuff into the funnel,” Thomas told BusinessWest. “The more ideas and more ventures we get coming through the funnel, the more we get on the other end, stimulating the economy.”

The Innovation Challenge, a four-part entrepreneurship competition that launches promising ventures to the next levels of startup, is perhaps the best-known of the Berthiaume Center’s initiatives, but Thomas is hoping to increase the center’s impact in other ways, both on campus and off — and even across the planet, through ventures that break through to market.

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch from Gregory Thomas (left) and Tom Moliterno, interim dean of the Isenberg School of Management.

“Our mission is to teach students how to be a successful entrepreneur, how to run a venture so it’s successful — which includes knowing when to pivot and shut down an idea and find a new one,” he noted. “We also encourage curiosity — what really drives you. You may have a cool idea, but who would buy it and why? How would you make money? We have to teach those fundamentals to our ventures. Otherwise, they’re just polishing presentations to win a challenge. The challenge is the carrot to get them in the door. After that, we teach them to be entrepreneurs.”

He added that most of these students aren’t going to become the next Steve Jobs, but whether they wind up working for somebody or start their own business, entrepreneurial skills translate well to the workplace, and will always make them more effective on whatever path they choose.

That’s why he wants to broaden Berthiaume’s programs and keep students interested in them — not just those who win money to advance their ideas, but the ones who didn’t make the finals, or didn’t apply in the first place. Because those students, too, have ideas that could one day change lives.

“What can we do to help them perfect their craft and work on their ventures and keep them in our ecosystem, continue to educate them?” Thomas said. “There’s a reason why we’re not getting everything into the funnel, and that’s something I’d like to work on with key leaders on campus. How do we get more into the funnel?”

There’s plenty of room in that funnel, he said, and sufficient brainpower on campus — and well beyond it — to help students not just win a prize, but think like entrepreneurs for the long term.

Growing an Idea

Ask Julie Bliss Mullen about that. She developed an innovative technology that uses electricity for water filtration. In 2016, trying to figure out how to bring the idea to market, she filed a provisional patent with UMass and enrolled in entrepreneurship courses to further understand the commercialization process.

“The Berthiaume Center has been instrumental in making my ideas reality,” Bliss Mullen told BusinessWest. “As a Ph.D. student, I was used to conducting research, but had no clue what to do with an idea, let alone form a startup. They helped me to put things into perspective, making me think about what box I envision the water-purification device being sold to consumers even before I came up with a name for the company. This kind of thinking quickly made my idea a reality.”

The center also helped her vet potential co-founders for her business. While taking a graduate-level entrepreneurship class, she met Barrett Mully, a fellow at the Berthiaume Center who was attending the class as a teaching assistant. The two partnered up and eventually won the top award at the Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company, which was initially named ElectroPure and later renamed Aclarity.

Tom Moliterno (left) and Gregory Brand (right) present the third prize in the Minute Pitch competition to Devin Clark.

Tom Moliterno (left) and Gregory Brand (right) present the third prize in the Minute Pitch competition to Devin Clark.

They were accepted into the inaugural Berthiaume Summer Accelerator in 2017, and it used that experience to continue customer discovery, meet with mentors, work with the university toward converting the patent, develop a business strategy, and advance technology research and development. The company won additional seed funding — including a $27,500 prize from the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Awards earlier this year — and embarked on a collaboration effort with Watts Water Technologies Inc. to help bring a residential product to market.

“It was through Berthiaume that I learned how important product-market fit and developing and testing a business model is,” Bliss Mullen told BusinessWest, adding that they were introduced to investors, subject-matter experts, accelerators, grant agencies, and mentors through the Summer Accelerator. “I’ve always had a spark for entrepreneurship, but it was really Berthiaume that guided me through the unknowns and made me realize my passion.”

The Innovation Challenge, simply put, is a series of competitions designed to assist and reward UMass students and young alumni pursuing a novel business idea and developing it into a marketable product. The goal is for interdisciplinary teams to conceptualize a product with regard to its scientific and technological design, identify customers, and create a business plan for the product’s commercialization.

The first phase is the Minute Pitch, the event won last month by Find a Missing Kid. True to the name, students have 60 seconds to pitch their venture ideas to a panel of judges. No written business models or plans are required, and mentors are on site to provide feedback.

The second phase is the Seed Pitch Competition, in which participants form business models and perfect their elevator pitch. Where the Minute Pitch offers $2,500 in total awards, this second step distributes $15,000 to select teams as determined by the judges.

The third phase, the semifinal, simulates an investor boardroom experience, in which the young entrepreneurs present their venture to a panel of judges in a closed-door setting and compete for a spot in the final. During that final, the best projects vie for a total of $65,000 in seed money to move their ventures forward.

Events like that are complemented by a series of entrepreneurship classes across campus, student clubs focused on different elements of entrepreneurship, the Summer Accelerator, and partnerships with organizations across the Valley.

“The first chapter of Berthiaume was really focused on building a foundation of events and curriculum for UMass students — and, quite honestly, it has been a limited group of UMass students,” Thomas said.

While the center has distributed more than $300,000 to new ventures and built partnerships across campus and the Valley, he added, the next step will be to broaden all of that.

Thomas Leary and Ashley OIafsen took second prize in last month’s Minute Pitch.

Thomas Leary and Ashley OIafsen took second prize in last month’s Minute Pitch.

“We want to expand on campus and expand partnerships in the Valley with organizations like VentureWell, which focuses on entrepreneurship and training, and Valley Venture Mentors and the EDC. We should be building and rebuilding our connections there,” he went on. “Today, Berthiaume is a catalytic entity to stimulate entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking in the ecosystem.”

Building a Network

To that end, the center has started building a “mentor network” of community leaders and social entrepreneurs, he explained. “It could be alumni and entrepreneurs who are interested in volunteering their time to coach our team, so they can get better at not just reaching out in the community, but expanding our community and growing the ecosytem.”

Thomas brings a broad base of business experience to his current role of evolving the Berthiaume Center’s mission. Most recently, he held various senior-level global manufacturing, finance, and control roles with Corning Inc. During the last five years at Corning, he was a strategist in the Emerging Innovation Group, focusing on bringing new products, processes, and businesses to market.

“There are some cool things happening here,” he said. “For a guy who graduated from Technical High School in 1986 but hasn’t lived in Springfield for 32 years, it’s very exciting for me to come home and see all that’s going on. I’ve come home to a bustling Pioneer Valley.”

He also brings experience as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, as well as being a prolific volunteer and fundraiser. A 1991 alumnus of UMass Amherst, he never lost touch with his alma mater, recently serving as president of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc. board.

“I’ve been involved and seen most of the progress that UMass has made,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, instead of volunteering, I’m doing everything I love and used to do as a hobby, and being paid for it.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Brand, who has taught entrepreneurship at colleges and universities across the country, was recently named Berthuame’s new associate director. Thomas and Brand join Carly Forcade, operations and student engagement specialist; Amy LeClair, office manager; and Molly O’Mara, communications, events, and constituent relations coordinator, all of whom joined the center during the past year. Bruce Skaggs, Management Department chair, serves the center as its academic coordinator, aligning curricular offerings between Berthiaume and the various departments across UMass.

Recently, Thomas visited MIT to visit with Trish Cotter, executive director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, to exchange ideas, including how to develop a system where people are interested in investing in startups in an altrutistic way — not angel funders looking for a return, “but people who just genuinely want to help them and will volunteer some of their time to strengthen our economy and our community,” he said.

It’s just one of many ideas being kicked around by Thomas, who said he stopped drinking coffee in August, yet is enjoying a higher energy level than ever, simply because he’s energized by the potential of the Berthiaume Center to make a difference in even more lives.

“It’s hard for me to sleep. I wake up ready to go. There are so many exciting things going on,” he told BusinessWest. “Entrepreneurship affects lives — and I’m excited to be back in the Pioneer Valley, seeing the impact of entrepreneurship on lives and communities.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]