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Innovation Economy

New Fusion Center capitalizes on free office space and common goals

(Associated Press/File)
By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2010

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Highlights from Scott Kirsner’s Innovation Economy blog. For the full blog, updated daily, visit www.boston.com/innovation .

You’ve heard of incubators, which provide space for numerous young companies under one roof, with shared copiers and communal coffee. But what about a “syncubator’’?

That’s the term coined by the founders of the new Clean Energy Fusion Center in Waltham: an incubator where synergies develop, since all the start-ups housed there are pursuing opportunities in related sectors, such as wind power, solar panels, or smart grid software. The center is managed by a group of executives who participated in last year’s Clean Energy Fellowship Program with the New England Clean Energy Council, including Lorraine Wheeler, Mike O’Neill, and Doug Levin. (The fellowship program aims to give executives from other industries an immersion course in the science and business of energy.) They set up shop last August, and are holding their official opening party later this month.

But already, the first start-up incubated in the center is getting ready to leave the nest: 7Solar Technologies, which has Evergreen Solar co-founder Jack Hanoka as part of its founding team.

I dropped by the center for lunch last week and found the denizens to be pretty realistic about the state of the clean-tech economy. Many venture capitalists have dialed back their in vestments, focusing on their existing portfolio companies and waiting for a liquidity event or two.

Levin talked about the “cradle of death’’ that can kill early-stage energy technologies because sufficient funding isn’t available to commercialize them - and the “valley of death’’ facing older companies that need to build big, expensive generation facilities to demonstrate that they can produce clean power at a reasonable cost. (I suppose that between the cradle and the valley, there must be an adolescence where these companies simply gobble up lots of capital.)

Many of the center’s 14 residents are building more capital-efficient businesses in software and services, which they say will have lower (or no) funding needs. Wheeler, for instance, is developing software at Qado Energy that will enable renewable such power sources as wind turbines and solar arrays to more easily plug into the power grid.

Imran Qidwai and Paul Sereiko are starting a consultancy to help real estate developers and building owners find financing to add renewable power sources to their projects and manage the installation; their first customer is a private school in Western Massachusetts.

Furthest along is 7Solar Technologies, founded by Peter van der Meulen, a veteran of Brooks Automation and Varian Ion Implant Systems. They’re designing a solar panel system that will either be able to produce electricity or to heat a water and glycol solution that can be used to power a building’s air conditioning, van der Meulen explains. “It’s a combination of solar panels and an air conditioner, running with software controls,’’ he says. “We look at weather forecasts, the price of buying energy from the grid, and the building’s energy use, and we decide what the optimal use of the panels is - for electricity to run things like lights, or for hot water to run the air conditioner.’’

7Solar has acquired some photovoltaic manufacturing equipment from Schott Solar, a German company that last year shut down a facility in Billerica. 7Solar has plans to occupy office space in Woburn by the end of January. (So far, the seven-person company has been self-funded but may start talking with outside investors soon.)

The center is essentially getting its office space for free, thanks to a connection Nick d’Arbeloff, head of the New England Clean Energy Council, helped make with T3 Advisors, a real estate consulting firm, and Boston Properties, the building’s owner. (The residents pay utilities and some other incidentals.) Levin says they’re looking for other energy-related start-ups to fill several empty cubicles.

There are already several clusters of clean-tech activity around Massachusetts, including the new Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown; the New Bedford area, where Ze-gen, GreatPoint Energy, and Konarka are building pilot and production facilities; and Kendall Square’s Cambridge Innovation Center, where GreatPoint Ventures is based. (The Fraunhofer Institute is also exploring the establishment of a space in Cambridge to house fledgling energy start-ups, according to d’Arbeloff.)

Conference alert
Harvard Business School students are holding their 19th annual “Dynamic Women in Business Conference’’ on Feb. 6. Speakers include executives from Lululemon Athletica, General Mills, The Limited, Staples, and Rent the Runway. Registration is a steal: $40 for nonstudents. www.wsaconference.com.

Worth watching
The video everyone in the tech world was passing around last week was a musical number from “The Crunchies,’’ an awards ceremony held in San Francisco earlier this month. (The Crunchies are organized by the California-based blog TechCrunch.)

The song, “In the Valley,’’ is a mutant version of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana’’ that captures the culture of Silicon Valley with sharp, satirical lyrics. See it at www.therichterscales.com.