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Can a cleantech incubator grow in Boston?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  June 24, 2010 09:20 AM

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This morning, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is expected to announce his intention to establish a cleantech incubator in Boston's "Innovation District," a/k/a the Seaport District. The Mayor planned to make the announcement at the Ad Club's Edge Conference.

According to his prepared remarks, the Mayor mentioned Boston-based EnerNOC, a publicly-traded company, and his plans to build a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine on an island in Boston Harbor.

As for the incubator, he said:

...I am giving my team a new task: to work hard and work fast to create a “clean tech incubator” in the Innovation District. This facility would help clean tech companies start up in Boston, create jobs in Boston, and thrive in Boston. We will take the lead because we know how important these businesses are to our city’s future. With this new incubator we are saying to clean tech companies, “We want you in Boston, and we are ready to help you succeed.” Time is of the essence. I believe we really need to move quickly; to push the envelope here; to explore; to be bold. It’s not enough to be a part of the green revolution. In Boston, we must lead it. What else do we want our city’s brand to be – if not revolutionary thinking?

The Mayor's speech was short on specifics, but Peter Rothstein of the New England Clean Energy Council told me this morning that his group has been working with the Menino administration, MIT, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to secure federal funding that could help renovate a Boston building that would serve as a cleantech incubator.

That consortium is chasing a whopping $129 million in funding (spread over five years) to establish an Energy Regional Innovation Cluster in New England. The money would mainly support academic research on making buildings more energy efficient, but some of the funds would go to renovating a building (likely in this new Innovation District in Boston) to serve as an incubator space, Rothstein told me. "The grant is really about cluster development and projects to deploy these new energy efficiency technologies," he said from Washington, D.C. ("I've been spending a lot of time here," he added.)

The proposal was submitted in early May, Rothstein said, with a decision expected in August or September. "It'll be quite competitive, since there's only one grant that will be awarded to one city," he said.

Other cities, including Worcester and Springfield, are working on cleantech incubators of their own. In Waltham, the Clean Energy Fusion Center is already home to a dozen entrepreneurs working on new ventures, and the Cleantech InnoVenture Center opened last fall in Lynn.

Key to the success of a new incubator in Boston will be free or discounted rent, and more importantly, a critical mass of viable companies choosing to locate there and some sort of mentorship by experienced investors, technologists, and executives.

Amazingly, there are so many cleantech incubators cropping up in New England that there's an effort to create an association for them, says Paul Sereiko, one of the executives who runs the Clean Energy Fusion Center in Waltham (which I wrote about back in January.) He writes via e-mail:

...There's a group working together now to form what we're calling the ACTION Network (Associated Clean Tech Incubators of New England) which will serve as a consortium to help foster a healthy, geographically dispersed, and somewhat functionally specific set of incubators for the region. The logic is that if the region is competing as a whole for Obama $, it's better for us to band together and submit grant and funding applications that serve all of our collective interests, than to submit separate proposals and run the risk of the $'s flowing to some other part of the country.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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