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Clean-tech incubator gets down and dirty

Greentown Labs in South Boston is trying to fill the need for work spaces where green-tech entrepreneurs can hack together product prototypes.

A space to call our own: Greentown Labs has a handful of fledgling green-tech companies working in a common space that was a supply warehouse in the early 1900s. On the right is a solar-powered chiller and in the back is a prototype of an airborne wind turbine.
Martin LaMonica

BOSTON--An everyday office building doesn't quite work when you need to hammer out a prototype of a solar-powered chiller or an inflatable wind turbine. So a group of entrepreneurs here have created a hands-on workshop to bring their clean-energy ideas to life.

Greentown Labs held its official opening last week, bringing fellow entrepreneurs, city officials including Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and investors looking to plug into the active clean-energy technology scene.

About 40 people from 10 fledgling companies have moved into this former baker and confectioner's supply warehouse in South Boston with the hopes of finding more like-minded green-tech start-ups. Among the offerings was beer chilled by solar panels.

Their work environment is definitely not class A office space. A disorderly room houses work areas shared among four or five companies. There is separate space for small offices and another with a lab table set aside for electronics testing. In the basement is a large machine shop where inventors can bang out their first prototypes.

The people who started Greentown Labs feel they are filling an unmet need. Like many other energy technology companies, energy technology developers need more than desk cubes and an Internet connection, as an Internet start-up might.

Promethean Power Systems is building the next generation of its solar-powered milk chiller, which it has started testing in India. Alteros Energies needs tall ceilings just to inflate the prototype of its airborne wind turbine. OcComp Systems is very much a nuts-and-bolts operation as well, as it works on a better natural-gas compression system.

Grimy and industrial
Sharing space and tools helps keep their costs down, but member companies have been tapping each other's expertise as well. That can mean working with a resident aeronautics engineer on a specific issue or sharing business tips on how to hire people, members said.

"We're diverse enough so that we don't compete but we are all focused on clean tech so there's a lot of collaboration," said managing director Jason Hanna, who is working on a home energy company, Coincident, from the lab.

An old solar panel leads a second life as a table at the Greentown Labs clean-tech incubator in Boston. Martin LaMonica/CNET

There is a growing number of entrepreneurs eager to start companies that help address energy and environmental problems. But in Boston there's a dearth of appropriate work space for companies that need to build things, said Brock Forest, the director of engineering at BlueBoxBio, a research and development company spun out of Harvard University.

BlueBoxBio is developing a biological system to clean natural gas so it can be pumped into pipelines. But given that the company can generate nasty smells during development, it's had some trouble finding the right space.

"Everything is either IT-oriented office space or, at the other end, high-end biotech labs. But we need a mechanic's garage--something grimy and industrial," Forest said. The company's founders are considering Greentown Labs.

The incubator, which only opened in May, organized itself as a nonprofit and has the enthusiastic support of city officials. It also has signed on corporate sponsors, such as National Instruments which is donating testing equipment andDigital Lumens which is supplying LED lights. "We didn't build Greentown Labs to make money, but to help our companies," said Hanna.