How the Boston Cleantech Ecosystem Works and Wins Together

The word “ecosystem” is used a lot in our city. We have an innovation ecosystem, an education ecosystem, a tech ecosystem and others, but what are we really saying when we use that word?

At its core, an ecosystem refers to any system or network of interconnecting and intersecting parts. In the world of biology and ecology, an ecosystem is a system or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms within their environment. Take for example our member company Grove, the Grove Ecosystem is an intelligent, in-home garden. When you see the Grove Ecosystem it’s pretty clear to see how its fish, beneficial microbes and plants work together to grow fresh, tasty food.

But when we talk about an industry-specific ecosystem it can be difficult to see how it actually interconnects, works together and forms a community. Even more, when ecosystem stakeholders provide similar offerings or services, differentiating and understanding the important role each plays can be difficult.

Greentown Labs is deeply involved in the Boston cleantech ecosystem and we’ll be the first to say its many stakeholders absolutely intersect and collaborate for the greater good of the industry and society as a whole.

Consider Sistine Solar, a solar startup based out of Greentown Labs that designs beautiful, custom solar panels that seamlessly integrate onto rooftops, outdoor furniture and canopies. Sistine Solar’s founders, Senthil Balasubramanian and Ido Salama, met in business school at MIT Sloan and launched Sistine Solar in the summer of 2012. Shortly thereafter, Senthil and Ido added engineering and design expertise to their team which helped Sistine Solar win the Renewables Track of the 2013 MIT Clean Energy Prize.

Winners of the Clean Energy Prize are awarded $20,000 which to some may not sound like a lot but to a budding startup, it’s life changing. The award enabled Sistine Solar to continue on their mission: incorporate stunning design into solar energy to help drive the mass adoption of clean energy.

Senthil has shared that by winning the Clean Energy Prize, participating in the Cleantech Open Northeast and joining Greentown Labs, Sistine Solar gained the credibility it needed to grow. Senthil believes Sistine Solar was accepted into the Cleantech Open Northeast accelerator because of its success in the Clean Energy Prize. Cleantech Open, in turn, paved the way for a prototyping grant from Fraunhofer CSE, which led to Sistine raising its seed round from top angel investors. The subsequent strides Sistine took while at Greentown Labs — including landing Microsoft and Starwood Hotels as its first paying customers — helped it secure a $1M cooperative award from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, which will be used to test, certify and commercialize Sistine Solar’s SolarSkin technology! We’re eager to see and support Sistine Solar as they undertake their commercialization efforts out of Greentown Labs. Senthil recently commented that the prototyping space at Greentown Labs and its community of like-minded entrepreneurs and engineers has been very instrumental in their company’s development.

Sistine Solar is an amazing example — and one of many — that shows how key members of the Boston cleantech ecosystem can partner and work together to help startups succeed. They went from university → contest → accelerator → incubator → strategic support partner → a government funding opportunity… amazing!

The chart below showcases the path we see most of our startups take:

From Greentown Labs’ perspective, startups and entrepreneurs are the epicenter of Boston’s cleantech ecosystem and in order for them to thrive, they need access to a variety of resources, including:

Universities — Boston is home to world-renowned universities and colleges like MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Babson, Olin, Wentworth, Lesley and many others. Universities frequently play an ongoing role in the life of a startup because of the deep network of contacts, variety of resources and facilities they can provide. Sparks of innovation and brilliant ideas often begin in university classrooms, dormitories, labs, programs (bars…) and as a member of Boston’s cleantech ecosystem, it’s our goal to help bring those ideas to fruition.

Startup support organizations — Greentown Labs is one of many Boston-area organizations dedicated to helping cleantech startups succeed. Key players include startup contests and prizes like the MIT Clean Energy Prize; accelerators, including Cleantech Open Northeast and MassChallenge; and incubators and incubator networks like North Shore InnoVentures, ACTION and Incubatenergy. If you’re ever unsure of how prizes, accelerators and incubators differentiate, we encourage you to check out our Startup Dictionary. Other essential startup support organizations include MassCEC, NECEC and FraunhoferCSE. MassCEC is a publicly-funded agency dedicated to accelerating the success of clean energy technologies, companies and projects in Massachusetts; it provides access to funding which is often the lifeblood for startups during critical growth phases. NECEC and its Cleantech Navigate Northeast program helps clean energy companies start, scale and succeed with its business, innovation and policy leadership and expertise. The Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) accelerates the adoption of sustainable energy technologies through scientific research and engineering innovation.

Corporate partners — Boston is filled with industry incumbents: large organizations that have established market share, expertise, customers and distribution channels. They’re well-positioned to partner with startups for a variety of reasons and in different capacities. They serve as a commercialization partner for startups and we see this model with many of our community sponsors like GE, National Grid, Veolia, Saint Gobain and most recently, DSM, who is partnering with Greentown Labs and Fraunhofer TechBridge on the SunRISE Challenge that’s working with solar startups.

Manufacturers — Hardware startups need manufacturers to help them build their prototypes and scale up from prototype-stage to commercial product manufacturing. But startups often face two major barriers in executing this effort: 1. difficulty identifying and finding manufacturers and 2. lack of experience in working with manufacturers and limited knowledge of manufacturing processes. Greentown Labs’ Manufacturing Initiative with MassMEP educates both startups and manufacturers on how to best work together and then connects good potential partners to help keep manufacturing in Massachusetts. Additionally, Bolt is a well-known seed-stage investment fund that provides an enormous amount of manufacturing resources to hardware startups.

Investors — Support from investors is critical for startups and helps them hit necessary milestones in their company’s growth. Investors play an important role in a startup’s success and they often look toward corporate partners for third-party validation to see if they’re piloting or collaborating with a startup which speaks to why corporate partnerships are so important.

Government — In 2015 and for the fifth year in a row, Massachusetts was named the most efficient state in the country for its commitment to clean energy and its aggressive energy saving goals. This recognition is a reflection of Governor Baker and former Governor Patrick’s clean energy leadership and the state’s investments in renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint and promote innovate technologies.

Based on our experience in partnering with many members of the Boston cleantech community, we’ve seen our startups succeed because of the ecosystems’:

➔ Shared passion for the sector

➔ Ongoing engagement across partners

➔ Sharing of time and expertise

➔ Active convening of organizations

➔ Public celebration of success and

➔ Welcoming of new members

Each element within the ecosystem has a slightly different function and stage at which it engages with startups but at our core, each of us exist either largely or entirely for one reason: to support the growth and success of cleantech startups. Some members of the ecosystem are involved in the earlier, ideation phases of the startup’s growth and others are more involved when it becomes time for the company to begin manufacturing. Each plays an essential role in the development and sustainability of the companies.

At the end of the day in Boston and beyond, the elements within the cleantech ecosystem need one another in order to thrive. And even more, we need our collective ecosystem to integrate and collaborate because if one cleantech company succeeds, we’re all one step closer to our sustainable future.