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U.S. Secretary of Commerce Supports Manufacturing, Seeks Insights to Assist in Growth

On June 3, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker toured Greentown Labs and led a roundtable discussion on manufacturing and clean technology innovation. As the largest cleantech incubator in the nation, "Greentown Labs is a unique model in the country," stated Pritzker. "We should be thinking of replicating what is successful here…the strength of our manufacturing sector is heavily tied to innovation, and vice versa." The Department of Commerce has embraced its role in supporting startups, acknowledging that a third of economic growth stems from innovation. 

The Secretary led a roundtable discussion on manufacturing and cleantech innovation.

The Day’s Events
Secretary Pritzker moderated a roundtable discussion with representation by startup founders of Greentown member companies, CEO’s of established manufacturing businesses, public officials, and political advisors.

After briefly providing her perception on the importance of startups in the US economy, Secretary Pritzker asked the panel for their insight into ways to best support early-stage companies as they work to scale their operations and bring their products to market using American resources. The Secretary was then given a facility tour where she met one-on-one with several Greentown startup owners. 

Secretary’s Opening Comments
Secretary Pritzker stressed that strengthening America’s manufacturing sector is a key priority under the Commerce Department’s "Open for Business Agenda." Manufacturing directly employs more than 12 million Americans and is critical to the U.S. economy.

She highlighted that the strength of the American manufacturing sector is closely tied to our ability to innovate – as manufacturers account for 75% of private sector R&D and receive roughly 70% of all patents issued. Secretary Pritzker also shared that startups account for over 40% of new jobs each year.

Current Support by Department of Commerce and MassDevelopment
The Secretary was very interested in ways the Department of Commerce can enhance its support for startups. Currently, the MassMEP’s support at Greentown Labs is a unique example of this effort.  Through use of a generous grant received from the MassDevelopment under its Manufacturing Futures Program, Greentown Labs and MassMEP have spent six months creating a program to enhance the success of startups in their quest to move from concept to commercialization and to successfully identify and work with established manufacturers as their supply base.

This program has involved over 100 startups and established manufacturers in surveys, interactive group discussions & instruction, one-on-one consultation with MassMEP consultants,  tours of both manufacturing facilities and Greentown lab member companies, and a match-making process to connect specific startup need with established manufacturers as suppliers.  An article dedicated to a full explanation of this program will be provided in a future newsletter.

The MEP, part of the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is a state-federal network of 60 centers and 1,200 manufacturing experts who help small manufacturers improve their production processes, upgrade their technological capabilities, and bring new products to market. 

The Roundtable Discussion
Secretary Pritzker asked several questions to get the conversation rolling: What more can we be doing to support new businesses? What are the specific challenges you are facing in cleantech and cleantech manufacturing? How can organizations such as the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Program (MassMEP) and MassDevelopment, as well as government agencies, be more supportive?

Sarah Haig, Co-founder and COO of Silverside Detectors Inc, a Greentown member company, commented, "Bringing technology out of the lab typically happens in two ways: you either build it yourself or you outsource it to China. There’s a huge gap there. What incentive structures exist, or need to be built, for startups to reach out to and work with the manufacturing resources around us?"

Sarah tied this back to the learning process involved in starting a company and the need to develop vocabulary with various stakeholders. "We have not been introduced to the vocabulary of manufacturing in any setting other than at Greentown Labs," the Secretary stated. The primary goal of the Manufacturing Initiative at Greentown Labs, in partnership with MassMEP, is to create a common dialogue between startups and manufacturers so they may better understand, plan for, and respond to each other’s needs.

Peter Russo of MassMEP, who works directly with Greentown Labs member companies to connect them with appropriate manufacturing resources, added, "There are different levels of incubators. You have scale-up facilities and you have think tanks. This is not a think tank, it’s a scale-up facility. It’s very difficult at the scale-up point, particularly with hardware startups, because this is the point of delivery."

Neil Scanlon, President of Worthington Assembly, Inc, explained how he worked with Ryan Wright, CEO and Founder of WrightGrid, to deliver on a relatively small order of solar panels. Understanding that the company is a startup working on urgent and immovable deadlines, he commented, "We know how important it is to WrightGrid, we’re going to be more responsive than with an established customer who has 30 units in stock and who can afford to wait another day for their delivery."

Tour of Greentown Labs and One-on-One with Company Founders
Following the roundtable, Secretary Pritzker, Mayor of Somerville, Joe Curtatone, and State Representative Denise Provost toured the prototyping lab at Greentown Labs to see the cutting-edge innovations coming out of the community. During the tour, the group visited with Open Water Power, WrightGrid, Silverside Detectors, and Autonomous Marine Systems.

CEO & cofounder of Open Water Power, Tom Milnes, describes his company’s underwater fuel cell technology to the Secretary of Commerce.

The first stop on the tour was Open Water Power. Cofounder and CEO Tom Milnes, who had participated in the roundtable, demonstrated his company’s underwater fuel cell for the Secretary, and explained how the technology can generate 10X more energy than competing lithium-ion batteries. They have recently completed tests which prove it is the safest underwater battery technology available.





CEO & founder of WrightGrid, Ryan Wright, meets with Secretary Pritzker in his lab space at Greentown Labs.

Turning the corner of the 20,000 square feet of prototyping space and following the bright yellow safety lane, the Secretary met with Ryan Wright, founder and CEO, WrightGrid. Ryan described the solar-powered, untethered mobile device charging platform and the Secretary asked questions about his business model and next prototype.







Sarah Haig, COO & cofounder of Silverside Detectors, discusses neutron detection and defense contracts with Secretary Pritzker.

Next, the Secretary spoke with Sarah Haig of Silverside Detectors, the company she co-founded in 2013. The technology detects neutrons, using alternative materials and innovative, manufacturing-friendly design to reduce the market cost of neutron detectors by a factor of 40.







Secretary Pritzker meets with CEO and cofounder of Autonomous Marine Systems, TJ Edwards.


With more questions to ask than time to answer them, the Secretary continued through the lab, past the Machine Shop and stopped to speak with T.J. Edwards, Co-founder and CEO of Autonomous Marine Systems. The company is developing a solar and wind-powered autonomous catamaran (or ‘datamaran’) to deploy in oceans to collect and monitor environmental data. Recently, AMS  tested their latest prototype on the Charles River.

Upon exiting the prototyping space doors and dropping safety goggles in yellow buckets, the tour was complete. Passing by a turbine and propeller of an old Altaeros Energies prototype, the Secretary thanked CEO Emily Reichert profusely for the opportunity to visit Greentown Labs and meet with company founders.

As the visit came to a close, the Secretary thanked everyone for participating and giving their insights. She concluded, "There is a shortage of places in the country where this kind of cooperation is occurring." The collaborative spirit of the day’s discussion on manufacturing and clean technology innovation reinforced the mission of Greentown Labs: to help entrepreneurs invent and build solutions to the world’s biggest energy challenges.