Ten years ago, four startups joined together to split rent on a Cambridge warehouse. They were cleantech companies with a common need for prototyping space, but none of them imagined that what they started would turn into Greentown Labs, the largest climatetech startup incubator in North America.
The startups—Promethean Power Systems, Altaeros, Coincident (now Embue), and OsComp Systems (now Reach Production Solutions)—became a community wherein the spirit of collaboration spread to every facet of entrepreneurship. From sharing equipment to swapping staff to lending emotional support, the founding startups and the others who joined them were benefiting far beyond what they anticipated.
The benefits of that collaboration carried the unforeseen incubator from the Cambridge warehouse to Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood to Somerville’s Union Square. The number of companies jumped from four to 55 in a few short years, and now Greentown is home to more than 110 climatetech startups. In June 2020, Greentown announced its planned expansion to Houston, where it has now welcomed 17 Inaugural Members.
This year, we’re launching #Greentown10 to celebrate the startups, corporate partners, ecosystem collaborators, and other climate champions who have worked together over Greentown’s first decade. Together, they’ve built a supportive community that is more than the sum of its parts—and is all in the name of climate action.
To kick off #Greentown10, we decided to speak with the leaders of Greentown’s founding startups. Here are their reflections on Greentown’s early days, the importance of a climatetech community, and where they see the industry heading next.
How would you describe Greentown at its founding? When did you realize something special was going on?
Jeremy Pitts: Greentown at its founding was just the perfect storm of things coming together to make something special happen. It was a group of entrepreneurs who all found each other, all with shared vision and goals, and all aligned on the idea that each of us would get far more out of building a community and pooling resources and capabilities than we would put into it. It was very much raw and gritty in those early days—we didn’t have nice things, it got hot in the summer and cold in the winter, there was a hodgepodge of random furniture and equipment that people worked with, but none of that took away from the energy and excitement in the space, of people working hard to try to make their ideas successful and to ultimately have a positive impact on the world.
Sam White: Jason Hanna helped Promethean edit the next big grant we were submitting, since he had won a $1M federal grant recently. He spent many hours on it, as if it were for his own company. I thought it was amazing, and that’s when I realized that the sharing and collaboration were really special.
Jason Hanna: We very quickly realized that there was a huge amount of benefit to having this community. We created an organization that could not just help us, but could also help other entrepreneurs who were facing the same challenges that we were.
What’s your favorite memory from the early days of Greentown?
Sorin Grama: The first time I felt we were a community was our first December in the space, when we decided to throw a holiday party and everyone was on board with it. We all invited our friends, investors, and advisors, and we had a blast. Bob Metcalfe came (he was living in Boston at the time), along with Boston Globe reporters, local investors, etc. It certainly helped build our reputation.
Jeremy Pitts: Wow, too many to count. A lot of the fond memories looking back have to do with how fluidly the work and social aspects of Greentown blended together—there were lots of great times at various happy hours and social gatherings over the years. The ribbon cutting of our 337 Summer St. building with then-Mayor Thomas Menino was pretty neat, it really legitimized what we were trying to do to have the mayor show up for us. Also, when the governor came around for a tour was pretty neat. I know politicians come by all the time now, but in those early days it was pretty special to get that recognition from them.
“The early founders’ ethos remains—the camaraderie, the collaborative environment, the fun events, the passion to work on something that really matters. All these are now part of the culture, and I think it’s what really makes the place special.”
How has Greentown changed—and stayed the same—since its founding?
Sorin Grama: Obviously it has changed in the way it looks and operates. It’s mature and professional, and it needed to become that to survive and thrive. But the early founders’ ethos remains—the camaraderie, the collaborative environment, the fun events, the passion to work on something that really matters. All these are now part of the culture, and I think it’s what really makes the place special. I’m proud I was able to contribute to it in some way.
Sam White: I moved to India about a month after meeting Emily Reichert and I had no idea what to expect. When I came back and saw 28 Dane St. I was jaw-dropped shocked. They have grown it beyond my wildest dreams while maintaining that crucial sense of community.
How has being part of a community of climatetech entrepreneurs helped your startup grow?
Adam Rein: Some of our best employees came from other Greentown companies, and the other startups helped us with a million small challenges that popped up.
Jeremy Pitts: In the early days it was huge. We couldn’t have afforded a space on our own where we could build and test equipment and do the things we needed to do to be successful. The access to resources was also great, everything from free software to having investors walk by every day wanting to know what we were working on.
What have you learned from the Greentown community?
Sam White: One example is when I was getting a coffee with the founder of RightHand Robotics and when I told him about a technical problem, right there and then he brought me to his lab and taught me how to scale the process of filling a liquid solution into our encapsulated spheres.
Adam Rein: All great things start as someone’s impossible vision.
How has the climatetech and cleantech industry evolved over the last 10 years?
Jeremy Pitts: I think the biggest change is just visibility and acceptance. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of VCs brave enough to focus on cleantech and a similarly small number of journalists covering it, politicians willing to talk about it, etc. Today, there are hundreds of investors that want to do climatetech deals, and many that exclusively focus on them.
What do you envision the next 10 years looking like for Greentown and the industry?
Adam Rein: The challenge is massive, and I look forward to more big commitments for change and a new wave of passionate entrepreneurs looking for a hub. The biggest change will be that Greentown and the sector will continue to be more global in focus.
Jeremy Pitts: I hope just continuing the upward trend of the last 10 years, with broader and broader acceptance and integration of climatetech solutions into our lives.