Greentown Labs: A Greener Future for Innovation
Building the Future of Clean Technology Through Community
In 2011, the founders of Greentown Labs were facing a wall. The five entrepreneurs out of the MIT ecosystem, Jason Hanna, Sam White, Sorin Grama, Jeremy Pitts, and Adam Rein, were already helming their own clean technology startups but found that the logistics necessary for fostering their companies—such as office and workshop space—were hard to come by. Far from deterred, the group decided that if they couldn’t find the right space for their companies, they’d build it.
The result was Greentown Labs, a shared physical environment where startup companies focusing on clean technology could colocate and collaborate. At its inception, Greentown Labs was housed in a warehouse in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and home to just four startups. In the past eight years, Greentown Labs has grown to be home to hundreds of clean technology–focused startups. It has relocated to a custom-built location in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Channeling a sense of collaboration and community started by its founders, the Greentown Labs incubator strives to be a collaborative and nurturing environment for the future of clean technology. Emily Reichert, the incubator’s CEO, says that this kind of community atmosphere is incredibly important for the early-stage startups that come through Greentown Labs’ doors.
“They found that there was value not only in sharing space but also in having a community of like-minded individuals who could help and support each other,” said Reichert. “Running a startup is lonely and hard. So, whenever you have a group of folks that are all on that same journey together, it tends to make it easier. You feel supported, and you’re able to be more productive and move faster.”
In addition to shared office space, the 100,000-square-foot incubator also offers lab and event space to its members, as well as access to software such as MATLAB®.
“We realize that innovation occurs at small firms as well as large, and want to provide startups with the same tools that the industry-leading firms use,” said David Rich, director, MathWorks. “Granting free access to early-stage startups in leading incubators like Greentown Labs lowers their development risk and helps them achieve critical funding milestones.”
A Clean Focus
Reichert says that while Greentown Labs’ focus on clean technology was initially coincidental, it has since become an active focus.
“It was very much happenstance that all of the founders were doing cleantech,” says Reichert. “But I think what we found over the years is that there’s real power in having a shared knowledge base, and a shared set of challenges that you’re passionate about in building that community… For cleantech, we feel very confident that you are not going to find a place anywhere else in the world that has a more focused, curated set of resources to build your startup and clean technology.”
When looking for new members, Reichert says they seek companies poised to solve big problems, like designing more efficient energy solutions or combating climate change. What these solutions actually look like varies from company to company, though there is a large focus on hardware design for areas like energy generation and storage, transportation, mobility, and wastewater management. Across these different areas, Reichert says that the size of the projects can vary from small sensors to car-sized computers.
But even that drive alone isn’t enough, says Reichert. In addition to their clean technology focus, Greentown Labs’ members also stand out in their commitment to community collaboration.
“We want companies that are not only going to focus on developing their technology in the lab but also participate in and contribute to our ever-growing community,” says Reichert.
One such company that fits the bill is the radar sensing company, WaveSense (now GPR). The company joined Greentown Labs in 2018 but has a history that goes back nearly 20 years. CTO Byron Stanley says the technology was originally designed during his time at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory for the government but has made a turn toward the commercial space in the past several years. The technology works by using ultra-wideband radar reflections to create a subterranean map that determines a vehicle’s location with centimeter-level accuracy.
Stanley likens the approach to generating a fingerprint of the subterranean surface.
“We are using these radars to create a fingerprint of the road, rocks, soils, and everything beneath the road,” says Stanley. “With that vehicle, or another vehicle, we’re able to use that fingerprint to match its exact location in real time.”
The WaveSense team uses MATLAB to extract and analyze the data generated from these radars and says this capability uniquely positions them to aid navigation in ways other technology can’t. Namely, because a road’s subterranean fingerprint is largely unchanging—unlike conditions above ground, which can experience deterioration or bad weather—it can help vehicles “see” the road even if human operators cannot.
Pilots for the WaveSense sensor began in 2019, and Stanley says the company is currently interested in applying its technology to autonomous driving and parking, advanced driver-assistance systems, and larger transportation systems like railways and shuttle buses. By improving these other forms of transportation, WaveSense hopes to reduce the need for more wasteful, less efficient transportation practices.
Another company making strides at Greentown Labs is the energy company Heila Technologies. Heila joined Greentown Labs in 2016 and is focused on improving the efficiency of the electric grid through decentralized microgrid control technology. Their platform makes it easy to connect solar arrays, batteries, and other energy resources to self-managing microgrids. The system is designed to help customers grow resilient microgrids while decreasing the carbon footprint. Such as in the case of one of Heila’s first clients—the Stone Edge Farm Microgrid. This microgrid has been keeping the lights on during wildfire-driven grid disruptions every year since 2017.
The Heila Platform leverages decentralized control to coordinate every energy asset in the microgrid with other assets. It simplifies the optimization of widely disparate energy types, such as batteries, solar panels, and hydrogen fuel cells, to achieve the highest possible energy savings for the customer and to extend the life of the equipment. It also lets the energy community add or remove assets from the system without requiring modification of the control configuration. This makes it easy for a community to increase the microgrid’s capacity or replace legacy assets with better options.
Using the Heila Platform to monitor and control individual energy assets in these highly decentralized microgrids creates lots of data, which the company’s CEO, Francisco Morocz, says they’re able to actively parse and analyze using MATLAB. The team also uses a special application called MATPower, which enables them to simulate control of the microgrids in realistic environments.
“Whenever we build a control system, it’s always very useful to test it first,” says Morocz. “In the field, the controllers are going to be connected to specific assets—batteries, solar inverters—but if you were to simulate that in a computer, pulling it and taking it to the field you might encounter details that you didn’t figure out yet, like communication network issues or latency. So one of the things we’re doing is creating a decentralized ‘hardware-in-the-loop’ tool where you build your communication networks with the Heila controllers to be used later in the field, and where each controller models the actual asset they will be controlling.”
Smart Vessels at Sea
Some Greentown Labs members have taken their technology to sea. Autonomous Marine Systems, which joined Greentown Labs in 2014, designs fully autonomous sailing vessels that are powered by 100% renewable energy (i.e., wind and solar). In theory the vessel could be out there sailing the seas and acquiring valuable data indefinitely, says Ravi Paintal, the company’s CEO.
Autonomous Marine Systems designs the software that helps these twin-hulled “datamarans” navigate a survey course and collect data from the oceans. The system is designed to be versatile and can be easily configured to carry a variety of sensor packages depending on the requirements of the user. Paintal says the datamarans can be used for everything from marine research to supporting offshore wind development to aquatic surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence missions.
Plug-and-play compatibility between the datamaran and customer payloads is essential for Autonomous Marine Systems, and Paintal says they expect that MathWorks software will facilitate this capability. While the company has yet to fully integrate the software into its operations, Paintal says that it played a crucial role in interpreting data collected during a demo project in collaboration with a professor from the University of California San Diego.
“We were using our datamaran to go out and acquire a lot of acoustic data with the objective of detecting and identifying marine mammal species,” says Paintal. “To process the data through the software routines developed by UCSD, we needed a MATLAB license.”
The software in question is called Triton and was developed by UC San Diego’s Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab. Triton, written in MATLAB, helps researchers parse acoustic data collected from marine mammals.
The datamaran carried a specialized hydrophone and data recorder and was deployed in an area where endangered North Atlantic right whales are frequently present. The researchers found that the datamaran was much quieter than other automomous surface systems, which improved the quality of the data collected.
Triton’s algorithms enabled researchers to rapidly detect specific events, or marine mammal call types in the acoustic data, and to more efficiently review and classify them. The Triton code is available on GitHub.
Onward and Upward
Since expanding into its new headquarters in 2017, Greentown Labs has been able to reach 100% occupancy in their lab space and 90% occupancy in their desk space—and applications for new members are always pouring in, says Reichert. She says that the company is looking to see how else they could expand the incubator, even potentially outside of Boston.
“As we look forward, we are considering other markets, especially nationally, that we think would be beneficial to have a cleantech incubator function within,” says Reichert. “And those markets might be ones that have significant presence in developing energy innovation.”