Greentown Labs Takes a Former Foundry From Coal to Cleantech

greentown labsGreentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert stood at 444 Somerville Ave., which will soon house the company's Global Center for Cleantech Innovation, earlier this year. Photo by Jess Benjamin.

An old industrial building outside of Union Square is getting a new, greener life thanks to the Somerville-based startup incubator.

Kris Ogonowski remembers walking down Somerville Avenue as a kid in the ’70s, when the stretch between Porter and Union Squares was a bustling industrial neighborhood. Back then, the route he took from his mother’s house on Park Street in Teele Square—a house she still owns today—to kindergarten at the Durrell School, and later, to St. Anthony’s School, wound past factories like the Ames Safety Envelope Company on Tyler Street, and Ogonowski always made a point to pass these buildings, fascinated by the work that went on there.

“When I walked to St. Anthony’s, you could see all the people working because they had those slide windows,” the longtime local, whose grandparents settled here 1947, recalls. “I used to jump up—8 years old—so I could look inside.”

Of course, the neighborhood looks very different today. The Ames factory closed down in 2010, and neither of Ogonowski’s former schools is still standing; Durrell closed almost three decades ago, while St. Anthony’s shuttered in 2006. Plus: “Back then, you used to walk to kindergarten—now, you’ve got GPS all attached to you, they’ve gotta know where you are every 30 seconds,” he says, laughing.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is his excitement for bustling industrial sites. Today, walking through the building at 444 Somerville Ave. that he bought in 1984, an animated Ogonowski is just as thrilled by the work going on there.

On this brisk but bright April morning, dozens of workers are sawing, hammering and welding their way through the old foundry, which was the first copper and brass tubing factory in the United States when it was built in 1849. Beeping from a bright-yellow Komatsu excavator cuts through the chilly spring air as Ogonowski and Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert stroll through the building, eyes surveying the work approvingly from beneath the brims of their white hardhats.

Soon, this Somerville Avenue space will house a totally different type of industry: the Greentown Labs Global Center for Cleantech Innovation.

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Kris Ogonowksi

“What we’re trying to create is a place where entrepreneurs and innovators come from around the world to share ideas and create technology that can solve our biggest energy and environmental problems,” Reichert explains, raising her voice slightly to talk over a buzzsaw that’s just started whirring.

Greentown Labs partnered with Ogonowski close to two years ago, and construction on the building began last fall. When the buildout wraps up—ideally in October—the state-of-the-art center, located adjacent to Greentown’s headquarters on Dane Street, will allow the incubator to house more than 100 different cleantech and energy startups. (Currently, they’re at capacity, with 54 member companies.) They’re using the former foundry’s vertical space to its full potential, building a second and third floor in addition to a green roof deck. The new building is expected to create a minimum of 325 new jobs, according to a release from the company, and it will roughly double Greentown’s existing space, rounding out the campus—which includes rented space in Ames Business Park—to a cool 95,000 square feet.

It’s an incredible amount of growth for Greentown, which was founded by four entrepreneurs in an East Cambridge garage just a little over six years ago. And though she’s soft-spoken, Reichert’s eyes sparkle when she talks about housing the next generation of innovators and creators from Greater Boston and around the globe. “It’s a great fit for the city of Somerville, with all the artists and makers and also the history of manufacturing that already existed here,” Reichert says. “We’re really excited to be putting roots down further. It’s a great place for entrepreneurs, and it’s a great place for Greentown Labs.”

Right now, the company’s Dane Street HQ is a little tucked away. (“We’re in an alley with no name,” Reichert laughs.) But the Global Center for Cleantech Innovation will have a streetscape, with wide garage doors that open onto Somerville Avenue. In addition, the new facility will have an event space that can accommodate more than 400 people, plus a wet laboratory, something Greentown can’t offer in its current facilities. There will be more than 200 bike parking spaces and two electric vehicle charging stations. “And this is where Emily is going to give all her speeches,” Ogonowski grins, gesturing to a platform that overlooks a ground-floor common area.

In the front of the facility, Greentown’s member companies will exhibit prototypes of their technology—projects that are now hung from the ceiling or tucked in a corner, wherever there’s room—alongside relics from the building’s past: massive metal cranks that opened the foundry windows, square nails that the construction workers have saved, metal plates from some of the old electric motors.

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A look inside 444 Somerville Ave., April 2017

“My first feeling was that it had great bones,” Reichert says, remembering the day, years ago, when she first walked through the space. “You see these cranes hanging across the top, and the height of the building—35-foot ceilings in the middle—I could see that this structure was built to last. We’re really trying to preserve and protect and exhibit the manufacturing history.”

It’s a legacy worth remembering, if only to show how much Somerville has changed—how far it’s come since those industrial days—and where it could still go.

“That’s the wonderful thing; it was dirty back in the day, it wasn’t efficient,” Ogonowski says. Part of the renovations to the space involved the removal of thousand-gallon fuel tanks, including “a heater the size of a school bus” that once warmed the massive foundry, first with coal, and eventually with oil. “What they’re doing now, there’s a recycling aspect. They’re giving this building another 100-year life cycle.”

“It’s an evolution,” Reichert smiles, adjusting her hard hat.

“The building was ready,” Ogonowski says, nodding his agreement. “It’s recycled. It’s a whole lot cleaner than it was back in the day.”

This story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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