SCOUT OUT: Inside Greentown Labs

Altaeros Energies Greentown LabsPhoto courtesy of Altaeros Energies.

Many commercialized products promise a better tomorrow, regardless of whether or not they actually invest or assist in creating that future. Companies claim to be green by planting consolation trees with a car purchase or brag about reducing materials needed to dispense their product, while every year it gets harder to deny that the human influence is changing the climate of the planet. This isn’t the case at Greentown Labs, the Somerville clean technology (cleantech) incubator where scientists and engineers work to help reduce or fix that problem in a meaningful way.

Greentown Labs works by helping to give life to startups with green ideas. Their shared workspace comes with tools for prototyping, access to important industry software and even marketing and HR services. The bulk of the companies housed at Greentown prioritize energy efficiency, storage and alternative energy resources, highlighting the demand for fossil fuel-free (or more efficient) functions. Some of the businesses focus on improving the farming industry with soil, crop and weather surveillance. Many members form their companies around solar power, working on a variety of applications like music festival charging stations, digital billboards and water heaters. We sat down with three Greentown startups to learn about their vision for a greener future.

Greentown Labs

Photo courtesy of Grove Labs.

Following a few notable food fear-mongering documentaries and the increasing social awareness of a healthy diet, the demand for fresh, chemical-free foods has skyrocketed. In cities, high population dejsirt and inaccessibility to local farms exacerbated that demand. To solve the urban farm-to-table problem, Grove Labs has developed a product that brings the farm to the city. That product, called Grove, consists of a bookshelf-sized ecosystem that grows fresh food through a system that cycles through an aquarium.

Grove Labs, born less than two years ago out of an MIT fraternity, soon set up shop at Greentown and created a whole test bed of hydroponically grown greens, fruiting crops and culinary herbs. The company, now delivering 50 units to early adopters in the Boston area, hopes to make their product as standard in a home as a refrigerator.

“The refrigerator is where you store cold food, and a Grove is where you grow fresh food,” explains CEO and co-founder Gabe Blanchet. “We believe that everybody can grow some of their own fresh fruits and vegetables right where they live.” Over the next year, the

Grove Labs team plans to provide extensive support to their first customers, which will hopefully help pave the way for a larger scale population. Beyond their company expansion, Blanchet hopes to introduce their household Groves into other markets like education.

One of the larger, head-turning companies within Greentown Labs is Altaeros Energies, which works to provide lower cost wind energy to off-grid and poor grid areas. Their product, the Buoyant Airborne Turbine (BAT), resembles a donut-shaped blimp with a wind turbine inside that floats out of sight and up to 600 meters in the air. The energy drawn from the turbine is then sent down a multi-tethered system that connects the shell to the ground station. The goal is to give better energy production options to areas, like islands, lay are off the grid or have poor power infrastructure.

“Almost every island is a remote utility with limited infrastructure, and they rely on mostly fossil fuels. They’re also on the front lines of climate change,” explains Altaeros’s Business Development Manager, Ryan Holy. By directing their technology at places where oil and gas are at a higher premium, Holy hopes to broaden their market. With a sizable investment from the Japanese corporation Softbank, Altaeros has increased their product development team and hopes to deploy their first commercial product at a customer’s site within the next year.

Solar power generation has been one of the more rapidly growing renewable options on the market for many years now. The blue-black panels are common fixtures around the city, perched on emergency call boxes, trash bins and even on Hubway stations. One of Greentown’s solar companies, Avalanche Energy, founded itself around the idea of utilizing the sun to heat water and replace gas and oil dependent units. Before Greentown, Avalanche founder Alex Pina worked out of his apartment creating a satellite-shaped mirror to efficiently heat water.

“The ultimate goal is to have made solar power—solar hot water specifically—affordable and accessible for all of the general community. We’re trying to lower the initial investment that this takes, which decreases the payback period,” Pina explains. Avalanche would also like to target people in more rural areas where natural gas pipelines and grid are less common. In 2013 they unveiled the SunTracer, and they’re now developing a larger, more refined iteration, currently on display in Greentown’s prototype space. Ideally they’ll have more than 20 units deployed in the field for testing by 2016.

“If we can prove the system works in all of the crazy weather we get here, then bringing it to warmer climates or sunnier climates isn’t going to be a problem. We can guarantee the system is going to work.”