Standing in an empty conference space in Boston’s Seaport District, Tom Ryden remembers the day in mid-February when Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker dropped by. The nonprofit organization that Ryden runs, MassRobotics, had just expanded its office and workshop space to 40,000 square feet on two floors.
“We packed 120 people into this room,” Ryden says. It’s now among the largest, if not the largest, shared incubators for robotics startups in the world.
Then came COVID-19. The facility never shut down completely, but through the spring there were only four startups, working on ventilators and defense projects that were deemed essential.
In June, others began to return. One startup created an automated temperature screening kiosk, the ConfiTemp One, which sits in the MassRobotics entry area — and which is now being sold to customers. Another, Black-I Environmental, tests its disinfecting robots in the office. They roam around either beaming ultraviolet light or spraying a hydrogen peroxide mist, with the goal of killing any viruses that may be on surfaces.
On a good day, Ryden says, 14 or 15 of the 56 companies that rent space at MassRobotics may have an employee using the space — or sometimes a group of four or five are meeting or working on a prototype, all wearing masks. One, Maglev Aero, which is working to build an electric aircraft, primarily comes in around 8 p.m. to work until the wee hours, when fewer people are around. “I have not seen them in months,” Ryden says.
There have been a few events held in the conference space, focused on topics such as robots for the construction and manufacturing industries. Those events have been streamed online, with a small in-person audience of 10 or so MassRobotics tenants sitting in well-spaced chairs. It’s a faint echo of what had once been a vibrant startup ecosystem in Boston — and now mostly exists in exile.
Ryden says that in January, his hope was that the newly expanded facility would be two-thirds full by year’s end. His best guess now? About half full, thanks largely to the shared machinery, robotic arms, and workspace that tenants can access. And 2021 remains hazy: “We really don’t know what’s going to happen for demand,” he says.