The COVID-19 pandemic will soon force the closing of the first incubator space to create a hub for startups in downtown Boston, giving fledgling ventures a reason to locate in the city rather than in Cambridge or Somerville.
Bolt, which opened in 2013 between Downtown Crossing and Chinatown, will close its doors at the end of March, according to cofounder Axel Bichara. Just two startups currently occupy a facility designed for a dozen or more, and featuring a fully outfitted machine shop in its basement.
“We are carefully evaluating how to best support the Boston startup community going forward, in light of the COVID uncertainty,” Bichara wrote in an e-mail. Since September, when Bolt laid off its office manager, the space has been operating without a regular staff presence.
Bolt was founded by Ben Einstein, an industrial designer who moved to Boston from Northampton in early 2012 to begin raising money and identifying promising companies that wanted to create physical products, rather than websites or mobile apps. His vision was to give them a place where they could share expensive prototyping equipment — and learn from each other.
At first, Bolt operated like an entrepreneurial “accelerator” program, choosing sets of startups that would occupy its space for six months and get a slug of initial funding. The first group, in 2013, included companies that created automated pet feeders, toy robots made of cardboard, and systems to help landfills capture more of the methane gas they emit. Later came companies working on “smart” wine bottles and technologies to monitor home energy consumption, to better understand what’s driving up your electric bill.
The Bolt space also served as a gathering place for startups in Boston — even those that hadn’t won funding from Bolt. It hosted regular after-work meetups for entrepreneurs focused on physical products, and occasional conferences called Hardware Workshops.
“During the early years, Bolt played a key role as the epicenter of the hardware community in Boston,” said Scott Miller, Bolt’s third cofounder.
The firm supplied “not only capital, deep expertise, and an awesome shop located in the middle of Boston,” Miller continued, “but also a gathering point for the hardware community at large to exchange ideas and knowledge via their many meetups. Most events were standing-room-only, and the connections created at these events helped enable Boston’s strong cohort of hardware companies.”
Miller is a former vice president of engineering at iRobot and a former employee of Walt Disney’s Imagineer. He now runs a consulting and investing firm called Dragon Ventures but is no longer involved with Bolt on a regular basis.
Some of the startups in which Bolt invested, including Sense, a home energy monitoring company, decided to rent their own office space, but occasionally came in for meetings or to use the machine shop.
“They had set up a great community around hardware startups — not just the equipment and space, but more importantly the community of startups, investors, and corporate partners around connected hardware,” said Mike Phillips, CEO of Sense. “This had a big positive impact on the Boston-area startup scene — like the impact Greentown Labs has had in the cleantech startup world.” Greentown Labs, in Somerville, is an incubator that provides space and equipment for energy and sustainability startups.
Since it was founded, Bolt has raised roughly $115 million to invest in startups and fund its own operations; the firm says it has backed more than 70 startups. But in 2015, Einstein moved to San Francisco after the firm opened a location there, and Bolt’s center of gravity shifted. Later, a dispute erupted between Einstein and Bolt’s other partners over how much time he was spending working while also caring for his partner, who was dying of cancer. That led the firm to fire Einstein in 2019, which resulted in litigation. The last time Bolt raised money from investors was mid-2017, and Bichara wouldn’t comment on future fund-raising plans.
One entrepreneur who attracted funding from Bolt, but who didn’t want to be named because the firm remains a key investor, said that while use of the downtown space was originally free, last summer Bolt decided to start charging rent. This entrepreneur was already working remotely because of COVID and decided to continue doing so.
The two startups still using Bolt’s Boston facility are hunting for new digs. One, Droplette, is developing a device for applying skincare products. The other, Drop Genie, is building tools to help laboratory scientists streamline the editing of genes.
It’s possible that Bolt may again operate a shared facility for startups and networking events, once the pandemic subsides. “We’re still figuring out what we want to do, from an office perspective, going forward,” says Kate McAndrew, a Bolt partner in San Francisco.