Every day, more than 250 people report to work at a former auto body shop in Somerville to develop new solutions for climate change.
Yes, it sounds ambitious. But last week, the Greentown Labs incubator opened its doors for its annual Climatetech Summit, attracting politicos like Governor Maura Healey, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper, and Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, whose family has not owned a car for fifteen years.
“Climate change isn’t some far-off emergency that we’re buckling up for,” Ballantyne said. “It’s here.”
But the high point was not the speeches or panel discussions — it was the chance to see what several dozen companies were working on behind locked doors.
Fleet Robotics is building a robot that can clean the sides of ships. It uses a pair of magnets to attach and detach itself from the steel hull, scooching around like a person moving across a frozen pond without ice skates. A scrub brush removes the layers of slime that attach to the hull, which makes the ship more fuel-efficient. In January, Fleet conducted tests in Boston harbor to prove that the robot could stay affixed to a surface even while a ship was moving.
AeroShield Materials is focused on making double-pane windows more energy efficient using a material called silica aerogel, an extremely light insulating material. Put it between two panes of glass in a window, and it can improve energy efficiency by 50 percent, said cofounder Aaron Baskerville-Bridges. But aerogels are often hazy and blue-tinted; the company’s key breakthrough was making them transparent. Even when holding a piece of the aerogel in the palm of my hand, I couldn’t see it.
Another startup, Adept Materials, was working on a new kind of primers and paints that it says can better regulate humidity and heat, saving buildings about 10 percent on heating and cooling costs. Chief executive Derek Stein called repainting a room “a really easy retrofit” compared with other energy efficiency projects.
Energy-efficient, factory-built housing always seems poised to disrupt the traditional construction industry. Reframe Systems is hoping that now is the time. Led by a trio of Amazon Robotics veterans — that’s the division that builds warehouse robots for the e-commerce giant — Reframe contends that robots and software can reduce the costs of building net-zero homes, which can produce the same amount of energy they consume. The company has raised more than $5 million and is setting up a production facility in Andover.
Two Greentown startups, Active Surfaces and Verde Technologies, are working on lightweight and flexible solar power-generating “films,” which they say can be installed more easily, and in more places than traditional silicon panels. In May, Active Surfaces won the annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Both companies say they can tackle the issue that has dogged so-called thin film solar in the past — it has not been so good at converting sunlight into energy.
Pecos Wind Power is designing a wind turbine that could be installed at commercial and industrial buildings to provide renewable power. The company says it is quieter and smaller than turbines operated by utilities and much of the cost can be covered by tax credits authorized in the federal Inflation Reduction Act.
Tender Food was serving up samples of one of its products in Greentown Labs’s kitchen area: pulled “pork” with onions and scallions atop a soft bao bun. (It was better than anything served at the summit’s catered lunch.) The strands of pork in the dish were plant-based, made by a process that the company likens to spinning cotton candy. Tender’s plant-based chicken and pork substitutes are already served at a handful of local restaurants, including Wusong Road in Cambridge and Reunion BBQ in the South End. The company raised $12 million last year.
Type One Energy raised $29 million earlier this year to design a fusion reactor, with a goal of eventually building power plants. The company is headquartered in Wisconsin, but some of its engineers work at Greentown. Its design is called a “stellarator,” referring to the fusion reaction that occurs in stars. Carter Chamberlain, a physicist at Type One, described stellarators as “harder to build, but easier to run” than a competing design known as a tokamak reactor.
Healey seems determined to make the development and deployment of climate-related technologies a centerpiece of her administration. On stage, she said that “in the same way that Massachusetts became the global epicenter for life sciences, I want Massachusetts to be the global epicenter for climate tech.” That includes creating workforce development programs that prepare people for jobs in these new industries, she added.
In an interview, Healey talked about finding ways for these startups to manufacture in Massachusetts, and leveraging both private dollars and public funding to help get them through the “valley of death” — the period between inventing something new and creating a profitable company around it.
In 2008, former governor Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life sciences initiative planted a flag that the state wanted to be a major player in that industry — and that amount was eventually eclipsed by private investment in the state by major pharma companies. We’re now an exporter of new medicines and vaccines to the world. Could the same thing happen under Healy’s administration with climate tech, energy, and sustainability companies? I’m eager to see.
Healey said that she is already banging the drum on climate technologies when she speaks around the country. “We’ve got a goal,” she said. “We want to be the best. We want to own this space.”