When Keo Rattana was laid off from her job as an assistant engineer, two things happened. She became obsessed with ice cream and bent on reinvention.
Saddled with dairy sensitivities, the Malden mother of three set out to find a palatable substitute. Coming up empty, she spent long nights at her ice cream maker with soy milk, coconut milk, and vanilla. Then one morning around 2, she hit the right recipe for vegan vanilla.
One small problem: “I had no clue how to turn it into a business,” said Rattana, 38.
Headquartered at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the innovation incubator is applying money, expertise, and intensive training to spark business activity beyond Boston and Cambridge.
“It's about getting people to come up with their own solutions, and everyone else is there to help them out,” said Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, an Andover philanthropist who started the initiative with $5 million two years ago.
From vegan ice cream (also gluten-free) created in Malden, to pay-what-you-can yoga in Lawrence, to urban farming in Lowell, “The idea is to bring the execution excellence of the for-profit to the compassion of the nonprofit,” said Deshpande. “The sandbox is building these communities together.”
This grownup version of a playground is “Where you experiment with things. It’s OK for people to come with ideas, and fail and try again,” said Deshpande.
Through pitch contests, held several times a year; a catalyst program, which provides guidance and grants to students; and the accelerator — an MBA on steroids — Merrimack Valley Sandbox has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs succeed in the region.
“It’s huge. This is something Lawrence has been waiting for,” said Heather McMann, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, a nonprofit focused on improving public health and economic development in the city.
So far, the Sandbox has funded more than 600 youth entrepreneurial ideas. Sabrina Boggio, a junior at Merrimack College who launched Women’s Path to Employment to help those in her Lawrence hometown dress professionally for interviews, is a perfect example.
“Unless you have innovative receptacles in the community, no one can help,” said Deshpande.
His hope is to have 10 sandboxes — rooted in second-tier cities — across the state over the next few years.
“If this model works, it will be a new way to do philanthropy,” he said. “It’s a very effective way to turbocharge the bottom 20 percent of a community.”
By tapping UMass Lowell and Cambridge College in Lawrence, businesses such as Enterprise Bank, and organizations like Groundwork Lawrence, the Sandbox melds a cross section of business, academics, and community.
By offering seed money for bright students with smart ideas, “They are hitting different sectors, helping education, and encouraging college students,” said McMann. That impact is creating “a bigger pipeline for more entrepreneurs to come through in the future.”
Ideally, the Sandbox spawns “a new type of entrepreneur with a go-to-market idea,” said its marketing manager, Emil Kuruvilla.
Bill Peregoy of the Lawrence Yoga Collective is that new entrepreneur.
On a recent Saturday, in his sunny studio on Essex Street, the 51-year-old coaxed a dozen people on yoga mats to “find your core, and stay focused on your breath.” As the class stretched into the downward dog pose, the urban clamor below was muffled by soothing streams of “om.”
For yoga to thrive in a financially strapped city like Lawrence, where about 28 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, suggests the program has legs.
“People told me, yoga is not really something that’s for Lawrence,” said Peregoy, who opened a donation-based studio in March to prove the naysayers wrong.
Entrepreneurs in the accelerator program like Peregoy and Rattana were paired with mentors to help them every step of the way.
Twice a week they committed to three-hour sessions in Lowell and Lawrence. They both received $5,000 in seed money to launch.
Rattana’s mentor, Pradeep Aradhya of Winchester, may not know much about vegan ice cream, but the technologist has helped her stick to a timeline, develop a social media strategy, and fine tune her company’s mission.
To Aradhya, a former executive at Boston advertising agency Digitas who now runs an app development company, the grass-roots program is needed outside Boston’s Innovation District and Kendall Square in Cambridge.
“It’s much more important than skimming the cream of the intelligentsia, which the highly competitive tech-focused accelerators in Boston tend to do,” he said. Learning from business heavyweights such as Bobbie Carlton, founder of Mass Innovation Nights, and Sidd Goyal, chief technical officer of TinyURL, the entrepreneurs who finished the program in February got a crash course in bootstrapping, building company values, and marketing strategies.
For entrepreneurs like Brenna Nan Schneider, of made-to-order apparel manufacturer 99 Degrees Custom, there is a benefit to being outside the 128 beltway. The Somerville resident has found interesting and affordable space in a former cotton mill in Lawrence “that allows you to innovate. It’s harder to bootstrap when rent’s high,” she said.
She’ll start out with three employees when she opens this month and hopes to grow to 240 to 300 employees in five years.
“Without having gone through the Sandbox, I would not be as far along. At this time it would be just be an idea,” said Schneider. “There is no doubt in my mind.”