A fast-growing Somerville clean technology incubator that provides space for nearly 50 startup businesses will soon also house a test lab for a French-based global corporation.
The agreement between Greentown Labs and the French building materials giant Saint-Gobain was announced in Paris during the recent trade mission that Governor Deval Patrick made to expand opportunities for partnership among Massachusetts and European Union firms in the innovation economy.
Through the new partnership, Saint-Gobain will use its space at Greentown to test new technologies. It will also make the space available to some of the startup firms at Greentown to test their products and offer the expertise of its staff to assist those young firms in refining their prototypes. The deal is for two years, with an opportunity for renewal.
“This partnership between Greentown Labs and Saint-Gobain is further evidence that Massachusetts clean tech companies are competing in the global marketplace,” Patrick said in a prepared statement.
Founded by four startups in a condemned Cambridge warehouse in 2011, Greentown has grown steadily, moving first to the basement of a warehouse on Boston’s Summer Street and last September to its current custom-built facility in Somerville’s Ames Business Park on the site of the former Ames Safety Envelope Co.
Greentown, which is geared to helping clean technology businesses get started, has grown from 25 companies to about 50 since arriving in Somerville. Its startups collectively employ about 170 people full time and – counting interns and contractors – about 260 people in all.
The startups housed at Greentown’s 33,000-square-foot facility share space and equipment to work on their prototypes. The businesses, which are charged leases, also receive professional resources from Greentown, including guidance with legal, accounting, and other needs.
Greentown has enlisted other major corporations – such as Chevron, Shell, and National Grid – to serve as sponsors of the incubator, providing funding and other assistance. A recent agreement with EnerNOC (Energy Network Operations Center) will provide the Boston-based software company with space at Greentown to collaborate with the startups.
But the Saint-Gobain partnership will give Greentown a testing facility that can be shared by tenants, a first for the incubator. Currently, startups test prototypes in their own spaces or at off-site facilities, according to Emily Reichert, Greentown’s executive director.
It will also give Greentown and its startups the ability to tap the expertise of an international corporation that describes itself as the world’s largest construction materials company.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity to collaborate with a company that has so much to teach us,” Reichert said. “Just the knowledge-sharing will be incredibly useful for our startups who otherwise have to go and find it on their own. This expertise will now be right at Greentown Labs.”
Reichert and Mark Vasu, Greentown’s executive vice president, were part of the delegation accompanying Patrick on the French portion of his trade mission, which also included stops in Denmark and the United Kingdom, and were among those on hand when the agreement was announced at the US ambassador’s residence in Paris.
Edward O’Donnell, Somerville’s director of economic development, said the partnership was very good news for the city, calling it “an affirmation of our view that the innovation economy is part of the city’s future.”
Noting that innovation tends to create more jobs, O’Donnell said, “the city as a matter of policy wants to encourage these innovative types of firms from their conception right through to their corporate stage.”
One of the ways Somerville wooed Greentown to the city was a $300,000 low-interest economic development loan. The loan was conditioned on the incubator adding nine new jobs, at least 51 percent of them held or available to low- or moderate- income people. O’Donnell said Greentown had exceeded those terms.
The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a quasi-state agency that works to stimulate the state’s clean technology sector, has supported Greentown with two grants totaling $300,000. It also provided the incubator with a $150,000 loan to assist with its relocation to Somerville and has provided $24,000 in funding for interns, according to Alicia Barton, the center’s chief executive.
Barton, who was also at the announcement in Paris, said her agency looks at Greentown as “a key resource in an innovation ecosystem. They’ve grown significantly since they started . . . and they’ve become a real center of gravity for the entire Massachusetts clean-energy innovation sector. They have startup companies working on really exciting things.”
Saint-Gobain, which celebrates its 350th anniversary next year, had $55.5 billion in sales in 2013.
The firm already has a notable presence in Massachusetts, employing about 2,400 people at a research and development center in Northborough and at production facilities in Northampton, Norwood, Taunton, and Worcester, according to Anne Hardy, director of the Northborough center.
The Saint-Gobain staff deployed at Somerville will come from the Northborough facility, according to Hardy.
“We see it as an opportunity for us as a large company with a long history,” she said “One of the ways we stay vibrant is through partnerships with startup companies.”