Networking, green-building cluster underway for the region
BRATTLEBORO >> A study calls for a three-year process of connecting different people and groups before moving projects through some semblance of a business accelerator.
"The key problem here is you don't have enough of what we call 'ignition.' There are not enough people igniting ideas and they're not bumping into each other and there's no way to get them to bump," said Frank Knott, president of ViTAL Economy Inc. "You need more idea igniters to get deal flow to make sure that eventually an accelerator can be supported."
Knott was the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation's semiannual meeting guest speaker on April 27 at World Learning. His group looked at national best practices, resources, needs, funding, performance measurements, potential program design, culture and product delivery. Their suggestion was to create the Green Mountain Innovation Network.
A feasibility study on whether to start a business accelerator was funded with $170,000 from the Windham County Economic Development Program and $265,000 from the Economic Development Administration. In-kind support valued at $225,000 came from the BDCC. A WCEDP fund was established as the result of a settlement between the state and Vermont Yankee nuclear plant owner Entergy to help ease the economic burdens facing the county with the shutdown of the plant.
The study focused on Windham and Bennington counties, and Franklin County in Massachusetts and Cheshire County in New Hampshire.
"What we learned is the region's current innovation environment is weak. We're not just talking Windham. We're talking the four-county area," Knott said. "The innovation-resource assessment came out that you were below average and part of that is that not only do you not have enough innovation-support resources but that the resources that exist are not connected to one another."
He said younger people were leaving the region because they couldn't find jobs.
Building a system in which three to five businesses would be created annually, according to Knott, would require about 2,200 points of contact within the network each year.
"That means people that you are connecting with on a regular basis that have an interest in being in business or want to consider it," he said, explaining that this could be done by holding events such as start-up weekends, business plan competitions, entrepreneur boot camps, meet-ups, innovation workshops, speaker series and entrepreneur award ceremonies.
The BDCC held an Idea Jam on May 5 at the Vermont Jazz Center.
The study shows out of over 2,000 "touch points," there might be 400 interested business contacts. Two hundred of those might be qualified prospects. And out of 36 active business plans might come three business start-ups.
Knott suggested the BDCC look at establishing this network plus a private-sector/philanthropic collaborative funding program to help with obtaining grants.
Another part of his work looked at creating a green-building cluster, which also would put the four counties together with a goal of becoming a nationally recognized leader in the field of creating resilient and sustainable buildings and communities.
"The majority of assets are sitting primarily in Windham and Cheshire. But it's critical in order for this cluster to work that we link those assets together," Knott said. "We believe that the green-economy sector can be the real growth engine of the future."
In all four counties, Knott said there is a focus on the whole system of green building. Commercial and residential buildings alike are being constructed with special attention on fitting into the community.
Knott sees the region becoming "the ideation and incubation center" for the United States and emerging world, combining "building science with building craft."
"At the nation, the percentage of green economy goods and services employment is about 2.6 percent," he said. "In Vermont alone, it's 4.1 percent and Massachusetts is 2.8 and New Hampshire is 2.7."
According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics shared by Knott, the field contributes about 2,220 jobs and $238 million in gross-domestic product to the economy each year.
The green-building market is doubling in size every three to five years, Knott said, and green-bond financing is growing at 300 percent a year.
"We are going to need $1 trillion a year in new green-bond financing programs every year for the next 20 years to finance green-economy projects. And $39 million of the U.S. remodeling market alone is devoted, as of 2013, just to energy retrofits of buildings, single-family homes," he added. "So you can see it is a massive market far greater than we had imagined for this region to try and tap into. All we have to do is go after one-tenth of 10 percent and we've got a huge economic engine in this region."
With Vermont Yankee's closure, approximately 600 jobs would need to be replaced. Knott expects about 1,645 new jobs and 80 new companies could come as the result of the cluster.
R.T. Brown, WCEDP project manager who works out of the BDCC offices, told the Reformer the Idea Jam was the launch event for the INSTIG8 programming series, which was set up with three tracks of focus: start-ups, existing businesses and general topics of interest.
"It's a direct extension and reaction to the feasibility study, which basically identified that we need more activity around ideation and business creation," he said. "We're going to start taking some steps to foster that kind of culture that needs to exist so the result would be more ideas bubbling up and therefore more of what we call business starts or firm creations."
BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold pointed out that the Green Economy Innovation Hub was already looking at how a cluster could make headway. He said "a loose-knit leadership team" has participants in sub-focus groups working on product services, insurance and real estate, and creating a knowledge center.
Players include BuildingGreen founder Alex Wilson, Green River Software CEO Michael Knapp, BuildingGreen President and CEO Nadav Malin, Brattleboro Savings & Loan President Dan Yates, realtor Bill Murray, engineer Bob Stevens, Director of Campus Sustainability at Keene, N.H., State College Carey Gaunt, Chief of Staff at World Learning Bethaney LaClair, media professional Stephen Dotson, Vice President of Technical Services at BuildingGreen Peter Yost, OneReport President Janice Warren and Andrew Dey, of COO Unity Homes.
Brown found the feasibility study to be accurate, saying the critical mass necessary for a business accelerator would be a challenge.
"By broadening the scope and including other hub areas, it's quite a logical approach," he said. "This is developing. We don't know what's going to be successful. But we're going to put ourselves out there and try a lot of different things and learn what resonates and keep pushing forward."
Grinold said he was "super excited" to have the study delivered by Knott and wanted to share it with the community to find ways to work with the region to implement the findings.
"The big takeaway is that we need to improve our regional approach and expand upon it. We need to improve our network and expand upon it," Grinold said. "Then we create opportunities and an awareness of those opportunities."
Currently, he sees "an upwards of 12 unique business opportunities" coming from the Milestone events which are geared towards developing the green-building cluster.
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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