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Berkshire Innovation Center Opens Doors After Decade-Plus Wait

Friday is the grand opening for the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts after years of waiting. WAMC got a preview.

For the past decade, the plan to establish a center in Pittsfield that would offer small to midsize businesses and schools access to shared technology and resources was much discussed but frequently sidelined due to budget gaps. That all changed in March 2018. State and local leaders gathered at city hall in Pittsfield to declare that the Berkshire Innovation Center had finally been fully funded.

“It has taken about 10 years to get to this point, and it would not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts of our state and local elected officials, including three mayoral administrations, and determined business owners like Stephen Boyd from Boyd Technologies, the chair of the Berkshire Innovation Center,” said Mayor Linda Tyer.

Then-Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash outlined the financing.

“$13,775,000. $12,025,000. Why $25,000? That’s what it takes to get it over the top, so. $12,025,000 from the Mass Life Sciences Center, $1 million from the city of Pittsfield. $450k from Mass Development Finance agency, and $300k from PEDA. Together, $13.775 million, together, a commitment that this community, this region, the entire commonwealth will benefit from,” said Ash.

PEDA is the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. The city voted to allocate its $1 million contribution to the center back in 2017, when it was still facing a $3 million shortage.

Six months later, that September, ground had been broken on the building site in the William Stanley Business Park – land managed by PEDA that used to be part of the General Electric complex. State Senator Adam Hinds noted then that the BIC would fill a void left by the corporate giant since it rapidly cut jobs in Pittsfield in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

“What are we doing to make sure that we’re on firm ground in the context of a GE leaving the region, and what are we doing in the context of being one of three counties in the commonwealth that is experiencing population decline, and having a median household income that is lower than the rest of the state?" asked the senator. "And I have to say — I am actually optimistic.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was on hand for the occasion.

“We view this as a tremendous opportunity for the region, not just for Pittsfield, but for the whole region to create a game changing think tank, accelerator, incubator, place where smart people go to trade big ideas with people who’ve been there and done that, and find investors and other sponsors to do really great things,” said the Republican.

Now, the BIC is finally opening its doors on its hilltop northeast of Pittsfield’s core.

“So it’s beautiful. You’re looking over Silver Lake, you have one of the best views of the city of Pittsfield I can say, aside from perhaps on top of Bousquet Mountain," said Executive Director Ben Sosne. “It’s positioned between two of the largest employers in the region – General Dynamics and Berkshire Health Systems, and it’s really key for the city’s growth to really make this place vibrant.”

He showed WAMC around the facility Tuesday, including its state-of-the-art conference rooms.

“One of the keys was to provide members and the public spaces to come and hold meetings, host clients, connect with their teams in Boston or New York or San Francisco or wherever they are by webcam, and interact with each other in a neutral zone,” explained Sosne.

The BIC currently has two tenants – the local investment group Milltown Capital and Colorado-based Electro Magnetic Applications, Inc. – and boasts a membership of over 20 private companies and 10 academic entities. Its rapid prototyping space in the heart of the building allows those members to get their hands on shared tech.

“You’ll see a range of 3D printers in this room," said Sosne. "Additive manufacturing is one of the areas we’re going to focus on at least initially – everything from off-the-shelf kits that students can really learn, they build themselves. A few hundred dollars, you build your own 3D printer. Now, it’s limited, but it really teaches you the technology – up to a half a million dollar machine that prints in multi-colors, multi-materials, and can really do a variety of tasks.”

Up in the EMA offices, Justin McKennon says the space tech company has already taken advantage of the BIC’s shared resources. Using the 3D printers and the help of BIC staff, EMA fabricated models for the apparatus it plans on installing in the building to simulate the atmosphere of space on technology.

“For us, when we have such a complex piece of equipment there, we need to make sure it that has all the bits and pieces that we need," McKennon told WAMC. "And so we’ve been working with the ops manager here, and we’ve produced two scale models of our test facility, test chamber here through the 3D printing resources that are here. And having that access, just walking downstairs for it rather than a really complex process, where I can talk to Steve about what we’re trying to do, what’s involved and all that stuff, and kind of leverage his expertise in making the stuff there – pretty seamless for us there. It’s been really nice.”

Beyond conference rooms and the rapid prototyping space, the BIC offers wet labs, and soon, a simulation lab.

“The goal is to use virtual reality as really a training tool – moving from video game to training tool," said Sosne. "Whether you’re operating a new piece of equipment, you can put on your VR or AR glasses and walk you through how to use that piece of equipment. There’s also an orthopedic surgeon here in the Berkshires who wants to turn this into a virtual operating room to train nursing students and make sure they understand where the tools go and everything.”

Sosne was asked how and when the BIC will fully deliver on its promise.

“It’s fully realized when we continue to stay relevant and we continue to help companies," the executive director told WAMC. "I think we need to continue to grow as companies grow. Technology moves so quick. So this is not just about a building and it’s certainly not about equipment in here – it’s about the programming we run in here, the network, the way we help businesses grow, and then grow again. We’re constantly going to be partners with our member companies and our member institutions, helping each other grow.”

The Berkshire Innovation Center is at 45 Woodlawn Ave in Pittsfield.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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