$450K allows incubator Lever to continue entrepreneurial challenge program

Funding for entrepreneurial challenges for startup businesses was announced Thursday at Lever, during its Demo Day at Greylock Works in North Adams. From left are Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center; Patrick Larkin, director of the Innovation Institute, the economic development division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative; Doug Crane formerly of Crane & Co.; Brent Filson, Lever's director of programs and operations, and Laurie Thomsen from Lever's board of directors.

NORTH ADAMS — Eric Schimelpfenig just got a $25,000 news flash.

The software entrepreneur and creator of Fabber was named the winner of the Arts Enterprise Challenge, a contest run by business incubator Lever Inc. to encourage startup companies to locate in North County.

Schimelpfenig said his product — a software package that will help designers build complex and experiential museum exhibits with digital fabrication techniques — is ready for sale and further development, for which the $25,000 award comes in handy.

"We have a working product," he said, "and now we have the money to build the infrastructure to begin to sell it."

And for other local entrepreneurs who might be on a similar path, there's more where that came from. A lot more.

Along with Schimelpfenig's award, Lever on Thursday announced grant funding of $450,000 over three years to continue the firm's entrepreneurial challenge program.

The challenge rewards startup companies for innovation and growth potential with $25,000 in seed money and four months of business support and office space to help get their concept off the ground.

With the new funding, Lever has launched two new challenge programs to boost entrepreneurs and innovative startups in the region.

The new challenge programs will award a total of $150,000 in seed grant money for manufacturing and health startups in the Berkshire region over the next three years, in the form of six $25,000 grants.

"This multi-institutional commitment signals broad support for Lever and its mission to lift the regional economy by fostering growth companies here in Berkshire County," said Jeffrey Thomas, Lever's executive director.

There will be two challenges per year for the next three years — one in advanced manufacturing and one in health sciences. The remaining $300,000 will fund the supporting operations, including organizing and implementing the innovation challenges, Thomas said.

"The aim of these programs will be to foster regional entrepreneurship, attract entrepreneurs from outside the region to start companies in Berkshire County, and expand Lever's impact as it builds an entrepreneurial ecosystem to foster economic and job growth throughout the Berkshires," according to a Lever statement.

To qualify, applicants must demonstrate real potential for dramatic growth, and the startup will use an existing asset — such as an office or warehouse — in North Adams.

North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard said the funding is a step toward encouraging economic growth for the city.

"We have an entrepreneurial economy, and starting to focus on developing new businesses will allow them to take the next step and get a leg up because of these challenge grants," he said. As a result, he added, "they'll be doing business here, hiring here, shopping in local stores, eating in our restaurants, maybe buying a house here and, hopefully, sending their children to our schools."

The new grant funding comes from a mix of state, private and nonprofit sources from inside and outside Berkshire County.

Among the sources: $225,000 from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center ($75,000 a year for three years) and $75,000 from the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative ($25,000 a year for three years).

MassTech's funding is matched by Berkshire Bank and Williams College, for an additional $150,000, following MassTech's model for corporate and academic co-funding.

The funding support for Lever also will help build on the Life Sciences Center's $12 million investment in the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield, through which the Lever Challenges will feed startup firms into the Innovation Center.

"We're pleased to support these new initiatives to embolden entrepreneurship and innovation in the areas of manufacturing and health," said Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Life Sciences Center. "This opportunity exemplifies two pillars of our strong ecosystem: supporting the growth and development of the life sciences throughout Massachusetts and leveraging strong public/private partnerships to grow the Massachusetts economy."

Lever will begin work immediately to make use of the grant funding. On Jan. 24, it will award $25,000 in seed funding to the winner of the Manufacturing Innovation Challenge.

A panel of expert judges will decide which startup among four finalists presents the most scalable and investable manufacturing business model with applications in the life sciences. Lever is accepting applications through Oct. 7.

"We have a long experience with this challenge format, both on regional college campuses and with programs such as the North Adams Arts Enterprise Challenge," said Brent Filson, Lever's director of programs and operations and lead organizer of the upcoming challenge. "We're confident that the BMIC will attract some of the brightest entrepreneurs to launch their innovative companies here."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.