Lever to manage 5 Intrapreneur Challenge events for Massachusetts

Jeffrey Thomas, executive director of Berkshire-based business accelerator Lever, said the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative in Westborough helped fund Lever's operations two years ago, and the two organizations have stayed in touch. MassTech also has been interested in Lever's programming, particularly the group's first intraprenuer challenge, which took place in October in Williamstown.

NORTH ADAMS — A Berkshire-based business accelerator that has become known for holding business challenge competitions now will be managing five similar events for the state.

Lever will be managing five events in the COVID-19 Intrapreneur Challenge, a project that state officials are holding to increase the number of Massachusetts companies that are able to manufacture personal protective equipment.

Intrapreneur is a word used to describe entrepreneurs who have developed innovative products while working for other companies.

The first challenge, a competition among state businesses to make general use face masks, begins next week and ends July 24. The items for the four other challenges have yet to be determined, said Lever Executive Director Jeffrey Thomas.

"The second one will start before the first one is over," he said.

The application process is being managed by Lever, and the deadline to apply for the first challenge is June 12. The finalists will be selected June 19.

To be eligible, companies and their intraprenuer teams must be based in Massachusetts, have been in operation for at least three years with annual revenues greater than $500,000, and be registered with the Massachusetts Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, which already has helped 27 companies produce over 3.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment.

MERT is being overseen by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative in Westborough, whose innovation institute is providing a $250,000 grant to fund the entire competition.

MassTech helped fund Lever's operations two years ago, Thomas said, and the two organizations have stayed in touch. MassTech also has been interested in Lever's programming, particularly the group's first intraprenuer challenge, which took place in October in Williamstown. Lever recently scheduled a second intraprenuer challenge for this October, which, at this point, would be held as a virtual event.

"It's their job at MassTech to support manufacturing in the state, and they got excited about the fact that we were bringing an entrepreneurial message that supports innovators in companies," Thomas said. "We're the only group like us that is doing things with intrapreneurs in the state."

"Lever has a strong track record of sparking leadership and innovation among mature firms through the intrapreneur model," said Carolyn Kirk, MassTech executive director and a leader of the MERT. "Lever is well-positioned to support the MERT, helping activate a broader network of Massachusetts firms and providing the necessary support to accelerate development of these critical supplies."

The goal of Lever, founded in 2014, has been to develop an economic ecosystem in the Berkshires and promote awareness of the county's innovation economy, whose roots date to the 19th century. The group's entrepreneurial and intrapreneur challenge competitions are designed to provide guidance and financial assistance to small enterprises with innovative ideas. They include Lever's second Berkshire Health Technology Challenge and inaugural Berkshire Sustainability Challenge, two competitions that will wrap up Thursday on the Zoom platform.

In these competitions, companies apply to make a specific product and Lever selects the finalists. Those finalists then receive guidance and support from Lever while developing their ideas until the finals, where the winner is chosen after a pitch-style competition. The winning team then receives $25,000 from Lever to support the completion of its product.

Thomas said the COVID-19 Intrapreneur Challenge will follow the same format as the group's other challenge competitions, except that it will be conducted over a shorter period of time.

"This will go much more quickly," he said. "A typical challenge for us is three or four months, but in this one the cohorts will go through the program in about six weeks' time."

During the six weeks of the challenge, finalists will be matched with appropriate innovation centers, experts and mentors to help them develop and deliver products that meet COVID-19 requirements and regulations.

"We have been inspired by the companies that have stepped up during these challenging times through participation in the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, and this Intrapreneur Challenge is the next logical step to continue the success to date," said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy. "We applaud Lever for demonstrating its leadership through this innovative approach to activating and focusing businesses who will be critical to increasing the supplies of necessary protective equipment."

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-2755.

This contest will be to make general use face masks;  an earlier version of this story was incorrect.