PITTSFIELD — A day that some thought never would arrive is finally here.
The $13.8 million Berkshire Innovation Center, one of the county's most important and debated economic development projects for the past decade, officially will open for business Friday, after an 11 a.m. ceremony featuring dignitaries including Gov. Charlie Baker.
The two-story, 23,000-square-foot structure in the William Stanley Business Park contains classroom, meeting and conference space interspersed with laboratories and high-tech equipment available for use by all 33 of the BIC's member organizations, which include 21 private businesses and 12 academic institutions.
"Physically, what you'll see is a techie building with classroom and conference space paired with labs and equipment," said Stephen Boyd, the president and CEO of Boyd Technologies in Lee who chairs the nonprofit BIC organization's 18-member board of directors.
Although the BIC, technically, has been open since October — construction was completed last summer — items still are being brought in. This week, the BIC added a state-of-the art, large-format, open-source 3D printer, known as the "Big Rep Pro," which the organization purchased with part of the $200,000 it received from the state's Skills Capital Grant Program.
The new printer, also available for use by all organization members, "will dramatically add to the prototyping and training capabilities at the BIC," officials said.
The equipment, lab space, training areas, and meeting and conference facilities are designed to provide Berkshire County with a viable connection to the high-tech economy that has been booming in other areas of Massachusetts, particularly in and around Boston.
"It puts us in the game, absolutely," Boyd said. "We have access to networks, facilities, to deal flow to technology just like someone in Cambridge would."
The BIC's network of member organizations, which includes entities inside and outside the Berkshires, is expected to break down the barriers to technical expertise that have made it difficult for local companies to expand and grow.
"It's very much about reducing the barriers to growth," said Ben Sosne, the BIC's executive director. "Whether you're a third-generation company or someone starting up now, there are certain barriers to technology and access to technical expertise that you've got to cross. The BIC starts to break some of those down to make that happen."
And the timing is right.
Berkshire County has a long history of innovation — everything from night skiing to the first nonsparking electric motor to well-known plastic polymers either were invented or developed here. And entrepreneurship is on the rise in the county. Three organizations, Pittsfield-based 1Berkshire, small-business incubator Lever of North Adams, and Entrepreneurship for All have been holding pitch contests and meetings for budding entrepreneurs throughout the county for the past few years. Lever also held an innovation summit in the Berkshires last fall.
A centralized location like the BIC, where companies and entrepreneurs can meet and share resources, prevents the developers of these ideas from operating in their own silos.
"There wasn't a way for people to come together and be in a place," said Ellen Kennedy, president of Berkshire Community College, which is one of the BIC's local academic partners. "It opens up some doors, creates opportunities for partnerships.
"There are some long-standing manufacturers in this area who have done very effective work and kept their businesses going," she said, "but this is the moment when they might partner with someone and do something incredibly different."
Seven of the BIC's 12 academic partners are based in Berkshire County. They include three of the county's four colleges: BCC, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Williams College; three public high schools: McCann Tech, Monument Mountain and Taconic; and one independent school: Miss Hall's.
"It helps get students really energized and excited about some curriculums that they may not have thought about," Kennedy said when asked how the BIC will help its academic partners. "I think it helps all the education partners address what the pending needs are for this workforce. It's going to build on what McCann and Taconic have been doing."
The BIC's business partners include nine local employers that range from big firms like General Dynamics Mission Systems to smaller, cutting-edge, high-tech companies like New York City-based VidMob, which develops video ad content for social media platforms and has 25 of its 100 total employees based in Pittsfield. Member organizations pay a fee to the BIC's nonprofit organization, which was formed in 2014.
The BIC also has an executive staff of three employees, headed by Sosne, that will manage the building's day-to-day operations. Only two of the BIC's business partners, Electro Magnetic Applications, which is planning to build an aerospace testing chamber in the BIC, and Mill Town Capital, an impact investment firm, actually occupy office space in the building. Mill Town Capital became the BIC's on-site venture capital partner in October.
Getting the BIC to this point has not been easy, and the project's history has experienced significant ups and downs, most notably a $3 million funding gap five years ago that delayed the building's construction for three years. It took a private-public partnership consisting of local and state officials and members of the private sector to provide the funding that was needed to bridge that gap and finally move the project forward.
"I learned a lot about construction," Boyd said.
The city of Pittsfield originally received a $6.5 million earmark in a $1 billion life sciences bill in 2008 to construct an "incubator site" at the business park. It took six years for officials to finally decide what the project was going to look like.
"Prior to that, it was just a nebulous idea of what it should be or not be," Boyd said.
The economy proved to be another hiccup: When the state was unable to find investors to buy the bonds to finance the projects that were proposed in the original life sciences legislation that included Pittsfield's earmark, local officials pulled out of the building program, in February 2011, because they believed that the project was dead.
But, they reentered the program two months later, when the state announced that it would provide an additional $25 million for uncommitted capital projects.
"To me, this project is only [six] years old," Boyd said, referring to the time when the nonprofit that runs the BIC was formed. "It's exciting to be in a place where, as an organization, we're no longer nomads anymore. We can finally host programs in our space. We can create that hub and community."
The BIC's opening also coincides with the "rapid" pace of innovation that is taking place across the world, Boyd said.
"We're participating; we're keeping up," he said. "It's important to me to highlight that we're no longer this kind of sleepy, follow-the-leader community that will always be getting what's left over.
"We're now at the front edge," he said.
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-496-6224.