When people think of the Berkshires, they tend to focus on the region's natural beauty, arts and culture, fresh food and outdoor fun.
But this region also has a long history of manufacturing innovative products, a trait that, at times, can be overlooked.
For a variety of reasons, innovation is beginning to make a comeback in the Berkshires. So, that begs the question: Could Berkshire County become an innovation hub?
As construction of the $13.8 million Berkshire Innovation Center on Woodlawn Avenue in Pittsfield nears conclusion, the county is on the cusp of what could be an innovation revolution.
Once the Berkshire Innovation Center, or BIC, opens this fall, the county will have what some people consider the right ingredients to become a center for life sciences and other high-tech development.
The four key elements of a successful innovation hub requires businesses that already are making products in those fields, a business incubator to help establish startups, an environment support innovation and a facility to spearhead all these efforts, according to economists.
The Berkshires already has several established advanced manufacturing firms; Lever, a five-year-old small-business incubator that has assisted more than 100 entrepreneurs; several small high-tech startups; and soon, the BIC.
"I think the Berkshires and Pittsfield have the opportunity to be an innovation hub," said Patrick Larkin, deputy director of MassTech and director of the company's Innovation Institute.
"There's a lot going on already," he said referring to the Berkshires' existing plastics and advanced manufacturing establishments. Some of the largest employers in the area are in these fields: Sabic Innovative Plastics, Cavallero Plastics, Neenah Performance Materials, Pittsfield Plastics, Amaray Plastics. and Hi-Tech Mold & Tool.
Innovation hubs often develop around major research universities, where STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — research and development efforts often spin off into nearby high-tech startups.
Although there are several major research institutions within driving distance of the Berkshires — eight within an hour of the county — none are situated within the county lines. This doesn't concern BIC Executive Director Scott Longley. In addition to advanced manufacturing and plastics, the Berkshires is close to or has innovative medical facilities such as Berkshire Health Systems, Baystate Health, Berkshire Medical Center and Fairview Hospital.
Longley, an international operations executive with over 25 years experience in supply chain management and manufactuting, said he took the job with the BIC in October because he saw the area's economic potential.
"A lot of hidden gems in the Berkshires," he said.
Believing that an innovation hub has to be built around a university is a "traditional way" of thinking, said Lever Executive Director Jeffrey Thomas. What is essential, though, is a community of forward-thinking businesses that can contribute to, sustain and attract people to the local economy. Healthy development activity around tech institutions — such as Silicon Valley around Stanford University and Cambridge around Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — are what make those areas well-known, not the institutions themselves, he said.
"Those innovation hubs are not innovative because of their research institutions, it's because of their innovative firms," he said. "And these innovative firms are attracting talent and other innovative firms to the region."
The four legs of economic success
Thomas said he started Lever in 2014 because he saw the county's potential to do more.
The county is chock-full of small plastics manufacturing firms that were established by former employees of General Electric Plastics, which maintained its world plastics headquarters in Pittsfield until 2007. At its peak, GE employed 13,000 people in the 1940s.
"That's the story of innovation here. It is largely companies that spun out of other innovative companies in the region," said Thomas, who named General Electric, SABIC and Sprague Electric as past major employers who spurred the creation of other innovative businesses.
Lever's goal is to develop an economic ecosystem in the Berkshires, Thomas said, a place where "entrepreneurs will thrive."
To do this, Lever holds annual business challenges that award start-up funds to support intriguing businesses, hosts industry meet-ups, places interns and provides guidance on business development. The nonprofit has helped launch 46 companies since its inception six years ago, according to company data. Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, calls Lever the "fourth leg" of the county's innovation hub — the other legs are innovative environment, existing businesses and the BIC. The Life Sciences Center along with MassDevelopment, Mass LifeSciences, Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the City of Pittsfield raised the funds to build the BIC. The Life Sciences Center has also provided funding to Lever.
Lever "is the organization that will help develop new startups," McCready said. "Those four combined start to create the possibility of an innovation hub for the life sciences in Western Massachusetts.
"I'm actually, really, really bullish on some of the possibilities that can emerge from this environment."
Environment is key
Pittsfield is about a three-hour drive from New York City and two-and-a-half hours from Boston — that is close enough for some people and too far for others. But Berkshire County is also located within an hour's drive from Albany, where the center of that's state's cutting-edge nanotechnology program is located. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, is already establishing a working relationship with the BIC.
Ira Moskowitz, director of advanced manufacturing programs at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, said the BIC and other related innovation efforts provide the state with a gateway into New York state.
"The national photonics epicenter is at SUNY-Albany," said Moskowitz, adding that state officials are interested in having a center for advanced photonics located in the Berkshires area.
"So, we would have a pathway to connect it to Albany," he said. "That's just another role that the Berkshires can play along the I-90 pathway."
The BIC, in particular, could be a connection to upstate New York. The 20,000-square-foot workforce development/training center, a project that had been in the works for 11 years, is the most crucial element in making the Berkshires an innovation hub that gives industry people a place to congregate, McCready said.
"[It's] getting that community of manufacturers to have a bat cave, if you will, to both advance and develop participation in the life sciences," he said.
Whatever form an innovation hub might take in the Berkshires, Larkin said it should be different than what is being offered in Boston, New York City and Silicon Valley. Trying to replicate efforts that have been accomplished elsewhere is a "false challenge," Larkin said.
"For Berkshire County, the idea is to organize its assets and build capacity that offers unique solutions on a global scale," he said. "If they do that, they don't need to be compared to Boston or Cambridge."
Reach Tony Dobrowski at email@example.com.