NORTH ADAMS — Lever, Berkshire County’s fast-growing small-business accelerator, has an ambitious year scheduled for 2021.
Five events already are on the docket, and more might be on the way.
“When I presented it to my board last [month], I have to confess that just looking at it made me exhausted,” Executive Director Jeffrey Thomas said, referring to the events.
Four of the five scheduled events will take place from February to April. They include the finals of three events that began last year: the Berkshire Manufacturing Innovation Challenge, which ends Feb. 25; the Mohawk Trail Entrepreneur Challenge, which concludes March 11; and the wrap-up of the four-part COVID Challenge Series, sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, on April 9. There also is one new event: the Berkshire Interns Telethon, which will take place March 18.
The fifth event is Lever’s Innovation Summit, which tentatively is scheduled for Sept. 16-17 (the dates have yet to be confirmed). Lever held its initial Innovation Summit during fall 2019, but last year’s event was canceled because of the coronavirus.
Thomas said Lever also is becoming known for its work with intrapreneurs, a term used to describe entrepreneurs who create innovative products while working for larger companies. Lever began holding intrapreneur challenge events in 2019 and might hold some more this year, Thomas said.
The goal of Lever, founded in 2014, has been to develop an economic ecosystem in the Berkshires and bring recognition to Berkshire County’s long history of innovation. The nonprofit began conducting entrepreneur challenge events several years ago, but Thomas attributes the increase in this year’s events as a response “to the demand for what people want us to do.
“Every year we do this, it gets richer,” he said. “The companies are stronger, and more activity is generating through these challenges.”
United Aircraft Technologies, which won Lever’s inaugural manufacturing innovation challenge, during winter 2019, received $300,000 in November from the city of Pittsfield’s Economic Development Fund to help the company relocate from Troy, N.Y., to Pittsfield. United Aircraft, which is relocating to be closer to its manufacturer, Sinicon Plastics of Dalton, is developing a smart interconnecting clamp system for aircraft that is designed to improve fuel economy and simplify maintenance.
Because of ongoing issues with the coronavirus, Thomas said that, as of now, all of Lever’s 2021 events will include a “remote component” and that the nonprofit will begin holding “hybrid” events — that is, mixtures of in-person and remote programming — when the conditions allow them to take place.
“Our plan going forward for the initial future is to do programs remotely, because I don’t know when it’s going to be safe to get together,” he said.
Lever has been holding events remotely since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect the economy last spring.
“We were surprised and delighted by how effective, and in some ways, more effective we’ve been able to work with entrepreneurs in this remote format,” he said. “With these COVID challenges, we’ve been programming and working with companies from around the state in Springfield, Lowell and Pittsfield all in one call, and no one has to travel.
“In North Adams, we are far away from things, especially when you consider the state of Massachusetts, and that remote component completely removed that from the equation,” he said.
Remote programming has been so successful that Lever has begun to receive interest from entrepreneurs and investors who want to collaborate with companies in this region that are frustrated dealing ‘”with the Boston ecosystem,” Thomas said.
“Urban living doesn’t have the appeal it did pre-COVID,” he said.
When it was announced in June, the COVID Challenge Series had five events, but Thomas said it has been narrowed to four, with the fourth and fifth installments scheduled to take place together. The series was established to find Massachusetts entrepreneurs who were changing their operations to make personal protective equipment that could be added to the state’s then-fairly barren stockpile.
But, since then, Thomas said, “Massachusetts has stockpiled enough PPE to last well into 2022. The need for more companies to pivot to make PPE has subsided.”
With the fourth and fifth challenges being held together, the $25,000 first-place prize for the winner of each event has been combined. In this final event, $40,000 will be awarded to the winner and $10,000 to the runner-up.