Executive Spotlight: Jeffrey Thomas, CEO of Lever

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PITTSFIELD — Jeffrey Thomas arrives for an interview with index cards that he spreads out in front of him. He pauses to look through them while answering a question.

"Sorry," he said. "I want to make sure I get this one right."

You're the first person who ever has brought index cards to an interview like this one, Thomas is told.

"It's evidence of how ridiculously compulsive I am," he said. "It's actually part of our success, but I drive everybody crazy."

He looks through the cards again.

"I'll be darned if I can't find it. ..."

So, Thomas is a little quirky when it comes to being interviewed. But there's nothing wrong with thinking outside the box.

As executive director of Lever, a North Adams-based business incubator, Thomas has helped fuel the recent renaissance of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Berkshires. Since Thomas co-founded Lever five years ago, the nonprofit has helped launch 46 entrepreneurs in the region; helped 17 companies grow; created 150 jobs; and raised more than $7 million in equity investment.

Also, Lever hosted its first innovation summit last month.

Thomas has done all this with a background that isn't typically found in the business development space: The Indiana native, who holds a doctorate and a medical degree, began his professional career in scientific research, and spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health.

We met with Thomas recently to talk about how he came to the Berkshires, why he founded Lever, why be decided to become a member of Williamstown's Select Board in 2016, and if Lever plans on holding another innovation summit.

Q How does someone with a doctorate in molecular genetics end up in the Berkshires?

A I moved here (in 2006) for the lifestyle and the quality of life that I wanted to have. I'd been living in Boston. I love Boston, but I had grown weary of the hustle, and I had a friend in Williamstown. He invited me out. I fell in love. I've always loved the idea of living in a college town. But it was a gamble for me to move to this small town.

Q Why was it a gamble?

A Socially. I knew only one person. I didn't come out with a family. But the people here are open and welcoming and engaging. It's just the best place I could be.

Q How long were you in Boston?

A For a total of about eight years. I worked at biotech companies when I finished my training. I was planning on going into academic research and teaching at a major research university. But I heard about this upstart genomics company called Millennium (in Cambridge), and got so excited about what they were doing that I ended up joining them. ... When I went to Millennium, I found myself around some of the best biotech entrepreneurs in the world, and I got the bug. Since then, I've kept one foot in the private sector and the other foot in academia.

Q How does this combination of private sector and academic experience translate into entrepreneurship?

A The entrepreneurial world has long looked to research institutions for innovations upon which companies can be built. Plus, I've always enjoyed teaching. For me, those worlds have been complementary and synergistic.

I have something unique to bring to academics because I have the private sector point of view. I can bring things uniquely into the companies I've worked at because I can draw from the academic world.

Q Where did the idea for Lever come from?

A Between 2006 and 2014, I consulted for a living in the biotech space, and I taught a number of winter studies courses at Williams College. In 2011, I taught a winter studies course on entrepreneurship. There was so much interest that I helped the college launch a campuswide business competition, which is now in its ninth year. It's very much like the challenges that [Lever] does now.

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Q How did you get from Williams to Lever?

A I have to talk about Jack Wadsworth (a financier and philanthropist who owns The Porches Inn in North Adams, is honorary chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and who provided the seed money to get Lever started). He's an alumnus of Williams, a former trustee (trustee emeritus). He had heard about my entrepreneurship program at Williams.

He explained to me his interest in North Adams. He said to me, "Jeffrey, [the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art] has done this much for North Adams. I'm interested in working with you to start an incubator to help do the rest." A lot of people would have looked at him oddly, but I understood what he wanted.

Both Jack and I believe that entrepreneurs in any context are at the forefront of economic development. ... And so that's what we've done. We've been launching companies, we've been helping to diversify the regional economy, and we've been helping companies start new economy jobs here.

Q What does Lever do?

A We launch companies that will lift our region. We focus on startups.

Startups are companies that can attract capital, and can attract revenues to Berkshire County from elsewhere that can grow quickly and create new jobs. ... I'll add that when [AOL (formerly known as America Online) founder] Steve Case was here [at the innovation summit], he made the point that if you look at job creation, it's startups that are the biggest job creators in the United States, more so than small businesses.

Q What resources does Lever provide?

A It's really just two things that we do. We identify high-potential entrepreneurs, and, two, we support them however we can. The tools we have to support them include space with us; access to our network of mentors and domain experts; access to investors; and also direct investment by Lever. In sum, we consider ourselves the concierge of entrepreneurs.

Q Has Lever been more successful than you thought it would be?

A Everyone around Lever tells me we have exceeded their expectations because of the impact we're having on job creation. ... If you ask me the question, I didn't know what to expect, one, and two, I wish it would have happened faster. But that's my personality. I've always been in a hurry.

Q Where do you think the innovation economy in the Berkshires will be a decade from now?

A We think mostly about the ecosystem for innovation here. Between Lever and the Berkshire Innovation Center, Williams College, E for All, 1Berkshire and a dozen or more things, it's gotten really interesting and it's starting to become very rich in terms of opportunities for innovators. I think in 10 years it will be better, but that's as much as I'm going to say.

The key thing in all this is, we have a lot of groups pulling in the same direction and we're all pulling on different ropes. We have a diversity of economic development here, and that is going to yield a diversity of innovation and entrepreneurs. That diversity is the key. That's how you build a robust and enduring system.

Q Why did you want to be a selectman?

A In 2015 I was asked to chair a committee for Williamstown to look at our economic development needs. We spent a year doing a lot of hard work, research and developing recommendations for the town. I went on the Select Board to make sure there would be follow-through on those recommendations.

Q Has any progress been made?

A There has been. A surprising number of things we suggested have actually happened. The commercial tax base has developed quite a bit in Williamstown.

Q What's it like to be part of local politics?

A It's certainly an honor to serve in a role like that, and I enjoy learning about government. I don't really enjoy when impassioned citizens get angry with me because I don't agree with them. My favorite part is the annual town meeting. That, to me, is the purest form of democracy that we will ever see. I love the fact that every important decision that is made in Williamstown is made by the voters.

Q Is Lever going to hold another Innovation Summit?

A Yes, I don't know when. It's a lot of work.


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