Utility deal represents important vindication for Greentown Labs

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

Italian energy conglomerate Enel SpA already has a US office on the South Boston Waterfront, close to downtown. But when it came time to add an innovation hub, too, Enel instead chose a desk huddled among startups in Somerville.

Greentown chief executive Emily Reichert showed House Speaker Robert DeLeo around recently. (Charles Krupa/associated press/File 2019) (CHARLES KRUPA)

What gives? With energy operations in 34 countries, why is one of the world’s largest utilities forsaking harbor views for an industrial area near Union Square?

The answer to that question has much to do with the success of clean-tech incubator Greentown Labs, which announced Enel’s arrival on Tuesday. It also reflects Greater Boston’s growing reputation as a go-to-place for innovation in the energy industry. The initial economic impact might seem modest. Enel is just taking one desk, where Enel’s Boston Innovation Hub manager Luca Seletto will sit. But his reach will be broad: He is charged with chasing across the country for startups that might bring bright ideas to the European company, while helping Enel become better known on this side of the Atlantic. (Enel already has ties to two Greentown startups, Raptor Maps and Titan Advanced Energy Solutions.)

Francesco Venturini, chief executive of the company’s Enel X division, says he didn’t want the innovation operation in a traditional corporate office setting, like the offices of EnerNOC, the Boston energy software firm it bought two years ago, and later renamed. Instead, he wants Seletto in a startup setting, hustling for deals and for ideas. This will be Enel’s second “innovation hub” in the United States after San Francisco, and the tenth worldwide.

For Greentown, Enel’s arrival further vindicates the incubator’s decision to allow big companies a seat at the table. Ever since Shell opened a skunkworks lab there in 2014, Greentown has been growing its corporate membership. Now, 10 established companies, such as Saint-Gobain and BASF, mingle with roughly 80 clean-tech startups and their 300-plus employees who work there.

With its nearly 60,000-square-foot expansion at the end of 2017, Greentown became the largest clean-tech incubator in the country, both in terms of size and member companies. The three-building complex is essentially full today, just over a year later, with nearly all the lab space and 85 percent of the desks occupied.

This isn’t your standard co-working space. Greentown chief executive Emily Reichert says her business doesn’t just offer these companies a place to set up a laptop or test a new technology. Greentown’s team actively guides corporate giants through the fast-changing startup world, often helping big players recruit the little ones: licensing agreements, purchase orders, equity investments, outright acquisitions. The deals vary, depending on the specific companies’ skills and needs.

Reichert says Enel’s local investments represent an important validation of Greater Boston and its place in the energy world. Houston and San Francisco are major epicenters, of course. But Boston, she says, offers a more close-knit sense of community than those sprawling metro areas. (Enel employs nearly 600 people in the state, primarily at Enel X and at the North American headquarters of its renewable energy division, in Andover.) The concentration of universities here doesn’t hurt, either.

Other European companies are starting to notice. Veolia moved its North American headquarters to Boston in 2016. At least two of Europe’s big offshore wind players, Orsted and MHI Vestas, also decided to make this their North American home base.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center recently reported that more than 110,000 people work in the sector in the state, ranking us second in the country on a per capita basis. Growth has slowed recently, largely due to a pullback in solar development, but the overall number continues to climb. Boston’s clean-tech sector is nowhere near as established as its biotech cluster, now a widely recognized global leader. But Greentown’s success offers one more encouraging sign that we could be well on our way.

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