America's Rust Belt began in Worcester. Once a manufacturing powerhouse, this central Massachusetts city went into decline in the 1950s and never fully recovered.
Today, evidence of a rebound stirs. Healthcare and biotech promise reasonable growth, local universities and hospitals are the incubators, and innovators of many stripes are establishing beachheads.
In downtown Worcester, old brick buildings harken back to a day when the most innovative technology powered looms and rolling mills. Today, the buildings house not only pipe and valve suppliers but Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s bioengineering center. Some might call it a culture clash, but it’s the right kind of setting for Running Start, a 5,000 square foot co-working space on Prescott Street.
A café close to completion greets you in one corner, a chess board and cushioned seats in another. A sprawling mix of private offices, cubicle space and long tables populate the space in between. These shared work spaces are commonplace in Boston and Cambridge-- but Running Start is the first of its kind in Worcester.
Founder Ryan Leary gives a tour as code crunching programmers wearing t-shirts and headphones quietly click away on their laptops.
“This is where our first two private offices are. We have a software developer in one and a mobile software company in another,” says Leary. He lists of a few other startups, including graphic designer, mobile app developer, an illustrator.
He says the number of start-ups who rent space here has more than doubled in the past year.
“There was this feeling, ‘well, if I’m going to do something, I have to leave Worcester. I have to go someplace else because the resources aren’t here.’ Well now, the resources are here.” Leary said.
And for a fraction of the price you would pay in Boston or Cambridge. $400 a month gets you a private office space—the same goes for up to $3,000 in Boston. Affordability might be Worcester’s calling card as more entrepreneurs choose to stay-- or move-- to the area, like software consultant Francois Gagnon, who got tired of waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to be at his desk in Boston by 7 a.m.
“That’s very early,” Gagnon laughs. “Now I wake up, put my alarm at 6.”
Gagnon is one of the 27 startups working out of Running Start. He says he and his wife chose to live in Central Mass. because they get a lot more for what they pay for.
“We have a lot of space, we have animals. We wanted to have a farm. We have chickens, a cat, we want to get goats, we want to get some bees. That’s the plan.” Gagnon said.
But the larger challenge might be finding worker bees here in Worcester.
“The hardest thing for me here is finding talent. If I posted a job in Boston, I would get flooded with e-mails. Here it just tickles in. In general people look at Boston just by default. I think they don’t think to look elsewhere,” said Gagnon.
That’s what former lieutenant governor, now head of the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, Tim Murray, is hoping to change-- by convincing area college students to stick around once they graduate. And he has a plan in the works.
“Providing transportation amenities, more housing options, whether it be micro-lofts or trying to create more market-rate housing,” Murray said. “We’ve got three-deckers here that would sell for a couple hundred thousand. One floor alone in South Boston would be $350,000.”
He says there’s an awakening happening in Central Massachusetts—that people are starting to realize they don’t need to schlep all the way to Boston to accomplish the work they want to get done.
“We’re not necessarily competing. I think we complement each other and can take a lot of pressure off of Boston and Cambridge in that Worcester is much more affordable. I do think there is more synergy and opportunities to complement each other than head on head competition-- though we will compete when we can for those types of businesses.” Murray said.
Go big and stay here
That healthy competition is exactly what Mark Rice, head of entrepreneurship at WPI’s business school, is cultivating. A couple years ago, Rice started the Tech Advisors Network, a group of seasoned entrepreneurs, business leaders and investors who meet every month to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs.
“The whole idea here is to do what incubators typically do, and that is provide expert advice and access to networks for really early stage entrepreneurs,” Rice said.
One of those advisors is John Joseph, co-founder and president of Data Gravity. A WPI alumnus, he says the new generation of innovators in medicine, biotech and engineering are right in Central Mass, and that it's in the area's best interest to keep them here.
"There's great opportunity to transform and reinvent the Worcester economic base into something different," Joseph said.
Thirty-five start-ups have launched through the network. Some have failed while others have moved on to other ventures. And that, Rice says, is all part of the entrepreneurial process.
“When you start thinking of the excellent universities in Worcester, partnering with Central Mass,” Rice said. “The idea is to create an entrepreneurship ecosystem in which entrepreneurs can start their ventures and keep them going in central Massachusetts.”
And if places like Running Start are further indication, it looks like Worcester’s industrial spirit is entering its next wave—only this time on laptops.