Massachusetts manufacturers graduate from Valley Venture Mentors accelerator with eye toward being the best in the world
January 30, 2017 : The Republican, by Jim Kinney
SPRINGFIELD -- Showing off products ranging from parts for the Mars Rover to plastic models of the human gallbladder used for training surgeons, seven manufactures from around the Pioneer Valley graduated Monday night from Valley Venture Mentors Manufacturing Accelerator program with clearer paths toward growth.
"It's about making our customers happy. It's about keeping the work here. It's about saving it from going overseas," said graduate Susan M. Kasa, president of Boulevard Machine and Gear in Springfield, which has 22 employees. "Sometimes, in the day-to-day running of a business, you take things for granted. We learned to not take things for granted."
One of the parts she displayed Monday at a trade show prior to the graduation is a prototype gear for a new car transmission being developed by one of Kasa's clients. Boulevard specializes in rapidly turning around orders for small batches of new or experimental parts.
Fellow graduate Steven Longpre, of Barnstorm Studio in South Hadley, also does quick prototyping for other manufacturers and researchers. He made the plastic gallbladder at the behest of a Baystate Health surgeon and it has since led to other work in the medical device industry.
Valley Venture Mentors, a Springfield nonprofit that links startups and small companies with advisers and experienced business people in order to help them grow, says this Manufacturing Accelerator is the first program of its kind in the country.
It was funded by MassDevelopment as a pilot project with $200,000 drawn from a sliver of the upfront fees paid by potential casino operators as part of the gaming licensing process, said Marty Jones, CEO of MassDevelopment.
MassDevelopment is the state's business finance and development arm.
Manufacturing in Massachusetts, despite facing stiff competition around the country and around the world, still accounts for 250,000 to 275,000 Massachusetts jobs and 11 percent to 12 percent of state GDP.
"Those are good jobs and they are all over our state," Jones said. "We know manufacturing is particularly strong in Western Massachusetts, and when you think of Western Massachusetts, all roads lead to VVM. That's why we wanted to do it here."
She said staff will evaluate results, but she's willing to fund another round of the accelerator.
Paul Silva, chief innovation officer and co-founder of Valley Venture Mentors, said much of the five-month program was focused on getting the companies to focus on what they're best at and not try and be a generalist.
"So they can be the best in the world at something. Many already are the best in the world at something and they don't even know it," Silva said. "Because once you are the best in the world at something, you can be paid like you are the best in the world."
Competing for commodity business -- on price alone with little regard for quality -- is a recipe for failure in a global marketplace, Silva said.
Andrew Walmsley, president of Volo Aero in East Longmeadow, said coming to Valley Venture Mentors Manufacturing Accelerator meetings for eight hours once every two weeks allowed him to focus on strategy. At his machine shop, he said the demands of day-to-day operations keep him from working on long-term strategy.
"Here you can really take a step back," he said. "You can work on the business, not in the business. There, you are just fighting fires."
Mark Mitchell is in sales at Mitchell Machine in Springfield. He said the process of going through the accelerator gave him contacts for future sales or collaboration. That type of networking can be hard to do with everyone busy in their own factory.
Decker Machine Works, of Ashfield, makes parts for the Mars Lander, the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and for particle accelerators used in scientific research stateside including the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. With 19 staff members, Decker is planing to hire as it expands into a new facility it purchased in Greenfield, said owner Scott Decker.
"The alloys we use are hard to work with and they are hard to find," Decker said. "We stock them and we know what to do with them. That's our specialty."
Decker Machine works also trains its machinists in-house, a needed capability in a tight job market with such specialized work. It's especially important as the company grows.
"We do our own in-house training," Decker said. "And we will do more of that."
Decker said the accelerator was worth it because of the business contacts he developed and the ability he gained to see where his growth prospects truly are. He appreciates all the guest speakers and mentors.
"Now I want to give back and volunteer with the next group to come through," he said.
All seven graduates are:
- Barnstorm Studio, LLC, South Hadley
- Boulevard Machine & Gear, Springfield
- Decker Machine Works, Inc., Ashfield
- Mitchell Machine, Inc., Springfield
- Precise Turning & MFG, Westfield
- Rock Valley Tool, LLC, Easthampton
- Volo Aero MRO, East Longmeadow