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A gate leading to the former GE site in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.NEPM's Nancy Cohen explores the economic and environmental legacy General Electric left behind in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where only a small staff for the company remains.

In GE's Former Footprint, Berkshire Innovation Center Seeks Region's Next Big Thing

The Berkshire Innovation Center opens officially on Friday morning. One of its goals is to help companies keep pace with changing technology. An even bigger goal is to attract and retain talented workers to the area. 

The new center has an open feel to it — lots of glass, natural light, with views of nearby mountains.

It is the kind of space Ben Sosne, the executive director, hopes will not only inspire new ideas, but forge human connections.

"You need that collision space, where people come together and collide and talk about what they're doing in a sort of safe, neutral territory, and start brainstorming that next thing, and breaking down some of the barriers to growth," Sosne said.

The center, which cost about $14 million, is built where part of the former General Electric plant once stood.

Ben Sosne, executive director of the Berkshire Innovation Center's future simulation lab, which will use virtual reality for training.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
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NEPR
Ben Sosne, executive director of the Berkshire Innovation Center's future simulation lab, which will use virtual reality for training.

Most of the funding for construction came from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, with $1 million from the city of Pittsfield, and $550,000 from the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority. Those funds came from GE's toxic waste cleanup settlement with the city.

The chairman of the innovation center's board, B. Stephen Boyd, predicts the center will fuel what he calls the community's innovative spirit.

"A platform that allows businesses to come in, and collaborate, and co-develop product, or to use equipment in a cooperative way that allow them to rapidly accelerate their ideas," Boyd said. 

The center even has a room called the rapid prototyping lab including 3D printers.

"This is a place to come and quickly take a vision of a product, go from napkin to first iteration of a product very rapidly — and then throw it out and start over, and throw it out and start over, 'til you get that form in the right way," Sosne said.

It's not the place to go into mass production of a new product, but to hone the design.

Examples of objects made by the 3D printers at the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield, Mass.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
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NEPR
Examples of objects made by the 3D printers at the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield, Mass.

Sosne showed off an example: a bicycle chain that would normally be made up of many small parts.

"It's quite remarkable, because it bends and moves just like a real typical bicycle chain, but it's 3D-printed in one shot — a fully functional piece," Sosne said.

The nonprofit center is member-based — about 30 companies and academic institutions pay anywhere from about $2,500 to $12,000 a year to get access to the labs and meeting space.

General Dynamics is a member, along with much newer companies, like Dive Technologies — which is designing an underwater autonomous vehicle.

"It's really like a drone for the ocean. So it's a large data-collection device, essentially," said Sam Russo, CEO of Dive Technologies.

Russo said the vehicles could be used by the military, energy companies and others. He's using the center's 3D printers for early prototyping — and he has a bigger goal.

The Berkshire Innovation Center was built on the former General Electric site in Pittsfield, Mass.  Silver Lake, once polluted with PCBs from GE, is west of the Center.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
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NEPR
Outside the Berkshire Innovation Center looking west towards Silver Lake, which was part of the General Electric toxic waste cleanup.

"It allows us to have a small footprint here in the Berkshires, eventually hire manufacturing technicians that would take up space here," Russo said. "And then, ideally, we'd have a production facility a couple of years from now, here in the Berkshires."

One challenge to companies in the Berkshires is attracting and retaining skilled workers in the region.

Sosne said the center wants to help meet that need.

"We want to expose the students in our public school systems [to] the opportunities that are here," he said.

The center will also provide facilities for training, he said, such as a simulation lab that uses virtual reality.

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