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City taps operators for Dudley startup space

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
City taps operators for Dudley startup space
SkyLab principal Bridgette Wallace delivers a presentation while team members Al Willis and Arlene Spence look on.

Three years ago, a group of local black entrepreneurs came up with a vision for the Dudley SkyLab, an innovation center that would connect Roxbury-area entrepreneurs with the resources needed to start successful businesses.

“Many people don’t know where the on-ramp is to start a business,” said SkyLab principal Bridgette Wallace. “We want to be that ramp.”

That vision is on the verge of becoming a reality, with the SkyLab team as an integral part. SkyLab has been selected along with The Venture Café Foundation as operators of the Roxbury Innovation Center in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Dudley Square, which is expected to open its doors within the next month.

SkyLab will provide community-connected programming services in the Bolling Building’s community spaces, while The Venture Café Foundation will operate the 3,000-square-foot Innovation Center.

Wallace said it’s as yet unclear how the two entities will work together.

“We’re still sorting through that with Venture Café,” she said.

The Venture Café Foundation has offices in Cambridge and in the Waterfront area, and in St. Louis, Missouri and works with high-tech business startups. Wallace founded Skylab with Kai Grant while both were studying at Suffolk University in 2011.

“The SkyLab will be a gateway for community residents, in partnership with advisors and mentors, to explore what it means to become an entrepreneur,” Wallace said. “They will be able to discover what steps are needed to bring that to fruition, taking a deep dive into what the risks and costs associated with starting a venture are — all to question how we might link urban innovators to the larger innovation community.”

SkyLab is represented by members of the Roxbury community and local tech and entrepreneurial networks. The company envisions using the Bolling Building’s common spaces as places to provide educational sessions in addition to hackathons, pitch contests, technology competitions and events with BPS administrators, teachers and parents.

The company’s principals have been committed to connecting the local community to the Bolling Building since before construction on the facility began.

In a series of community meetings on early redevelopment plans for the former Ferdinand Building, Wallace and Grant argued passionately for a chance to bring “Fab Lab” style creative programming into the building — eyeing in particular the sixth-floor roof deck with its panoramic views of Roxbury and the wider city.

For a time, it appeared their dream was not to be, as they were denied exclusive use of the sixth floor community space in an July, 2012 Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force meeting. Eventually, Grant moved on to other pursuits, but Wallace and others persisted with the SkyLab plans.

The Roxbury Innovation Center will be located on the second floor of the building, which will also be the new Boston Public Schools headquarters. The Bolling Building’s common areas, where SkyLab will coordinate programming, include the first two floors and the sixth floor community space and roof deck.

“The Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building will be a gathering place for Dudley Square’s growing innovation economy,” said Mayor Martin Walsh in a press statement. “Not only will it launch new businesses from the Roxbury Innovation Center to boost the local Roxbury economy, but it will strengthen the connections of the surrounding neighborhood to innovation and the opportunities it creates.”

Through partnership with the Patrick Administration, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has committed to provide Venture Café and Skylab grant funding totaling up to $150,000 to support the operation of the Center and programming in the building.

“I am excited that the City of Boston has chosen these great organizations to provide unique and innovative services at the Roxbury Innovation Center,” said Governor Deval Patrick. “This new investment will continue to revitalize the Dudley Square neighborhood and provide opportunities for generations to come.”

Mayor Walsh announced plans for the Roxbury Innovation Center during his Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce speech in April 2014. In July, the city released a Request for Interest, Ideas and Innovation (RFI) to gauge interest in the innovation community for programming the location, and received 16 Statements of Interest in response. Information gathered from the RFI informed a Request for Proposals (RFP) released in November to find an operator for the Roxbury Innovation Center and a programmer for the building’s public space.

The RFP submissions were reviewed by a Selection Committee comprising Melissa Dodd, Chief of Staff, Boston Public Schools; James Jennings, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University; Ted Landsmark, Boston Redevelopment Authority, Board of Directors; Eric Nakajima, Assistant Secretary for Innovation Policy, Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; and Keith Williams, Director, City of Boston Small and Local Business Enterprise Department. Four proposals were submitted for the operator RFP, and four for the programming RFP.

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