Vermont Innovation Commons
By Marilyn Tagliavia

The idea for the Vermont Innovation Commons (The Commons) came from a relatively simple thesis: Innovation comes from bringing creative people together in a dedicated space and supporting them with local mentors, global networks and value-aligned capital. The Commons, a new purpose-built innovation space opening in Burlington, Vermont, is designed to do just that. The space will offer 25 offices for a mix of occupants, plus conference rooms and boardrooms, lab space, co-living, and event space, housed in a architecturally Vermont-inspired building.

“Vermont has the potential to have an economy that is greater than the sum of its parts; we want to help nudge it in that direction,” says Mark Naud, CEO of The Commons.

For years, Vermont has been nationally recognized by the Kauffman Foundation Indicators of Entrepreneurship and others for its high levels of entrepreneurial activity, but not for the same success with scaling businesses. Kauffman, The Commons team, and others recognize that there is a natural entrepreneurial spirit within the state but the efforts to help businesses succeed are fragmented and not easily accessible by most, presumably due to lack to digital connectivity and the rural nature of the state.

“When I saw that the Rise of the Rest Road Trip—an effort to showcase and invest in entrepreneurs in emerging startup ecosystems nationwide and away from our coastal centers— stopped in almost every rural state on the east coast except Vermont and West Virginia,” says Robert Zulkoski, president and founder of The Commons, “I knew we needed to do more to call attention to the Vermont entrepreneurial culture.”

The team says they are working to collaborate with existing entrepreneurial resources to create a broader scope of connectivity and ultimately build a thriving community for economic opportunity for all Vermonters. As a statewide resource, The Commons team is on a mission to break down barriers and amplify the entrepreneurial ecosystem in all four corners of the state.

“In Vermont,” says Naud, “rural geography and dispersed resources pose challenges to creating a space that aggregates shared amenities, resources and capital, with the necessary density of entrepreneurs and ideas to encourage start-up and scale-up growth. Our unique approach is to combine co-living with coworking and related resources, under one roof. This is a combination found nowhere else in the country.” Naud references cities like Chattanooga, Detroit, and Albuquerque as examples of investment in local innovation districts and physical spaces to enhance entrepreneurial ecosystems. “Even then,” says Naud, “many intriguing innovation hubs have affiliations with co-living type amenities, but we have yet to find one developed with the same kind of intentionality and purpose.”

The Journey 
As the saying goes, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just realign it,” so rather than starting from scratch, The Commons team set off on a global tour to visit existing innovation centers. They developed a database of comparable spaces, noting best practices in design, community curation and business acceleration that they could “right size” for Vermont. 

“Through an exploration of over 100 properties,” says Naud, “one paramount theme arose: We need to engage key stakeholders like our colleges and universities, existing pioneers, corporations, state and local officials and community members sooner rather than later. We recognize that it will take a truly collaborative effort to be effective.” As The Commons grew from an ambitious idea to a feasible project, Naud and Zulkoski looked to experts in the innovation spaces field.

At the Catalysts of the Climate Economy in late 2017, Naud connected with Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, a cleantech incubator in Somerville, Massachusetts. “Reichart told us to stop apologizing for Vermont and instead, celebrate our strengths,” says Naud. “We knew that was the energy we needed to go into this project with.”

When The Commons met Peter Scanlon, who guided Greentown Labs through its recent expansion and had recently started his own consulting firm Verdicity, they brought him aboard to help with the design process. 

Scanlon brought experience and smart building expertise, but The Commons needed an architect to bring the design to life, so they engaged Analogue Studio, a Boston-based interdisciplinary architectural design agency. Analogue Studio, a leader in designing innovation spaces, has designed projects for Workbar, including the first WELL-certified coworking space, multiple MassChallenge facilities and other projects throughout the US.

“We were excited to join the project,” says Vince Pan, Analogue Studio’s founder and principal architect, “because it touches on all the things we are passionate about: innovation, entrepreneurship, co-living, coworking—and synthesizes them into one design.”

The Design
The guiding design principles for The Commons are community creation and collaboration specifically focused on how to use space to amplify the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Vermont.

“The part of the design that you can see is only a small part of it,” says Pan. “It’s the choreography of the space that is important but often overlooked.”

In order to accommodate a wide range of interactions, work styles and entrepreneurial needs, Analogue Studio has designed a mix of spaces. “We took inspiration from a previous project of ours, Workbar, and designed each floor of coworking to have a different vibe,” says Pan. “They are designed intentionally so as you move up the floors, the noise level drops.” He adds that there will be a variety of work spaces available, whether it’s a phone booth for a private conversation, a nook of chairs for a meeting on-the-go, or a conference room for a private brainstorming session.
“We want a space where you never know who you might run into—a potential new client? An angel investor? Your new cofounder?” says Aditi Datta, The Commons’ director of community engagement. “We are all about nurturing serendipity.”

The design team has focused on creating spaces that encourage the collision of ideas, networks, innovations and even people—because although there will be business resources in the building, they say they want the community to be the greatest asset. The Commons’ team sees the diversity of space as an important facet to calling in the entire Vermont community.

“As a rural state with a declining population, we need all of our citizens to be engaged and employed in meaningful work regardless of gender, age, class or race,” says The Commons’ Madeline Brumberg, who oversees strategic partnerships. “We want our space to reflect a variety of working styles and industries so anyone who wants to start or grow a business can find a home with us.”

The Commons isn’t waiting until the space opens to start building their statewide community. They are supporting events like TechJam, hosting events like The Vermont Investors Summit, and recently embarked on a business ecosystem roadshow of Vermont.

“The roadshow is intended to be a listening tour for us,” says Datta. “We want to engage communities around the state to see how we can support and amplify the amazing work that is already happening.”

If the interior of the building is all about choreography, the exterior is a study in how to take the historical and make it contemporary. The Commons’ team spent a long time deliberating whether to design a building that was all innovation, all “Vermont” or somewhere in between.

“Ultimately, we decided that we wanted a space that was inviting to everyone and that meant designing something that was recognizable as Vermont but looking to the future,” says Naud. Analogue Studio undertook the challenge of taking the classic Vermont vernacular and making it contemporary. The building is styled off of a barn, but instead of raising animals, this space is raising sustainable social enterprises.

The design team tried to weave the core tenants of Vermont’s DNA, entrepreneurial spirit and a work hard, play hard mentality into the building itself.
The overall concept of the building comprises four functional areas of design: Coworking, Co-living, Event Space and a Design Lab. The Commons’ team says they have staked their bets on the fact that all the elements together, under one roof, will be a powerful combination.

“Having all the resources under one roof was a non-negotiable for us,” says Naud. “We think that combining them makes sense for a rural state and may serve as a model to similarly populated areas.”

Coworking Space
“The Coworking area will be the day-to-day center of the building and the energy of the community,” says Dennis Moynihan, The Commons’ programs leader. The Commons will have seats for up to 150 coworkers a day, plus 25 private offices for companies of 2-20 employees. In addition to the hot desks, permanent desks, conference rooms, and boardrooms common in such spaces, members of The Commons will have access to a podcast studio, an augmented reality/virtual reality studio, telepresence classrooms and a cafe. 

“The physical space, while important,” says Brumberg, “is not the only resource available to entrepreneurs. It is our goal to have a mix of new entrepreneurs, seasoned entrepreneurs and curated business resources all co-located in our building. A one-stop-shop of sorts if you are looking to grow your business.” Entrepreneurs will have opportunities to form relationships with mentors or service providers like accountants, bankers or patent agents while getting coffee at the first floor cafe or making lunch in a common kitchen.

Co-living Suites
The 50 co-living suites on the top two floors of the building can best be described as dorm rooms for adults.  Each room is 125 square feet and contains a bed, a desk and a bathroom. The rooms are intended as short-term stays for people who are involved in programming at The Commons. The Commons team has planned on two main ways for people to use the suites, but admits there may be other uses.

“Either people will stay while their company is going through a residential accelerator or they will use the suites as a launching pad for their life in Burlington if they recently moved here to work at one of our partner companies,” Brumberg says. “Basically, the co-living suites are meant to integrate you into the community quickly.”

The suites are an essential part of The Commons’ mission to be a statewide and regional resource as they allow those outside of Chittenden County to engage in programming at The Commons. By staying on site, entrepreneurs can focus on building their business, creating meaningful connections and creative problem solving instead of having to drive each day or find a hotel.

Event Space
The Commons’ Event Space will be a contemporary digital space for events of up to 350 people.  The space includes a large event hall, break-out rooms and classroom space that will have telepresence capabilities. The space, intended to bring life, resources, learning and connectivity to The Commons’ community, is flexible and will be able to suit the needs of everything from casual meet-ups to formal conferences to virtual trainings.

“Telepresence is another way that we are supporting our rural state,” Naud says. “Coming together is great, but sometimes it is not feasible given our geography. Being able to provide trainings and education at scale through virtual classrooms allows people in rural parts of the state to access resources they might not have been able to otherwise.”

Design Lab Space
The Design Lab Space at The Commons will be a flexible space for prototyping, for design thinking, for tinkering, and for creativity. Featured as you walk into the building and with the ability to open up to the plaza, this space will be for exhibition for the companies at The Commons. The Commons emphasizes that the Design Lab will not be a makerspace, but rather be a space where companies who need prototyping capabilities can create their own workspace and do the work they need to do.

“In my past experience with innovation spaces,” says Moynihan, “having a place for companies to prototype and be creative is essential to their growth. This space is flexible and wired to adjust to the needs of whatever company comes our way.”

The Future
“We are aiming to build a space that becomes home to a magnetic community of entrepreneurs, businesses and thought leaders, drawing in those scouring the country for innovation,” says Zulkoski. “We don’t do that just by building a cool building but by also investing mentorship, connectivity and capital in our people, our community and our businesses.” Vermont Innovation Commons aims to be a beacon for those outside of the state and an invitation to those inside the state to engage in the entrepreneurial community.

By choreographing the space and building for community, Vermont Innovation Commons hopes to be a catalyst to amplify the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Vermont.

The Commons believes that the future in economic development, innovation space, and business is collaborative, and that Vermont is ready for that future. 

“We want to break down silos and to increase collaboration in order to unlock the economic development potential that is here in Vermont,” says Naud. “We know that our state has the elements to be a nationwide beacon for socially responsible business, we all just need to put the pieces together.”

Vermont Innovation Commons
Mark Naud