Vanessa Green, OnChip Power

Pop quiz: What’s an example of a permanent, mechanical way of joining metals? What about a temporary non-mechanical one? If you’re stumped, don’t worry – I was too. Last night I went to Greentown Labs, Boston’s premier cleantech incubator, for EnergyBar, their regular networking event. But I went early to attend the first ever session of Cleantech Prototyping Academy, where Greentown’s metalworking expert Ethan Labowitz was tutoring a group of students on the finer points of creating a prototype. The session was immediately followed by the much larger EnergyBar event, and together they served as a reminder of the critical role that Greentown plays in Boston’s cleantech scene.

Food, Drinks, and LOTS of Cleantech Innovators

I’ve been to some good events at Greentown before, but last night there was literally a line out the door to get into EnergyBar. I even got a “Can you get us in” email from someone in line who was scared the event would hit capacity. There was no formal program; just food, beer, and networking. The crowd was a nice balance between entrepreneurs, investors, nonprofit, and even government (yes, web people: in cleantech government is a key part of the scene.)

I saw Matthew Nordan of Venrock, Vanessa Green, CEO of OnChip Power, and Jason Ethier, CEO of Dynamo Micropower, who was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Energy. I also caught up with Greentown CEO Jason Hanna, as well as with multiple team members from research giant Fraunhofer, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the state’s cleantech arm, and of course my former colleagues from the New England Clean Energy Council.

Kicking Off the 2012 MIT Clean Energy Prize

The MIT Clean Energy Prize is a well known, student run annual business plan competition, and Greentown is a partner. So in addition to the usual networking, last night’s EnergyBar identified Prize applicants as well as individuals seeking to enter and in need of team members. Although there was no formal announcement, the evening allowed Prize competitors to meet one another and connect to the broader community. The submission deadline for the competition is March 2, and the grand prize is $200,000.

Training Engineers to Build Better Prototypes

Ethan Labowitz, Boston Institute for Clean Energy Prototyping (BICEP)

Prototyping new cleantech products is a critical stage for a lot of the startups at Greentown, and the Cleantech Prototyping Academy was designed to help teach engineers the unique needs of startups. “They’re really interested in saving money and saving time, and getting to market really quickly,” Labowitz told me. “We have design for manufacturing – those are courses that are taught at engineeering schools – and those are great. If you’re making a million of something.”

Compared to manufacturing, prototyping is fast, dirty, and relatively expensive. For startups, mistakes in prototyping can be costly, and young engineers often have a hard time conveying specifications for parts to the shops that will build them, according to Labowitz.

“A lot of the time I’ll see a drawing where the engineer has written out the speicficacions for what this part should be but they’ve failed to include a precise descriptoin of exactly what they’re looking for,” he said. They don’t even know the language sometimes to use to specify that part. We’re trying to make that expertise accessible to younger engineers.”

For now, the Academy is a classroom session, but Labowitz hopes to eventually take it to the shop.

Bringing Web and Cleantech Together

Hearing Labowitz explain the difference between soldering and brazing (temperature) was a forceful reminder of the differences between cleantech innovation and web innovation. The products that he’s focused on don’t get built on a laptop in a Starbucks. And yet the overlap between cleantech and the web are larger than many realize.

Last month, developers in New York gathered for the second Cleanweb Hackathon, and last night I heard rumors that a Boston Cleanweb Hackathon is being planned for May. It’s sorely needed, as the two communities don’t talk to each other nearly enough. They’re different in many obvious ways. But there’s still plenty of room for learning and collaboration.

Check out more photos from the event on Flickr:

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