IN 2015, Chris Rezendes and his partners decided to open the digital research and investment firm Impact LABS in New Bed ford because“it was a good fit.”
The 47-year-old Fall River native had spent years commuting from the South Coast to IT hot spots across the country in search of investment opportunities, and his wife, Gina — also of Fall River — wanted more stability for their young children near their Portuguese and French Canadian grandparents. His brother Jon, an Army Ranger writing to Chris from Afghanistan, further pressed the case for investing at home.
Meanwhile, as Chris was spending the majority of his time traveling, New Bed ford’s political leadership had achieved a level of stability that allowed them to build out an economic development strategy rooted in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and fisheries. Chris recognized two key characteristics of these sectors. The first is that they were future-oriented, under conditions of climate change. The second was that they are populated by small and midsize firms overlooked by Silicon Valley. The way Chris saw it, these smaller firms were now ripe for next stage digital innovation, as were the small and mid size cities investors had abandoned for a handful of urban tech powerhouses.
A 1991 Harvard College graduate, Chris amassed a wealth of knowledge, contacts, and cash riding the early commercialization of the Internet in the 1990s. Starting out at a prestigious management consulting firm in Denver, he has worked on tech transfer and manufacturing strategies with the Department of Defense, DARPA, the Department of Homeland Security, and top flight OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) producing IT hardware and software critical to their supply chains.
After all that, he landed back home in New Bed ford, looking to serve the interests of farmers, fishermen, and the city’s refurbished port and South End innovation district. Chris and his staff, most of whom are from the South Coast and mainly from Greater New Bedford, are committed to their hometown. To that end, they believe that marrying next stage innovation — the Internet of Things (IoT) — to traditional local industries will produce jobs along with profit for both users and Impact Lab sponsors.
ImpactLABS is housed in the late-19th-century Standard-Times building in downtown New Bedford. More specifically, they are located in the capacious former lino type composing room, which spans the entire fourth floor. Chris and his 11-person staff operate in an office that has the open,transparent feel of a collaborative workplace, ensconced in the substantial,ornamented, decidedly walled-off Victorian architecture of the older industrial city. It is a perfectly iron icre-imagination of the space — and the setting for the kind of break throughs the historic city is poised for.
ImpactLABS is a no-fee commercial accelerator that live-pilots IoT products pitched by start-ups from across the globe. According to Chris, IoT involves “instrumenting” objects with sensors for data gathering and transmission so that machines and infrastructure can talk amongst themselves. Although Chris says that big IoT applications such as self-driving cars “have their place,” he is interested in the technology’s capacity to “redisaggregate” the market, by which he means to break up and distribute its value more broadly.
After the Internet passed from an infrastructure of dedicated in-house servers, networks, and desktop computers to one of cloud computing, served by massive data storage banks and distant services, Chris explains, Silicon Valley lost sight of “ground truth.” In their excessive pursuit of aimless “solutionism,” as he puts it, they thought nothing of, say, drilling into San Francisco’s streets to install experimental parking sensors. And this solutionism had bred a political culture that accepted such “unpragmatic applications” uncritically. “
In the real world,” he says, “you don’t want to cut into your pavement,” just to see if something works. Meanwhile, the industry had consolidated and monetized ownership of the digital revolution’s most valuable commodity: people’s data.
In New Bedford, IoT technology holds the promise of sharing the digital wealth with practical working people, who value stability and fairness over the disruption and convenience of digital mobility. To reassure their target users, Chris shortened his company’s name to ImpactLABS, removing the “hackneyed” IoT moniker six months ago.
At this point, anticipated “users” are fisheries, farms, and wind energy operations that, in the nature of their work, are in the business of managing risk. Food Security Lead Liz Wiley, for example, is working with cranberry farms, wineries, and other growers who are field-testing groundwater monitoring through sensors and instrumentation to better plan for shifts in water supply. She is also working in aquaculture, helping equip both small fishing enterprises and large commercial fisheries with the means to monitor fish stocks, water quality, current movements, and catch limits.
ImpactLABS has tools in place for measuring the delicate air quality found in high-tunnel hoop houses used by small farmers during the winter, and is preparing to “instrument” the anticipated Cape Wind infrastructure, for which New Bedford will likely serve as the staging area, to capture climate,wind current, and wave data. All that data will not only help these predominantly small business people pursue their operations with efficiency and precision, it will also help policy makers better manage the epic risks associated with climate change.
Chris Rezendes is tall, intense, articulate, and warm, given to oracular statements inflected with Silicon Valley-speak. “Resilience is a killer app!” he exclaims. It is “the reason why,” meaning that an ethic of resilience restores purposeful direction to a storm of digital innovation that has grown haphazardly disruptive for its own sake.
Chris spells out the seven principles of resilience that guide his collaborative. Anything ImpactLABS invests in must be secure, stable, scalable, agile, professional, sustainable, and, perhaps above all, equitable—committed to joint, cross-class “community identity” and its historical grounding in “nature.”
So how does ImpactLABS’ business model work? How does it serve the interests of working people? And why is New Bedford a good test bed for its scalable ambitions?
As Engineering Lead Dan Mahoney, a tech lifer who began programming in the 1960s, explains, since the cost of hardware and software has dropped, innovation can come from anywhere; ImpactLABS is working across the globe and especially closely with a cluster of startups in Iceland.
“This has less to do with Boston than with Brasilia,” says Chris, referring not only to the origins of the startups ImpactLABS supports, but also to the company’s target markets in the developing world. As a city where one in seven children is food insecure, he says, New Bedford serves as “an archetype for redeveloping struggling countries’ markets from within an advanced economy.”
Chris and his wife have contributed 25 percent of the cost for ImpactLABS’ free early-stage piloting, while titans such as GE, Dell, Analog Devices, and PTC foot the rest of the bill. In return, investors gain deep, exclusive knowledge of an emerging technology, and expect to reap big profits from selling and servicing the products that go into full commercial development.
After decades of technological displacement and, more recently, the dizzying threat of social media-driven disruption, small and midsize business owners also stand to gain from ImpactLABS’ ground truth innovations—and New Bedford can preserve jobs. IoT can help these operations more efficiently manage risk and thus yield profit. Moreover, their smaller size and product diversity protects them from job-gutting robotics—which requires large-scale production and services to gain return on costly robotics investment. Compared with, say, large commodity growers, Chris points out, small and midsize farmers “can’t Amazon food production because their product is not homogeneous.”
ImpactLABS also anticipates opening another big revenue stream for these smaller-scale businesses by helping them sell their data. Many of these owners are already tech savvy. Liz notes that the cranberry growers she works with, for example, know that they are sitting on a pile of valuable data, but they don’t know what to do with it.
ImpactLABS will help these and other businesses refine their data collection with new tools and, importantly, find markets for their data. These markets, such as climate science research programs, meteorological and hydrological monitoring systems, coastal research enterprises such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute strewn along the South Coast, insurance companies, and banks, work in conformity with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Rather than handing off that proprietary digital gold to Facebook and other Big Data infrastructure companies, ImpactLABS’ model makes it possible for smaller businesses to own it themselves, cash it in, and reinvest it to expand their operations and hire more workers.
Anticipating that need, and with Chris seated on the regional Workforce Investment Board, ImpactLABS is beginning to work with local schools such as Bristol Agricultural High School, Bristol Community College, and UMass Dartmouth to re-skill the local workforce in IoT management. While cities with big innovation economies concentrate on attracting college-educated “talent” and the firms that hire them, New Bedford networks are quietly working with ImpactLABS to nurture the brains atop the city’s big shoulders to enhance the work it’s always done.
By looking to distribute and decentralize data collection while improving traditional smaller businesses and the skills of the workers they employ, ImpactLABS takes the equity component of resilience seriously. In the process, it could be drawing up a model of sustainable economic development transferable not only to developing countries, but also to smaller post-industrial metros struggling to remake their production-based economies across the United States.
“With its ethic of winner-take-all, survival of the fittest, the tech world has misread Darwin,” Chris observes. “To be successful, you need to listen to the vernacular.” As a South Coast native who knows both the region’s troubles and potential, he believes the local economy can reach new heights with the non-disruptive improvements offered by IoT.