From Boston to the Battenkill, a hi-tech entrepreneur comes to town
MANCHESTER - It might have become Mettowee Technologies, but that didn't seem to fit for a defense contractor.
Bruce Nelson, the founder and President of Battenkill Technologies, was ready for a change when the company he was working with outside of Boston was acquired by another, larger firm. A graduate of the University of Vermont, he owned a home and was familiar with the Manchester area. When the time came to pick a name for his new enterprise, which he launched in November 2005, his wife had an idea, he said.
"My wife said we should name it after one of the rivers I like to fish," he said, and Battenkill sounded better.
The business falls into the milieu of high technology that many economists and politicians have often said over the years offers a promising direction for the state's economy to grow in. It's not heavy industry, with its related pollution and environmental problems, but it offers potentially high-paying jobs that reward knowledge. And with the arrival of the Internet, in theory such businesses no longer have the need to be tightly tethered to some of their traditional areas of concentration in urban areas.
Right now, Battenkill Technologies is a two-man shop. Nelson and his business partner and vice president, Jonathan Grant, moved into space in an industrial park still under development off Richville Road last December. They occupy space on two floors of a building there, but are constructing another small building there to house a small assembly operation. He hopes to bring on another three employees over the next year, and five years or so down the road, have 15-20 workers on the payroll, he said.
Most of their work is for the U.S. Navy, Nelson said.
"We're working with them to come up with methods to reduce costs of maintenance, especially corrosion, which is the number one cost of maintenance,' he said.
Through a naval research lab based in Key West, Fla., the pair have specialized in developing ways to allow the navy to inspect the condition of shipboard ballast tanks to determine when they need servicing, he said.
Last year, they won a contract from Bath Iron works in Bath, Maine, one of the nation's foremost shipbuilders for naval warships, to develop corrosion sensors for the next class of destroyers for the U.S. Navy. The sensor goes inside the tank to see if corrosion is occurring, without requiring the tank to be opened, he said.
"That's important because it costs $32,000 to open up a tank on a Navy ship," he said.
The contract with Bath Iron Works gave them an opportunity to expand their business from a consultant firm to one with a manufacturing arm, prompting them to look around for a place to relocate to, he said.
With his Vermont background swinging into play, Nelson got in touch with economic development people in Montpelier, who in turn directed him to Peter Odierna, the executive director of the Bennington County Industrial Corp.
That led to their eventual arrival in Manchester, he said.
The BCIC has made major efforts to attract manufacturing firms, but is looking to diversify into high technology. And Vermont, with its large second home owner population, should have opportunities here, Odierna said.
In fact, it's an underutilized economic development tool, he said.
Battenkill is part of our plan that looks at high tech as a platform going forward," he said. "This demonstrates we can enhance that sector successfully and as we go forward we continue to be optimists that this is a sector that will have a growing presence."
In one way, it's also a practical avenue, because all the existing buildings zoned for industrial and manufacturing purposes are in use, he said.
While Bennington County won't be immune from the broader recessionary influences seeping through the national economy, the tight inventory of available buildings is a good sign, and any recessionary fallout should be manageable.
Odierna hopes that Battenkill's success may lure more businesses like them, a scenario Nelson sees as plausible. But there is another major concern - whether he'll be able to recruit a qualified work force, Nelson said.
"We feel it's possible," Nelson said. "Recruiting is an issue - can you get young people that a high tech business need? There's at least a transient youth population to Manchester - it's making people think of Manchester as a place where they might want to start a career."
Being near a major airport would also be nice, but Nelson doesn't see the lack of that as a major drawback. It's just something you get used to, he said.
And the level of broadband Internet service is also good enough to permit a business like his to operate here as well, he said.
Nelson hopes to start hiring next month, and some of the work may get farmed out to other local assembly shops as well.
Whether their arrival triggers other similar small, high tech businesses to the Battenkill valley is another question, though, he said.
"At this stage, I don't know about others following us in, but I can see that the overall Bennington County business climate can benefit from people interacting with each other," he said.
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