It’s a long way from a back-of-the-napkin idea to a dream fulfilled, but a nonprofit with an office at the Springfield Technology Park is helping innovators forge ahead with the process. Forge, launched five years ago under clean-technology incubator Greentown Labs, helps startups on their journey from prototype to product by connecting them with manufacturers, design firms and engineers.
One of the hundreds of innovators Forge is helping is 19-year-old Connor MacFarlane, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s School of Engineering, who is developing a wearable insulin delivery device for diabetics.
The design, he said, reduces pain, plastic waste, the amount of supplies people need to carry and the amount of time spent managing the disease.
MacFarlane, who was diagnosed with diabetes in high school, said he was frustrated that insulin delivery systems were difficult to manage for an active teenager.
A member of Medford High School’s crew and swim teams, MacFarlane was taking four insulin injections a day. Wearing a patch wasn’t practical when “you’re diving into a pool all the time,” he said.
His light-bulb moment came one day while he was out to dinner with his parents and he excused himself from the table to administer an insulin shot.
“I came back to the table, grabbed a napkin and drew a sketch for my mom,” he said.
Fast forward to the fall of 2019, when MacFarlane, a chemical engineering major at UMass, attended “boot camp” at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. When he shared his idea, he was encouraged to pursue it and come back with a design.
Today his company — Improved Insulin Delivery (IID) — is well on its way to producing a prototype. There is no timeline for when the device would hit the market, MacFarlane said, adding that like other medical devices it would require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
To date, his venture has received more than $30,000 in nondilutive funding, some of it from beating out 100 students during a pitch competition hosted by the Berthiaume Center.
IID has done prototyping work with the W.E.B. Du Bois 3D printing lab and the Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication lab at UMass Amherst.
In addition to Forge and the Berthiaume Center, IID has received assistance from VentureWelI and i-Corp.
“These connections will be instrumental for taking the next steps with IID as we are starting to do more serious product development and are looking to find companies that are local, with the right capabilities, and willing to help us along our journey,” MacFarlane said.
Forge Executive Director Laura Teicher said the organization is committed to helping startups and manufacturers stimulate the local economy and solve tough problems.
To date, the Somerville-based nonprofit has supported nearly 300 startups statewide, resulting in $30 million in known contracts and purchase orders to make innovative products locally.
With its proliferation of precision machine shops, Western Massachusetts was a logical place for Forge to expand its westward reach, Teicher said. The research and development going on at UMass Amherst was another plus, she added.
Massachusetts has 7,000 manufacturers, Teicher said, and there is a great opportunity for them to help innovators like MacFarlane turn their inventions into real products.
Adam Rodrigues, director of regional initiatives at Forge in Springfield, said Western Massachusetts has earned its designation by the regional chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association as a precision manufacturing “hot spot.” The region is home to more than 200 precision manufacturers, Rodrigues said, adding that “some are quite small and a lot are multi-generational.”
State Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, and Sen. Eric Lessor, D-Longmeadow, were instrumental in bringing Forge to Western Massachusetts.
“We always looking for ways to enhance opportunities for our region and make east-west connections,” Wagner said.
Forge’s funding sources include state and federal grants, foundation grants and sponsorships from the manufacturing community.
“Crucial to our Western Massachusetts presence have been an annual $150,000 from the commonwealth and $50,000 from the Davis Foundation,” Teicher said.
In October, hundreds of innovators and regional manufacturers attended Forge’s second annual Manufacturing and Innovation Showcase — held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though the COVID-19 crisis resulted in the temporary closing of manufacturing plants, Teicher said 2020 was a good year for innovation.
“When the pandemic hit, we expected a slowdown, but we did not see that,” she said, adding that Forge helped 170 innovators in 2020, an increase from 2019.
Since it opened its regional office at Springfield Technology Park in 2016, Forge has supported more than 90 startups and engaged more than more than 75 manufacturers and suppliers, resulting in more than $11 million in contracts.
Teicher said Forge finds innovators through university contacts, local businesses and word of mouth.
“Matching startups with hardware and physical product is capital-intensive up front,” Teicher said. “If they don’t make the right design and supply chain design, they can easily run off the runway.”
It’s Forge’s job, she said, to match startups with the correct resources at an early stage. Forge believes “that if you can invent it locally, you should be empowered to make it locally,” she said.
Advantages of local production include strengthened communication, transparency and intellectual property protections, as well as avoiding tariffs, shipping fees and management overhead associated with working with overseas supply chains, she said.
As for MacFarlane’s hopes for his company, he said, “I’d like to think it could go national,” but right now “I want to get the product to young active adults with diabetes.”
He said he hopes his invention give diabetics a better quality of life “with increased happiness and freedom.”