Innovation Lab helps to jump-start start-ups in Uphams Corner

Since its launch last May, Uphams Corner’s Fairmount Innovation Lab has already ushered its first round of Dorchester-based entrepreneurs through months of legal workshops, financial trainings, and business mentoring. Now, just six months later, the Lab is looking for ways to improve its model and better serve the community’s creative sector while recruiting the next round of business innovators for its accelerator program.

“The whole idea was to use art and culture as a way to engage the community and help them envision the change they wanted,” said Liora Beer, the founding executive director of the Fairmount Innovation Lab. “A lot was learned.”

Beer runs the Lab through Artmorpheus, a non-profit that helps connect Boston’s creative sector with resources and tools for growth. She said that work on the Lab began in 2013 with a dynamic partnership between the city, the Fairmount Cultural Corridor, The Boston Foundation and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Last May, the Lab was launched as a pilot program to bolster development of burgeoning businesses within the neighborhood.

The Lab functions much like any other business incubator: it provides entrepreneurs accepted into the program with technical support, mentorship, financial and legal training and vital networking opportunities. But unlike other programs of its sort, it faces the unique challenge of supporting a community that lacks the attention and resources abundant in other business-oriented areas of Greater Boston heralded as “innovation districts.”

“Before I came into the program, the lack of resources here made me feel like I couldn’t do what I wanted,” said Isabella Bandao, the youngest of the Lab’s first cohort and owner of Allab Asor, a women’s ready-to-wear fashion line that she will introduce at a free event at the Lab on December 3. “In other neighborhoods, they have way more access to these things.”

Beer said that unlike other Boston-based entrepreneurs in accelerator programs like Mass Challenge and Techstars, all of the business owners at the Fairmount Lab have at least one other job, and what they often need most is simply a physical space to do their work and get their businesses off the ground.

“We build our offerings around people who don’t have the capacity themselves or the family backing,” Beer said.

For this second cohort of entrepreneurs, Beer and her team are working to provide even more resources. The Lab is developing a stronger mentorship program, she said, and with the help of grants from the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, will offer a new opportunity to defer costs for projects like creating a new website or setting up an accounting system.

The deadline to apply for the next cohort is Dec. 8 and selections will take place in early January. Beer said the Lab is looking to recruit more entrepreneurs living in the Fairmount Corridor (along the Fairmount commuter line) who are committed to developing a creative business or social enterprise. This is an important feature of the Lab: that it help innovation grow and thrive from within the neighborhood, rather than attracting entrepreneurs from other parts of the city.

For Maria Zemler Wu, a Fairmount Lab alumni and co-owner of the event planning company Lusterity, the Lab has been vital advocate for the neighborhood.

“There’s so much creativity, so much entrepreneurial spirit, so much potential here in Dorchester. By bringing that content, that message, those opportunities into Uphams Corner and into Dorchester, I think the Lab is doing a real service both to entrepreneurs and to the wider community,” she said.

Brandao, who grew up in Uphams Corner, said she feels the Lab hasn’t just empowered her, but has started an important conversation about development and progress in Dorchester.

“A lot of people think the Lab is gentrification, but little do they know that we’re trying to fight against gentrification here,” she said. “This is our neighborhood--we’ll go ahead and develop it, we’ll go ahead and make it better.”