Canopy City: Somerville expansion is made in the shade

By SHELAGH BRALEY

SOMERVILLE—A tree grows in Davis Square and its roots are already spreading.

Canopy City, with its unique approach to strengthening the city’s stake in the innovation economy, is now also heading to Union Square.

“Physically it’s a co-working space, but Canopy is more of an idea,” says co-founder Matthew Hoey, a homegrown entrepreneur himself with a diverse resume of experience including government, nonprofit and tech.

“And so the metaphor is Canopy, its different species living in harmony with one another, finding refuge from threats, and coming together with deep roots in the community,” he says. “We felt that if we strived to have a more diverse audience—nonprofits, startups, policy makers, academics, technologists and community leaders—that cross-pollination would lead to opportunities and create a more holistic environment.”

Somerville has been the perfect test for Canopy, as the 4.2-square-mile city has grown in reputation while a new generation of artists, activists and entrepreneurs has taken over to “keep Somerville weird,” he says. Growing up in the city, Hoey was raised by his grandmother and mother, an upbringing that deeply influences the Canopy community. “Somerville is incredibly diverse and perfect. If we were to do a poll of, say, 10 people walking by, we would run into different races, sexualities, genders. It’s completely different than what anyone else is doing. People here just don’t want to be in a startup monoculture.”

The Davis Square Canopy at 212 Elm St. has come to near-capacity in the last few months, where Hoey and wife Kellyanne Mahoney, an edtech evangelist and Boston Public Schools teacher, have bootstrapped their way into seeing this vision blossom. But it wasn’t an easy path.

“We came up tough, we had some scary times,” Hoey says, “so we get what it’s like to be a startup. We had to grind hard.”

Despite his time mentoring and analyzing startups, and helping to organize startup events and pitch competitions for what he calls “the most vibrant entrepreneur network in the state,” the MIT Enterprise Forum in Cambridge, Hoey says he has reached a new level of appreciation for what it takes to be a founder. “It isn’t until you run one that you really understand what’s involved. Sometimes there’s not a lot of romanticism to it,” he says.

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But fresh off a funding round from the Boston Angels Club, Hoey now sits comfortably for a few minutes among the digital kitty prints, black-and-white Apple throwback ads and one-of-a-kind, hand-drawn cartoons from a recent visit from Comikaze comic book artists. “We found an amazing partner who made an investment in us, we’re shocked by the number. So yes, we raised a round, which is pretty uncommon for a co-working space.”

Canopy has leveraged that funding to expand to 14 Tyler St., where massive renovations will soon reveal a two-story, 16,000-plus-square-foot space in the Ames Business Park, slated tentatively to open in December. Hoey says Canopy got lucky, because real estate inventory is scarce, and the Ames building carries on the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders, the Ames Safety Envelope Company.

“The lease is signed and there’s a lot to be done, but we’re so excited to be moving into a place that’s really the hub of arts culture in a tech community,” Hoey says of Union Square. “We’re banking on the redevelopment of Union Square, and we’re going to continue to execute that mission of putting startups and independent researchers, policy makers, nonprofits and artists all in the same spot, to create this kind of melting pot.”

The new Canopy space is enormous, just a short hop from energy tech accelerator Greentown Labs. Artisan Asylum, a nonprofit maker space that provides creative community tools and programming, is also right nearby. The Union Square Canopy space features Tasting Counter, an award-winning restaurant, Somerville Chocolate, which fills the air with rich scent, Barismo, a coffee roaster/retailer, and Aeronaut brewery—not to mention a full two-story gym where AirCraft Aerial Arts will host Canopy members for aerial fitness and yoga classes, and open the studio to Canopy events, fundraisers and performances. “They’re going to be amazing neighbors,” Hoey says.

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“We were afraid when the building was leased to a new occupant that we’d have to move out of town,” says AirCraft Director Jill Maio, above. “But then (Hoey) and I sat down to talk and found our approaches to business and community participation to be totally in sync. We got excited about collaborating. Maybe we’ll lure some of them over to circus life,” she says, laughing.

As Canopy expands, Hoey is realizing his dream of making Somerville a startup destination, but a different kind of startup destination. “I see a startup as anybody who decides to launch a vision, take a leap, at tremendous personal and financial risk,” Hoey says.

But bringing fledgling tech companies together in one space doesn’t necessarily give way to collaboration, Hoey says, because it sets up an inherent competition. “We just don’t see them unlocking opportunities for one another.” By gathering a diversity of thought, Canopy creates an environment where each founder is invested in each other, Hoey says. “People don’t just sit by themselves here—we all work together and help one another.”

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Canopy, with the help of Caroline Lau, director of community engagement (above), already supports a variety of companies and causes, including the political campaign of Sen. Patricia Jehlen, local nonprofit Groundwork, EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) and a number of tech startups and open-source development collectives. “We’re home to the Commonwealth Institute, the largest network of female entrepreneurs in the state of Massachusetts,” Hoey says. “We had an event here one night, I walked in and Joi Ito (entrepreneur and MIT Media Lab director who recently interviewed President Obama for WIRED) was here, I almost fell down when I saw that,” Hoey said. “We hosted (author and internationally renowned security technologist) Bruce Schneier in here, who’s one of the cryptology gurus of his generation. Like we say, we’re serving locally and we’re connecting globally.”

That global reach starts with Canopy’s U.K. outpost in Exeter Science Park, creating a pipeline to Boston for international companies. “My co-founder (Stewart Noakes) is over in the U.K., so we have that global network to leverage.

“We had a startup that came (to Somerville) from the U.K., working on a technology to secure oil pipelines. They spent four days here, and we lined up VC meetings for them, took them on tours, introduced them at Greentown Labs,” Hoey says. “This was months ago, now just this week I got an email from the venture arm of one of the largest energy companies in the world who said, ‘Matt, can you get the deck from that company and send it over?’ We don’t just say, ‘See you later’ and that’s the end of the relationship. We are going to continue to advocate for them.”

Another unique aspect of the Canopy model is hosting events for kids, for which Canopy earned a $34,600 grant. “They put a maker space in Somerville High School (SHS Fab Lab). So the kids are going to learn laser printing and 3-D printing, these next-generation trades, and then after school a couple of days a week, we’re going to bring in 12-14 kids into our space, and invite founders and policy makers to sit down and tell them their stories about what inspired them to make the leap,” Hoey says. “The idea is to help these kids build self-confidence.”

Hoey wants to make sure word gets out to “the single mom who’s working her ass off 50 hours a week, or went back to school, so she’s too busy to find this program. Spaces fill up. We want to make sure that all families have a chance to get their children into a program like this,” Hoey says.

“We believe—and this is core to our mission—that when we take people who care about the same things, who are wired the same way, working toward solutions to local, national and international challenges, technological challenges or something along the lines of social impact or clean water,” Hoey says, “when we take people who are focused on these things but exist in distinctly different realms, dot-gov, dot-org, dot-edu, dot-com, when we put all these people in the same realm, people that very rarely cross paths, that’s when we can unlock magic. We’ve seen it happen and it’s very exciting.”

Though Canopy is now fielding offers to expand into New York and China, with “a lot of licensing inquiries even out to the West Coast, what we’re most proud of is happening here, and in Union Square.”

I know for a fact that we could not have pulled this off in any other city,” Hoey says. “I can’t hide my Somerville pride.”