How Kendall Square Became Hip: MIT Pioneered University-Linked Business Parks

7/10/07

Today, the Technology Square business park next to MIT is home to Dyax, Novartis, Forrester, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, and many other startups, bigcos, and research labs alike. Soon after World War II, however, Lever Brothers shut down its soap plants at this very location and shifted work to cheaper and more modern sites elsewhere in the U.S. At the same time, dozens of industrial firms were abandoning Cambridge, once one of the biggest industrial centers on the East Coast. This spelled disaster for city authorities since it meant loss of property taxes, blighted residential areas, plummeting business vitality, and surging urban unemployment—all part of a pitiless self-reinforcing feedback loop.

And yet many of these empty or underused industrial sites were within a few blocks of MIT, an institution which had expanded massively since WWII thanks to federal research money pouring into electronics, materials science, and other emergent fields—and all leading to beneficial civilian side-effects. To help accelerate this process, just after the war MIT President Karl Compton and colleagues had co-founded American Research & Development, creating the first modern venture capital fund. ARD helped commercialize several research projects, including MIT-related ventures such as Ionics, High Voltage Research, and Digital Equipment, and generally gave birth to the venture capital industry.

This was at a time when development of the suburbs was the dominant mode, driven in large part by the proliferation of the automobile. Indeed, after an initial period of time in old, cheap industrial space in Cambridge, many of the MIT-related technology startups found a home along Route 128, the Boston ring road which became known as “America’s technology highway.” By contrast, the inner city was an increasingly depressed place of the past. Throughout the 1950s, the industrial zone around MIT hollowed out, and it was under these circumstances that Cambridge Mayor Edward Crane came to then MIT President James Killian and asked for the Institute’s help. Killian agreed and MIT—together with the City of Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and real estate developer Cabot Cabot & Forbes—planned and financed Technology Square, one of the country’s earliest university-connected business parks, and perhaps the first civic-academic partnership to redevelop a disused old urban industrial zone.

The contemporary MIT campus is now surrounded by a patchwork quilt of business parks, stand-alone office buildings, and research lab space which collectively form an informal Technology Venture Zone (see photo below). MIT has been directly involved in orchestrating much of this, having first learned how through the birthing of Technology Square.

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In the mid-1960s, with MIT’s financial help the city initiated a redevelopment project for the Kendall Square area to accommodate a proposed NASA research center and private development. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Boston Properties had built Cambridge Center on city-owned land, creating the Marriott Hotel complex on Main Street and a new eastern gateway for the Institute. By the 1990s, MIT was intensively developing the University Park area in collaboration with Forest City on the former Simplex Wire & Cable property, reinvigorating the neighborhood south of Massachusetts Avenue between the school and Central Square and creating quarters for dozens of businesses.

And today, half of MIT-owned One Broadway, in the heart of Kendall Square, is run by another MIT-related company, the for-profit Cambridge Innovation Center. The center, which offers flexible office and light R&D space for more than 100 emerging growth technology companies, including several dozen MIT spin-offs, represents a neighborhood unto itself.

The success of these MIT-catalyzed developments and the entrepreneurial boom zones they foster has been noted by other universities around the US and the world. Atlanta’s Georgia Tech, for instance, named its recent urban redevelopment project…Technology Square!

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