Driving Innovation in Greater Boston: It’s All About the Bump and Connect

3/3/08

In studying why Boston has been a center of innovation for nearly four centuries, the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative has identified a set of drivers which came up in all eras, in all types of innovation (technical, medical, and social). Deep historical research on more than 60 cases, conducted with funding from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, pinpointed five drivers that re-appeared over and over in the stories behind each of these particular innovations—why they happened in Boston, and why they happened at the time they did. These are Boston’s “secret sauce,” explaining why we have an innovation tradition.

We call these five ingredients or drivers the “High Five.” They are:

1) A driving entrepreneur or a team of leaders.

2) A local network of people and businesses/organizations sharing information, working across silos.

3) Local funders.

4) Local demand which the entrepreneur can use to refine and perfect the new idea or product.

5) National or global demand for the innovation.

An example of entrepreneurship truly driving a particular innovation in Boston’s past is the Boston Associates, a group of entrepreneurs including Lowell, Appleton, and others, who set up the first factories in Waltham and later Lowell, taking the wealth from shipping and transferring it into a new industry, textile manufacturing. More usually innovation is driven by a single entrepreneur like Cambridge’s Elias Howe and his sewing machine or An Wang and office word processing in the 1970s.

An example of the second driver, local networks and clusters, can be found in the fierce debate in Boston between black abolitionist David Walker and white abolitionist/journalist William Lloyd Garrison, which helped to spur the abolitionist movement—a social innovation.

The third driver, local funding, or capital and financing from Bostonians and local institutions, was central to King Gillette’s development of the safety razor, funded by John Joyce; the birth of state-chartered banking in 1784; and Georges Doriot’s invention of the venture capital model in the 1940s.

Local demand, the fourth driver, helped to get Dan Bricklin’s Visicalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, off the ground. Bricklin was able to sell his first units in 1979 because there was a local market exemplified by the Boston Computer Society, a user group founded in 1977. Other cities didn’t have such a ready market.

Finally, the development of the lucrative salt cod trade in the 17th century was a response to national and global demand. Bostonians have been particularly good at gauging and meeting this demand, whether with salt cod in the 17th century, mass-manufactured textiles in the 19th, or Ned Johnson inventing check-writing off mutual funds in 1976.

Four of the High Five drivers are local in nature. Taken together, these factors led us to identify the phenomenon of the “bump and connect.” Proximity brings about crucial encounters among entrepreneurs, funders, and researchers, collaboration within industries and clusters, and professional and social networking. Even in today’s digital world, business leaders like Novartis’ Bernard Aebischer report that networking opportunities are important—and were in fact a determining factor in the decision to locate Novartis’s research headquarters in Cambridge’s Central Square, in close proximity to Cambridge’s “Genetown,” MIT, MGH, and Harvard’s Longwood campus.

Also central to our research findings is that innovation in Boston has had a broader racial, ethnic, and gender base over the past few centuries than many think. Our innovation tradition is not only white and male. African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics have made an important difference in technical, social, and medical innovations. Immigrants have played a leading role in introducing new ideas and social movements. And the role of women has been critical, from the first years of Massachusett’s settlement all the way through to the present.

Our History & Innovation Collaborative works to ensure that the “bump and connect” is recognized and continually woven into our fabric—whether in new real estate developments, or the Boston Museum coming soon to the Greenway, or our 2008 History & Innovation Awards. Helping to generate new waves of innovation is all about fostering the bump and connect.

Dr. Bob Krim is co-founder and executive director of the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative. Follow @

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