How Massachusetts Should Boost Innovation—A Compendium of Reader Ideas (And A Call for More)

How should Massachusetts strengthen and grow its innovation ecosystem? What are the best ways to foster entrepreneurship, improve the high-tech work force, and entice companies, whether here already or thinking about a local presence, to expand in the Bay State?

Last month, after witnessing a flurry of talk focused on addressing such issues by rebranding the Bay State as an innovation hub, Wade weighed in with a thought-provoking column. Rather than worrying about branding, he suggested the state’s time, money, and energy would be far better spent helping innovators and innovative companies succeed. “Indeed, there’s so much amazing innovation going on in Massachusetts already that it seems superfluous to worry about better marketing slogans…” he wrote. “It would be far better for economic growth in the state if public-private initiatives like the Information Technology Collaborative focused on a few substantive policy reforms targeting the all-too-numerous obstacles to prosperity for local businesses, technology professionals, and entrepreneurs.”

He put forth a list of suggestions that included replicating efforts like MIT’s Desphande Center for Technological Innovation at other universities, getting rid of non-compete clauses, and promoting the Bay State’s gay friendly credentials (especially compared to California). His column attracted a slew of comments. But more than their number was the quality of the ideas put forth. Unanimously, as far as I could tell, commenters who weighed in on branding agreed that it should not be the focus of Bay State attention. “Creating a new slogan or tag-line is backward. Real accomplishments [are] the way to attract attention. Nicknames like ‘Silicon Valley’ appear after that, not before,” wrote Dan Weinreb.

Many readers put forth their own ideas for what should be done. Some came from well-known innovation leaders (including two Xconomists), others from voices I hadn’t heard before. But as a whole, their ideas and perspectives were so interesting that I wanted to round them up and draw fresh attention to them in hopes of evolving the discussing even farther—and faster. Indeed, we need to get this discussion more out in the open, and not leave it to committees alone—as important as those committees may be. Innovation comes from out-of-the-box thinking, and sometimes that can best be found through out-of-the-box outreach.

You can read all the comments here. But below are three ideas, or action areas, that particular jumped out at me.

  • Improve student engagement and encourage young entrepreneurs—This was one of the most talked about areas. Alexa Scordato laid out a key part of this issue: “Boston does a crappy job of retaining the youth population that is drawn to the city. As an academic acropolis housing an undergraduate population of over 250K, Boston misses the opportunity year after year by failing to convince people to stay…I was recently told that if I ever want to have a shot at being innovative, that I MUST leave Boston because leaders here would never mentor or cultivate my professional interests.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Tim Rowe, president of the Cambridge Innovation Center, home to a constant stream of startups, who put forth some ideas for retaining students after they graduate and encouraging student entrepreneurship:

—Fund programs like MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service in every school.
—Expand efforts like Flybridge Capital Partners’ Stay in MA program that pay for students to attend conferences and other networking events.
—Create a grant program for helping startups hire interns.
—Replicate successes like Northeastern University’s internship program in other schools.

But as important as such efforts may be, at least one local entrepreneur, Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan, thinks you can only do so much to retain students in today’s world, where students who come to Boston from around the globe naturally want to (and now can) return home to pursue their dreams. “I believe it is ultimately futile to try to increase (from its natural rate) the retention of the hundreds of thousands of students who study here,” Nijhawan argued. “In the flat world let’s make Boston the hub that all these alumni communicate through and occasionally gather at. Let’s create an annual alumni gathering in Boston, coordinated by all colleges. We can have sub-fairs at this gathering with themes such innovation, arts, sustainability, healthcare, etc. Economic activity will naturally arise from making Boston the ‘knowledge hub’ of the flat world.”