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.”

  • Create new sources of seed funding for entrepreneurs—Enrico Polazzo was blunt: “Disruptive innovation creates new markets, and enables radically new business models, and the seed money fuel for that type of innovation has always been way too limited in Boston – no doubt a result of the Yankee brain.” He added, “Start-up funding is just too important to be left to the venture capitalist who talks the seed stage talk, but really will never settle for less than B round risk at seed stage valuation.”

Polazzo suggested that “Entrepreneurs need a financial and regulatory (blue sky) bailout. Take a page out of the MA independent film industry revolution and apply it to entrepreneurs before they leave or give up. Grant every willing entrepreneur reasonable funds graduated by milestones…Only wholehearted state support will reinforce a start-up brand identity, and drive intellectual capital back to the northeast. MA odds with these many small bets will be much better that its residents’ odds in a new casino.”

Easier said than done? Weinreb challenged Polazzo: “Enrico, Gee, that would be great. Where does the money come from?” To which Polazzo responded, “Daniel – Simple. The same way that millions are spent on asphalt paving a small stretch of roadway: bonds. Where’s the justification? How much tax revenue would have been raised, how many jobs and feeder companies created, if eBay stayed around the Tufts campus in Medford where it was founded? How many VC’s here passed on eBay? There are lots of examples that MA is under-utilizing its potential by relying on private seed funding networks. You can’t expect disruptive innovation rewards without seed stage risk. Who else will fill the capital gap?”

  • Better tap experienced, successful leaders in the innovation community—Xconomist Nijhawan, a serial entrepreneur and former venture capitalist, cited his own experience teaching an MBA course on entrepreneurship at Boston University as an example of one way to help foster innovation. “Let’s get other accomplished entrepreneurs to join local colleges,” he said.

Wrote Weinreb: “Massachusetts has another great resource: experienced professionals and former entrepreneurs, who can help out the next generation of innovators. For example, many people who created and built the successful minicomputer industry are surely still around. Can we create more opportunities for them to become mentors? At the MassTLC Innovation2008 unConference, entrepreneurs were matched up with experts, who could give them advice. I found this to be successful, and I am continuing to provide tips and ideas now and then to the entrepreneurs to whom I was assigned.”

Several other promising ideas were put forth. Xconomist Michael Greeley of Flybridge Capital Partners has long worked to foster innovation in Massachusetts, not just in his day job but as chair of the New England Venture Capital Association and as a member of the state’s Information Technology Collaborative. Greeley wrote that he has recommended two immediate actions to Gov. Deval Patrick: appoint an “Entrepreneur Czar” of national stature (he dropped Jack Welch’s name), and work with the Obama Administration “to get as much of the non-dilutive funding offered up in the federal stimulus package to address the staggering ‘capital gap’ so many of our early-stage companies are struggling with.”

Since Wade’s article appear almost a month ago, I have not heard or read one word from the Patrick administration about the concrete steps it plans for strengthening the innovation ecosystem. Maybe there have been some. If so, they haven’t been communicated well—as Xconomy is one of the leading forums on innovation based in New England with over 130,000 unique visitors a month, and we haven’t heard about it. Perhaps the committees have been meeting. But with the economy in recession, and innovation a key to getting out of the economic mess we’re in, every day without action can be important.

As Alexa Scordato noted in her comment, “For all the talk that’s out there, I see very little in terms of practical tactics being executed.” Or as Genotrope founder and chief product officer Tom Summit volunteered about a study commissioned by the Information Technology Collaborative to demonstrate how the infotech sector contributes to the Massachusetts economy: “Seems like a waste of good money and a concrete example of why we have lost the edge in the first place. Things need to be done not studied.”

If you have additional encouraging words for government officials and others, or just more good ideas to put forth, we welcome your comments.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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