Where Innovation Happens—A Still-Forming Map of Boston’s Growing Tech Lab Cluster

6/9/09Follow @bbuderi

Where does technological innovation happen around Boston? What are the sources of new software and hardware creations? You’ve probably heard about Google and Microsoft moving to Cambridge in the past couple of years—but did you know Microsoft has two labs in Cambridge, not one? Or that another Silicon Valley company has a research lab just upstairs from Google in Kendall Square? Then of course there’s IBM’s social software lab, which gave us Wordle. And the aerospace robotics research lab on the 12th floor of a Cambridge office tower at One Broadway.

So far, my columns have been stories—with beginnings, middles, and ends—based on little things we reporters like to do, such as interviews, with plenty of quotes from the innovators, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists I visit.

This week is different: for today’s column, I’ve done exactly no interviews. But I have done a good amount of research. This week, I decided to write about something I have been noticing for quite some time—the growing presence of non-university software and IT research and development labs in the Boston area, especially around Kendall Square here in Cambridge. At Xconomy, we’ve written about several of these labs and efforts piecemeal—like when Google came to town, or when Microsoft hired Reed Sturtevant to open a new advanced development lab at One Memorial Drive. We’ve even chronicled the decline of a once-world famous computer science lab, the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL), which is still based on Broadway in Cambridge, not far from MIT.

But I’ve always wanted to wrap these up into a bigger article, with full details on each lab—how many people they employ, what areas of technology they specialize in, and so on. Truth be told, I haven’t gotten to that in this column, either. But I’ve made a start.

Below, with the help of our rising star intern from Boston University, Roxanne Palmer, and chief correspondent Wade Roush (who wrote many of the stories I mentioned above), I’ve mapped out the labs we know about. I’ve also added a few descriptions about the efforts when available. A few caveats: the list doesn’t include university labs, such as MIT’s Media Lab. Also, there is wide disagreement in IT, especially when it comes to software, about what can be considered R&D. I’ve tried to focus on labs or efforts that go beyond routine or normal product development to farther-out efforts that are riskier, more open-ended, and aren’t expected to bear fruit until a year or three down the road.

To see details about a lab and links to our stories, where available, you can either click on a little orange light bulb on the map below (these are creative R&D efforts, get it?) or browse the company list at this Google Maps page. If you go with the light bulb option, you may have to zoom in to see individual labs that are close together. For instance, both Google and VMware are housed in the same building at 5 Cambridge Center—but you only see one icon unless you get very up close and personal. The same is true for Aurora Flight Sciences and Conduit Labs, which are both at One Broadway in Cambridge.

A last caveat: this is a work in progress, and it’s not based on any exact science. So I’d love your feedback, both about labs I’ve included that maybe shouldn’t be here because the work is too short-term and routine, and about those I’ve missed (and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot). Either drop a comment below or write us at editors@xconomy.com.


View Boston Tech R&D Labs in a larger map

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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  • http://www.ibm.com Karen Lilla

    Hi Bob — Nice piece. And I love the idea of a comprehensive, interactive map of innovation. As you know, IBM is creating is largest software lab in North America right here in the Bay state. You have it listed as the “IBM Littleton campus” but in fact we call his the IBM Mass Lab” since it encompasses our Lab in Westford, MA as well.

    Perhap you’d consider listing IBM’s Waltham site at 404 Wyman Street which houses IBM’s Innovation Center, our work around sotware storage from the XIV acquisition in 2008, and I believe there is chip work done at that site too for the industry’s leading gaming machines.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/bbuderi/ Robert Buderi

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve updated the Littleton entry and title, and added the Innovation Center.

  • http://www.cictr.com Tim Rowe

    Bob, your title “Where innovation happens” combined with your focus on corporate shops doing “farther-out efforts that are riskier, more open-ended, and aren’t expected to bear fruit until a year or three down the road” seems to suggest that these types of places are the main drivers of innovation. This misses the role of startups.

    Startups often end up finding success in very different places than where they started looking for it (recall Microsoft got its start developing computer languages). By and large, they are doing real exploration, not “routine product development”.

    Like the corporate labs, they take on high risk projects, and generally don’t see the results of their labors for 3-5 years.

    A great deal of the innovation we see around us that we celebrate these days in tech (Google, eBay, Amazon, etc.) started with startups.

    An interesting project for your intern would be to try to quantify and compare what fraction of innovation comes from startups vs. corporate labs.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/bbuderi/ Robert Buderi

    Hi Tim

    Didn’t mean to imply by any means that big companies or big labs are the only place where innovation happens: they are just one aspect of innovation. The point of this article was just to look at R&D labs, which by their nature tend to belong to bigger organizations–because that’s who can afford to support them.

    We write about startups every day here and are well aware of their incredible innovations and risk-taking. But they have to be product focused–a startup needs to get a product out there and can’t usually sustain exploratory efforts, which is what I meant by “more open-ended.”

    But you make a good point–I know well that there is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes an R&D effort, hence my caveats. I just wanted to draw a line somewhere and act on the observation that more and more R&D labs seem to be popping up around Boston.