Central Square’s Barron Building Emerges as Startup Hub

If there were a heat map showing how high-tech entrepreneurs are distributed around Boston, there would be a new red spot at 614 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge’s Central Square.

From the outside, the four-story office building is distinguished mainly by its white-tiled facade and its large plate-glass windows. Deep inside is the office of Carl Barron, the building’s 93-year-old owner and landlord, long adored by neighbors as the unofficial “Mayor of Central Square.”

And now the building is also home to a gaggle of venture-backed Web and mobile startups, including Conduit Labs on the fourth floor and Oneforty on the second. Conduit is best known as the creator of the online music game Loudcrowd, and Oneforty has built a groundbreaking “Twitter app store” guiding Twitter fans to tools that make the microblogging service more useful.

Dozens of familiar faces from the Boston startup and investing scene were on hand for a joint Conduit/Oneforty housewarming party last Friday night, which was also the occasion for the unveiling of the Awesome Foundation’s March 2010 grant (it went to a London biology undergraduate, Charles Fracchia, who’s creating bio-engineered inks). At the party, I learned from Conduit CEO Nabeel Hyatt and Oneforty CEO Laura Fitton that both companies will be sharing their spaces with smaller startups.

Already subletting space from Conduit, according to Hyatt, are Shareaholic, maker of a social sharing plugin for Web browsers, and AccelGolf, which is developing GPS-driven golf apps for smartphones.

Jay Meattle, founder and CEO of Shareaholic, says his company moved into the Conduit space in mid-February. “We have a private room that can easily fit in 3-4 people, which is perfect for our size,” Meattle says. “It’s like an office within an office, with all the amenities of a big space like a kitchen, conference rooms, et cetera.”

The Barron Building, at the heart of Central SquareWilliam Sulinski, CEO and co-founder of Portland, ME-based AccelGolf, says the Cambridge outpost will become the startup’s sales hub.

Fitton says she’s not sure yet who will move into Oneforty’s space, but that they’ll likely be other entrepreneurs funded by Oneforty’s investors, who include Boston-based Flybridge Capital Partners, San Francisco-based Javelin Venture Partners, and a bevy of angel investors such as Dave McClure, Roger Ehrenberg, Lee Hower, and Andy Sack.

There’s “a two-fold benefit” from having other companies supported by Oneforty’s investors in the same space, says Fitton. “It keeps the energy up, and it also means our investors and advisors are coming by the office all the time, so we can grab them for extra questions.”

The new cluster of startups in the Barron Building is another example of the informal incubator phenomenon that Erin spotlighted back in February. In these work/hangout spaces, sheer proximity tends to breed new ideas and new ventures, and to attract even more entrepreneurs.

Indeed, Fitton says Oneforty was drawn to the Barron Building by the fact that Conduit had already leased space there (and by Carl Barron’s willingness to rip out the walls that previously divided Oneforty’s second-floor space into a warren of 14 separate offices).

Central Square is already famous as Cambridge’s multicultural crossing ground, attracting a more interesting variety of businesses and visitors than tony Harvard Square or tech-saturated Kendall Square. It’s also home to tech startups like StyleFeeder (which formerly occupied offices in the Barron Building) and TechStars Boston, not to mention the Betahouse coworking space and informal gatherings like OpenCoffee entrepreneurs’ workshop every Wednesday at Andala Coffee House.

“Central Square is definitely a happening place when it comes to the startup and innovation scene,” says Phil Jacob, founder and chief technology officer of StyleFeeder, which was acquired by Time Inc. in January and is located just down the street from the Barron Building at 678 Masachusetts Avenue. “It’s great for a number of reasons: employees love to work in the area, it’s easy to find sublets for when you’re just starting out, and there are tons of other startups around to bounce ideas off of. We regularly go out to lunch with folks from other companies to talk about technology and share ideas, which is very valuable. Before the acquisition, our investors used to comment on the value of being in this area.”

With the Barron Building going high-tech and becoming a meeting place for groups such as Greenhorn Connect and the Awesome Foundation, that value could increase even more.

“Being in physical proximity makes a huge difference,” says Rekha Murthy, who lived in Central Square for seven years, wrote a paper about Central Square’s redevelopment when she was studying urban planning at MIT, and is now director of projects and partnerships at the Public Radio Exchange, based in Harvard Square. “When I was freelancing, I could pop over to Betahouse for lunch, or professional networking. Something I saw happen constantly was how easy it was to run into people on the street who you needed to have a conversation with. Having everybody in such proximity allows for casual interactions that are low-risk—that enable people to explore possibilities without feeling that they’ve made a huge commitment.”

Central Square is “arguably Boston’s new startup innovation hub,” says Shareaholic’s Meattle, who echoes Murthy’s experience: “It’s now common for me to bump into other startup folks on the street around Central. [It’s] very Bay Area-ish!”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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