You Can Go Home Again: Five Themes to Watch in the Boston Innovation Scene
Sometimes you have to leave a place in order to really appreciate it. That’s not the case for me and Boston. I’ve always loved this area—but coming home after a two-year stint away makes for a nice opportunity to put my appreciation down in words. So, as the incoming Editor of Xconomy Boston, I hope you’ll indulge me in a quick tour of some thoughts on the local innovation community and culture.
My family has roots here. I was born in Arlington, MA, moved away to the Midwest as a kid, and came back to Boston for grad school at MIT. I spent 16 years of my adult life in this fair city. For the past two years, I’ve been out in Seattle reporting on the technology scene and co-leading Xconomy’s office there. Now I’m coming back to Boston to do something similar here. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to it—especially since I’m bringing some outside perspective back with me, which I think will be valuable.
I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic, and think back to when I was first getting to know this city in 1990. I remember when the Red Sox had losing seasons, and the Patriots were 1-15. I remember Larry Bird’s last playoff game, and when “Beat L.A.” meant something different. I remember when Tom Menino wasn’t mayor, and the Big Dig hadn’t even started yet (now that’s saying something).
Certainly a lot has changed in 20 years. What hasn’t changed, I think, is the spirit of innovation around New England, rooted in its long, proud history and traditions. No doubt my Boston colleagues would agree that, if anything, that spirit has gotten stronger—especially in the past couple of years.
With that in mind, here are five general themes I’m intent on exploring as I hit the ground running here. They have to do with the culture of Boston-area entrepreneurs and investors; the top challenges and opportunities for young startups; and the impact of big companies and universities on local innovation.
1. Does the startup ecosystem properly reward risk-taking?
Last fall, Brad Feld, the venture capitalist from Foundry Group and TechStars, said he thought the Boston tech community had “a massive chip on its shoulder.” That’s because this region, once the undisputed technology leader with its venerable Route 128 companies (even well into the ’90s), fell behind Silicon Valley, he said. And I’ve heard others say the New England tech scene has a bit of an inferiority complex as compared to the Valley (who doesn’t?). The question is, what is being done about this?
From what I can tell, Boston tech startup culture has been changing for the better as of late. Anecdotal stories suggest this community is more conducive to risk-taking than some other areas of the country. In other words, failure is tolerated by investors (as long as an entrepreneur failed for the right reasons), and entrepreneurs don’t feel stigmatized by failures. But I’ll be trying to dig in and understand more about the view from the trenches.
2. How elitist is the innovation community?
This one didn’t really strike me until I left Boston recently. People outside New England tend to think the culture is based around hierarchies of old money and established power structures. If you didn’t go to college at MIT or an Ivy League School (and, preferably, get your MBA, JD, or MD from Harvard), forget it. Prominent angel investors and venture capitalists aren’t taking your calls, and they’re definitely not meeting with you, unless you’ve got connections and a solid business plan already.
Real or imagined, that’s a very different vibe from a place like Seattle, where the investor and startup community is smaller, and it’s not as hard to get that first meeting. And to be clear, this is just what I’m hearing anecdotally, not what I’m seeing firsthand (not yet anyway). The divide between entrepreneurs and investors, and getting them to mix in a productive way, is certainly a challenge everywhere—and I know Boston-area organizations have been doing a lot on this front lately.
3. Where are the anchor tenants in high tech?
Boston is known for its big life sciences companies—Biogen Idec, Boston Scientific, Genzyme, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and dozens of other publicly traded firms. But what about anchor tenants in technology? Sure, we have EMC, Nuance, Akamai, iRobot, and others, and IBM has a big presence here. Google and Microsoft also have been growing in the area. It’s a bit cliché to ask why Boston hasn’t produced a Google, Microsoft, Amazon, or Apple of its own lately. But I think it’s a fair question.
A giant like Microsoft acts as a talent magnet, especially at its headquarters, which has had a huge impact on local innovation for decades. (Even indirectly—for example, Amazon came to Seattle originally in part because founder Jeff Bezos wanted to set up where there was already lots of software development talent.) So Boston needs more of these big companies, and fast.
4. What is the business impact of all the top universities around town?
This one could be tough to quantify, but I’ll be looking at things like the number of companies spun out by different institutions, the types of technologies licensed by commercialization offices, the strength of entrepreneurial programs and competitions, the percentage of graduates who stay in the area, and so forth. As Bostonians, we tend to take it for granted that we have dozens of top universities and colleges attracting the best young minds and faculty and churning out world-leading advances in science, technology, and business. We shouldn’t. We should be harnessing it even more.
5. In which fields will Boston innovators lead the world?
This theme is obvious and important. Xconomy and others have documented the Boston area’s strengths in many areas such as healthcare, life sciences, energy, robotics, data storage, mobile software, online video, gaming, music technologies, entertainment, and design. Some areas I’ll be watching particularly closely: micro-VC and alternative financing schemes, robotics and artificial intelligence, advanced materials and cleantech, consumer Internet, gaming, and graphics and visualization. Will one of these efforts lead to the next billion-dollar company in New England?
Some of these themes will no doubt evolve; this list is just a start. If you have any thoughts on the above (or other top-of-mind issues in local innovation and its global impact), please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. I look forward to meeting you all, and continuing to build relationships with the technology and business community here.
One last personal note: I started writing this piece while I was aboard a JetBlue flight from Seattle to Boston (rather appropriately). The only TV network we couldn’t get on board was ABC, which was showing Game 6 of the NBA Finals (we all know how that turned out). What’s more, the worst crying baby in the history of crying, or babies, was directly behind me during the flight. Maybe he or she knew something I didn’t. In any case, I was so grouchy I couldn’t finish this story.
Now, having had a few days to recover, I can say this: I will always be a die-hard New England fan—for sports, technology, innovation, you name it. We are hardy souls, and we thrive on adversity. So let’s bring it.