The Role the State of Massachusetts Should Play in Cleantech
Governor Deval Patrick had good intentions of wanting to grow the cleantech space when Ian Bowles consolidated all of the available money the state had slated for solar initiatives into a new group called the Clean Energy Center (CEC). This group essentially places bets on which startups will make it big and then provides them with grant money.
Why is it unlikely for this model to be successful? Venture capitalists hire the best and brightest to do serious due diligence on a startup prior to investing, and most of these startups fail. This formula has worked for VCs because the 20 percent of their portfolio companies that do make it, make it big enough for the VC to be successful. The same formula does not work for governments. It is unreasonable to think that the civil servants at CEC have the ability to make an impact through placing the right bets when VCs do it much better and still fail. There is a better solution for the Governor to make a real impact without placing bets.
Having seen many so many brilliant students from MIT, Harvard, BU, Olin College, and Northeastern come up with equally brilliant technology ideas, it is frustrating to see them faced with the following choices as they graduate:
1. Take a job with an established company (most likely outside the state), or
2. Continue to work on their technologies to prove out the concept in a lab/work shop.
The solution is for the State to be a facilitator for these potentially significant technologies by setting up a shared incubator space in the heart of these universities, where these engineers of the future can physically build their prototypes and go on to get funded for the right reasons. I actually asked Bob Healy, the Cambridge City Manager, if he would be able to find an empty basement near MIT to pull this off, and he was very much open to the idea. The model could follow what Tim Rowe’s Cambridge Innovation Center has done for office space. This way, engineers can access the necessary heavy tools and equipment to complete their prototypes where they would meet other brilliant engineers trying to do the same. It would create a powerful ecosystem of brilliant engineers.
Knowing that politicians need to show their worth within the four-year election cycle, is it possible for government to pull this off? Well, I say it’s worth the lobbying effort. We can follow the successful model of Jim Newton of TechShop in Menlo Park, CA. TechShop has become a de facto incubator for an astounding array of startups there. Cash-strapped inventors have used the shop’s lathes, laser cutters, welding equipment, 3-D printers, and shop tools to make prototypes.
Engineers with passion about their technologies only need a space to work out of and a bit of food to keep them going. Combining space from Bob Healy, donated tools from the private sector, and some pizza from Governor Patrick might just be the realistic key to fostering new jobs of the future in Massachusetts.