10 Takeaways from MassTLC’s UnConference

10/15/10Follow @gthuang

Overwhelming. Inspiring. Thought-provoking. These are all words that apply to the spectacle that was yesterday’s Mass Technology Leadership Council’s Innovation 2010 “unConference,” held at the World Trade Center Boston and organized by entrepreneur and investor Bill Warner, Matrix Partners’ Antonio Rodriguez, and MassTLC’s Tom Hopcroft. And one more word, ridiculous—that’s what it feels like to try to sum it all up in one post.

So I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll just give a few of the ideas and thoughts that my colleague Erin Kutz and I came away with from the discussions of the day. The basic format (or unformat): hundreds of entrepreneurs, tech executives, investors, and other business leaders broke out into about 100 organically created sessions on everything from customer development, startup resources, and how to generate social media buzz to alternative financing schemes, venture capitalist-entrepreneur dynamics, and education issues for engineers headed into industry and women in tech. I’d hazard a guess that a lot of strong connections were made during the course of the day, and we’ll be seeing the fruits of all that in the years to come.

Just a few of the people I saw as I flitted from room to room during the morning sessions: Shawn Broderick from play140 and TechStars, Mike Chin from Baydin, Ed Crawley and Ken Zolot from MIT, Wade Appelman from Harvest Automation, Carl Calabria from iRobot, Paul English from Kayak.com, Eric Paley from Founder Collective, Susan Hunt Stevens from Practically Green, Chris Sheehan and James Geshwiler from CommonAngels, John Landry from Lead Dog Ventures, Sim Simeonov from FastIgnite, Ziad Sultan from Marginize, Vineet Sinha from Architexa, Bettina Hein from Pixability, Gus Weber from Microsoft, and, of course, Bill Warner himself.

Here’s our top 10 list of observations:

1. MassTLC’s innovation conference, in its third year, has become a premier business event for tech entrepreneurs in New England. It has gained a critical mass of elite attendees, such that people now feel they have to be there. It has also found a way to blend the concerns of entrepreneurs, startups, and venture capitalists with those of big companies and other organizations to a degree that I’m not sure I’ve seen before. Kudos to the organizers and participants.

2. The World Trade Center Boston is a pretty good venue for this sprawling event. Although the day was fairly chaotic, that’s by design. The layout of the rooms and floors made it easy enough to find what you were looking for quickly. One logistical suggestion that might help things get started more smoothly—some advance prep and communication of what a few of the key topics will be (maybe this happened at the pre-party and I just missed it).

3. You’ve heard about co-working spaces; how about co-living? Cambridge Innovation Center founder and CEO Tim Rowe prompted a discussion on dorm-style entrepreneur co-living spaces, where a bunch of startups share common kitchen and bathroom space. The idea is to cut down on rent costs by eliminating unnecessary common space found in individual apartments, in addition to fostering innovation ‘round the clock. Meanwhile, participants in another session on Boston’s innovation infrastructure (see below) noted that lower rent prices could keep more startups in the city.

4. One attendee said the region lacks common spaces for entrepreneurs who need more than just an office, and that’s why many startups flee the region. A good solution would be to develop common manufacturing and wet lab space, says Sarah McGarrell, who’s working on a multi-tenant nonprofit center. This was one of several approaches discussed at a session led by Matrix Partners’ Antonio Rodriguez, which he dubbed “Itching, Not Bitching,” focused on how the government can support innovation infrastructure. Other ideas: using videoconferencing to connect events taking place in the city with those convening in the suburbs; building a high-speed train to more quickly get suburban innovators into the Hub; and looking for ways to act on the momentum generated at entrepreneur events (like the unConference) on a more long-term basis.

5. Check-in-based social technologies could soon take on a predictive nature. That’s what Erin gathered at a breakout session on predictive analytics technology—what some dubbed as the next exciting trend in Internet data usage. Boston-based startup InstantNightlife, which hires college students to check out area bars and clubs and post real-time information on the scenes, is ultimately planning on using its data to predict which spots will be the hottest when.

6. Getting more women into tech companies means igniting girls’ interest at a young age, according to participants in a session Erin sat in on. One topic of discussion: whether it’s a tougher sell to younger girls that science is cool, but less hard to sell them on the idea that startups are cool—so that’s where nonprofits should focus their attention. [Editor’s note: Scientists and academics would probably disagree---as would many parents and, like, girls.]

7. The investor landscape could be turning a bit upside down. One analyst at a venture firm focused a session on VCs pitching to entrepreneurs (not the other way around). Another breakout looked at the wrong reasons to be an angel investor. And Lead Dog Ventures founder John Landry led a discussion on a proposed alternative form of finance, where startups pay back investors based on a percentage of the revenue they generate until they hit a certain return—and where investors have no ownership stake in the company in the end. (Royalty or revenue-based financing is a topic Xconomy first reported on a year ago, and there have been numerous developments around the country since.)

8. Investors are pretty excited about robotics startups in the Boston area, as I gathered from listening in on a session led by CommonAngels. Eric Paley of Founder Collective said that 20 years from now, robotics could be a “real innovation space” led by “third-generation entrepreneurs.” Yet a key challenge remains: making robots that are capable of meeting the real needs of the market while also being simple enough for laypeople to use.

9. As good as MIT is at churning out great engineers, it still doesn’t fully prepare students to take on leadership roles in industry. A discussion led by MIT’s Ed Crawley and Ken Zolot focused on how to build connections between students and industry and mentor them in leadership skills that are complementary to traditional engineering education—not finance or marketing skills, but rather things like work attitude, ethics, ambition, understanding business environments, and relating to people in the real world.

10. Finally, I’m pretty sure the most lasting ideas and connections at the unConference were created at the parties, not in the sessions. We’re all looking forward to hearing what interesting companies and trends come of it—and let’s bring on MassTLC Innovation 2011.

Erin Kutz contributed reporting to this story.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.commonangels.com Chris Sheehan

    A terrific event. A big thank you to all the organizers and participants!

  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri, CEO Daily Grommet

    Even though you said it was ridiculous to try, I think you nailed it. My favorite part of the day was having one-on-ones with young entrepreneurs. I got a lot out of being on the other side of the table last year and it was nice to give back. My second favorite part is the friendly and light-hearted way the day always starts, when Bill and co. set the ground rules and establish the open/giving tone, and then people pitch their sessions. It makes New England look positively warm and fuzzy.

  • http://www.xconomy.com William A Ghormley

    Meanwhile, other Xconomy resources were working the “parallel universe” at both the ‘Powered Up!’ online gaming conference — great young companies and academic institutions doing creative, mind-bending stuff in other dimensions –
    and at World Boston/MOITI’s consular corps reception — there are now 55 nations with consulates in Boston — held to welcome new Consuls General to the Hub — Italy, Brazil, Turkey among others — at the inspiring Moakley Courthouse on the harbor — just down from the WTC.
    Note: The amount of investment capital represented in the room was measurable in the many $billions.
    Between the unConference — great coverage, Greg and Erin — and the “other world” events, this was an amazing week! WaG

  • http://www.TheHackerChickBlog.com Abby Fichtner

    Great write-up, the event was just amazing!

    BTW, you can find lots of pictures from the event here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/MassTLC-Innovation-UnConference/146968118681646

  • http://www.bostonworldpartnerships.com Dave McLaughlin

    Amazing event, great coverage. I’ve been trying to describe the breadth and the energy of this event. I think I’ll stop trying and just link people to this post!

  • http://www.shinyorb.com Elizabeth

    Fascinating! #3 sounds intriguing. Did Tim mean that there ought to be dorm-like living arrangements for startups? Or have a couple of different startups live in one house? Or have just one startup live in a house?