Most readers will be aware that Vertex announced it is moving from 900,000 square feet of laboratories and offices in Cambridge to over a million square feet in Boston.
Some are asking if this spells serious trouble in Cambridge. This question surprises me. Cambridge is one of the world’s most important sources of next-generation technology and companies, and regularly exports them. A 2009 Kaufmann Foundation study showed that MIT spin-outs alone, if collected together, would rank as the 11th largest economy in the world. Vertex and its Telaprevir hepatitis C drug, which is on the verge of approval by the FDA, follow a time-honored tradition.
Once ideas are proven, those pursuing them should and do move into production mode. Sometimes that means taking larger, cheaper space elsewhere. When this happens, it makes room for another generation of new companies in Cambridge. While nobody wants to lose a taxpayer, Cambridge should feel proud of the contributions it makes to the rest of the world.
For nearly 400 years, Cambridge’s powerful blend of intellectual and entrepreneurial oomph has given the city an enviable self-renewing quality. Let’s look at the record. It starts with the book. Cambridge printed the first book in North America 370 years ago. About that time, it also became home to its first university, Harvard. The first computer (the Mark II) and the Internet (then called the Arpanet) came out of Cambridge. Thomas Watson placed the first two-way telephone call from his lab in Kendall Square, the wires stretching across the river to Alexander Graham Bell’s home on Beacon Hill. Some other Cambridge creations include the microwave oven, the sewing machine, instant photography, ship-to-ship radar, synthesis of penicillin and quinine, fractionation of blood, and deployment of vaccines. Many of Cambridge’s inventions today are so complex, the inventors win Nobel Prizes while most of us don’t even understand them.
(If you want the full background on these inventions and others, you are in luck. The Cambridge Historical Society is readying a comprehensive website on the history of invention in Cambridge. Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be notified when it’s up.)
Cambridge has launched some pretty interesting ideas in other departments as well. The Continental Army, which became the U.S. Army, was founded in Cambridge. General George Washington took command here and led the fight for American independence. A century later, the first volunteer company to fight in the U.S. civil war formed here. This war took the nation a giant leap toward racial equality. Just over a century after that, the first legal applications in America for same-sex marriage licenses were issued at Cambridge City Hall, a watershed in the gay rights movement.
In the Vertex case, the press has focused on the competition between Cambridge and Boston. That’s a good thing. Competition sharpens our wits and pushes us to be more competitive. According to economic development theorists, intense local competition is required to make a region become a global powerhouse. We should encourage it. If Boston has made itself more attractive to businesses, then Cambridge should too. This said, to the extent that points are being tallied for regional economic wins, let’s give the greatest credit to those who bring companies into the region, as Cambridge did with Novartis. I will cheer for Boston when it announces that it has brought a million-square-foot technology tenant into the region.
We all know the real threat to our region is places like Shanghai and Dallas. At the recent first-ever joint session of the Cambridge and Boston City Councils, the good folks at Monitor Group and Harvard presented data showing that Massachusetts is losing market share in the fields we are most competitive in. What’s up with that? Let’s get our act together, guys!
We invite innovators and entrepreneurs to come to Cambridge, MA, to collaborate with us to create the innovations that will shape the next century. We are the world’s most innovative city, and we want you to be part of that.
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