Universities Are Key to Revitalizing Boston’s Startup Scene, Say Leaders of Angel Bootcamp, Harvard Innovation Lab, and MassChallenge
Commencement season is coming to a close, which means a lot of students and recent graduates are leaving town. That might be a good thing if you’re trying to get a seat at Crema Café near Harvard or Flour Bakery near MIT, but it ain’t good for local startups.
The brain drain of Boston-area tech grads leaving for the West Coast is well-worn territory. Talented developers, fresh out of school, are taking high-paying jobs with big companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Groupon, none of which are headquartered in Boston. Ambitious young entrepreneurs move to Silicon Valley to seek their fortunes—and are sometimes encouraged by their faculty mentors to do so. How can the local innovation community turn things around?
Cultivating local talent is, in fact, one of the main topics being covered at today’s “Building a Better Commonwealth” forum, organized by the Boston Globe.
A trio of leaders I’ve spoken with recently have also added their perspectives to the conversation. Each of them is tackling the startup brain-drain issue from a different angle. Yet they all agree local universities are the place to start, as the quality (and sheer number) of schools represents a competitive advantage for the Boston area over other parts of the country.
Jon Pierce is an unassuming guy who is trying to lead a grass-roots revolution—in angel investing. The techie/hacker/entrepreneur is organizing the second annual “Angel Bootcamp” in Cambridge next Tuesday, June 14. The goal is to get angel investors excited about pouring their hard-earned dollars back into the local startup community. Yet Pierce recognizes that the talent and idea spring lies further upstream, especially in the fields of consumer Web and mobile technologies.
Pierce says universities “are our best chance of improving things quickly.” That means finding new ways to harness the entrepreneurial talents of students and faculty; building stronger ties between schools and local tech companies; and encouraging students to do internships (and seek jobs) at Boston-area startups. “Working at a startup is the best education you can have as an entrepreneur,” he says.
Of course, all these things are already happening at local schools. But Gordon Jones, the inaugural director of the Harvard Innovation Lab, slated to open this fall, represents a new effort to ratchet up the intensity of collaborations on campus. It may be unspoken, but the big idea behind the i-lab is to keep the next Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bill Gates (Microsoft), or Tony Hsieh (Zappos) from leaving town.
“The promise is to be a home for entrepreneurs at Harvard,” Jones told me last month.
Which brings us to perhaps the most ambitious talent-building and entrepreneurship program in Boston today. MassChallenge, a nonprofit incubator in its second year, aims to run “the world’s largest startup competition” and prove that in Massachusetts, “you can make a startup machine that just produces startups,” says John Harthorne, who leads MassChallenge as CEO. (The program recently announced its 125 finalist companies, which have entered a summer mentorship program and will compete for substantial cash prizes in the fall.)
I asked Harthorne about the role of local colleges in fostering transformative new business ideas—and keeping them local, instead of encouraging them to skip town. “Universities are clearly the foundation of innovation for Massachusetts,” he says. In part through MassChallenge’s progress in attracting attention and resources, he says, “We’ve raised Boston and Massachusetts in the ranks of options. We’re in the top three [of places to recommend building a company] across all the professors and schools. It gives us an at-bat. We’ve demonstrated an incredibly collaborative environment.”
Harthorne was talking mostly about the MassChallenge program, but his comments might just as well apply to Boston’s broader ecosystem, especially for those coming out of school: “We’ve never been this well-positioned,” he says. “All the lights are green.”