Boston: Reclaiming Its Place as a Technology Hub

4/26/13Follow @EnerNOC

The battle for bragging rights as the United States’ epicenter for technology innovation has been waging between Boston and Silicon Valley since the 1980s. Remember Route 128 proudly proclaiming itself back in the ‘90s as “America’s Information Highway”?

Against a backdrop of the recession, however, it may have been hard for either region to celebrate the same energizing vitality that once pulsed with throngs of entrepreneurs, developers, and venture capitalists. Despite economic pressures in recent times, Boston is getting back into fighting shape and is once again making a big play for the honored title as the destination for America’s top tech talent.

Some might suggest that the most recognized tech companies are exclusively in Silicon Valley. But in fact, West Coast tech giants such as Facebook and Amazon are both new to the Boston scene, while others such as Oracle, Google, and Microsoft have been here for years. While these companies aren’t moving headquarters across the country, they are establishing research centers near the country’s brightest universities. That reality doesn’t imply that Boston’s tech presence is simply a mini-Silicon Valley. Boston’s tech scene is prosperous in its own right with homegrown technology companies such as iRobot, Akamai, PTC, Constant Contact, EMC, and HubSpot leading the way, among many others that are category leaders in their own right.

What seems to be driving the growth in the Boston tech scene is that it is finally figuring out its dominant niche in the tech ecosystem. No longer are investors and entrepreneurs trying to compete with Silicon Valley to create the best consumer tech products. Instead, Boston is focusing on its strengths: namely, big data, science, and biotech. These difficult-to-tackle fields present different challenges from the world of social networks, apps, and consumer-oriented technology that dominates the California scene. Here, with MIT, Harvard, and other universities’ robust research infrastructure, Boston can dominate in more technical technology arenas. It’s therefore not surprising to know that on a per-capita basis, the Boston area has both the most software developers and R&D investments in the world.

The federal JOBS Act that was enacted in 2012 streamlines the legal process of setting up a startup, which will hopefully spur additional activity in the Commonwealth. Boston is already a hotbed for startups thanks to successful organizations such as Boston Startup Institute and MassChallenge. The newly opened Lab Central, nestled in between MIT, Novartis, and Pfizer, is focused on commercializing biotech startups. Combining these tools with the surge in angel investors around the city makes it easier for Boston’s young and ambitious entrepreneurs—something the city does not lack—to put their ideas into practice.

The Boston area hosts two “innovation hubs” that seem to be competing for who can attract the top tech companies and talent. But the specific neighborhood where ideas are blooming is largely irrelevant, as Boston as a whole seems to be fostering this ecosystem of innovation. Kendall Square has been the headquarters of Greater Boston’s tech scene to date, and is where most of the IT and biotech giants (Amazon, Google, Novartis, etc.) are located. Kendall Square is getting crowded, though, and the City of Boston is increasing a number of key incentives for innovation companies, which has given rise to the Innovation District out at the Boston Seaport. With help from a major push by Mayor Menino, the new Innovation District is attracting companies such as EnerNOC, Communispace, Rethink Robotics, and Brightcove, among others. It’s clear that Boston is expanding the borders of its innovation ecosystem in lock step with its expanding number of category leaders in key innovation sectors.

At the same time, the tech sector is once again fueling Massachusetts’ economic engine, so much so that the New England Economic Partnership projects that in 2013, tech sector jobs will account for more jobs in Massachusetts than the finance sector for the first time in history. The state of Massachusetts as a whole has already regained all of the jobs it lost from the recession and some projections have it reaching record highs by November.

What’s the downside to all this growth? Unfortunately, many tech firms cannot find enough well qualified candidates to fill the growing number of job vacancies they have today. Candidates that are actively looking get to pick and choose liberally where they want to work because nearly every tech company is hiring, creating an increasingly competitive environment in which companies have to balance fiscal discipline with an ever increasing talent acquisition appetite.

As a leading technology company, EnerNOC understands the importance of location, workspace, and collaborative opportunities to both current and prospective employees. We’ve had great luck to date, are still growing rapidly, and expect that our upcoming move to the Innovation District at the Seaport helps us continue to attract and keep the best and brightest on the EnerNOC team. We wouldn’t want anything less.

Patricia O'Neill is vice president of human resources at Boston-based EnerNOC. Follow @EnerNOC

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