One More Thought From Boston 2034: Tech + Biotech + Cleantech = ?

6/17/14Follow @gthuang

When we assembled some of the top business leaders and thinkers across New England for Boston 2034 last week, I noticed a high-level theme: we were trying to break down barriers between innovation sectors.

Like most communities, Boston is pretty segregated by industry. The tech people don’t know their Agios from their Acceleron (both public companies with billion-dollar market caps). The life sciences folks may not know Wayfair from Wanderu (both consumer Web companies). Cleantech and energy innovators cross over more, but they live in their own kind of ghetto, at least for now.

If one thing is clear about the broader economy, it’s that “health care, technology and energy have led the recovery,” according to a New York Times report. And we innovation folk are all in this together. Which pretty well reflects Xconomy’s editorial focus since our founding in 2007.

So, when you put John Harthorne from MassChallenge on stage with Daphne Zohar of PureTech Ventures and Jim Matheson of Oasys Water and Flagship Ventures, you get interesting sparks and ideas flow—the start of something bigger, perhaps.

At the 2034 event, Harthorne pointed to the sharing economy, mass personalization, wearables, and robotics as hot sectors. He introduced RailPod, a Boston startup making robots to inspect railroad tracks for safety problems, as a company to watch as aging infrastructure becomes a more crucial issue. (MassChallenge itself is pretty multi-disciplinary, with companies hailing from all sectors; the accelerator opened its new offices in South Boston last week.)

Zohar outlined a future of pinpoint digital therapies in healthcare—maybe blue-sky stuff, until you consider a startup like Akili Interactive Labs. Boston-based Akili has developed a video-game interface with which it hopes to diagnose—and eventually treat—brain diseases and age-related cognitive decline.

And Matheson reminded us that the world’s water supply is under serious threat. He introduced us to the New England Water Innovation Network, a cluster of leaders from academia, business, and government, all concerned with developing and deploying water technologies.

The real value was in their interactions: Zohar asking RailPod’s founder, Brendan English, about his choice of market. Matheson bringing his VC (and TOPGUN instructor) knowledge to bear on Akili’s visual multi-tasking approach. And Harthorne’s ultrafast pattern recognition for startups being applied to both Zohar’s and Matheson’s remarks.

Still more useful observations came at the end of the day, when moderator Kara Miller from WGBH helped bring together Alfred Spector from Google, Rod Brooks from Rethink Robotics, Mark Levin from Third Rock Ventures, and Terry McGuire from Polaris Partners—two titans of tech, and two heavyweights from healthcare and life sciences (pictured at top).

Miller asked them to talk about the limiting factors for innovation over the next 20 years. If you listened carefully, there were unifying themes from all four: cost of services, time to market, venture capital’s herd mentality, and, yes, weaknesses in cross-disciplinary thinking.

That last bit was from Spector, who, as a vice president at Google, has a front-row seat at arguably the most cross-disciplinary company in the world (for better or worse). So, a word to any innovation community looking to create the next Google: get to know all your neighbors a little better.

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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