Massachusetts Technology Industry Needs a New Deal, Not a New Brand
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this vital automobile, rail, bicycle, and pedestrian artery had to be shut down for safety reasons would be massive. Estimates are that rehabilitating the bridge could cost $200 million to $400 million and take 10 years to complete. All the more reason to start now—and as President Obama keeps reminding us, spending is stimulus.
3. Ease siting and permitting hassles for new technology projects. New England has a promising young cleantech sector developing new ways to generate energy from wind, sunlight, wood chips, municipal waste, cow manure, you name it—but ironically, when it comes time to build pilot facilities and go after commercial-scale customers, most of these companies look to places like Florida, Texas, or Michigan, where state and local governments are far more accommodating toward new facilities.
Part of the problem is that New England towns and cities take the “home rule” tradition to a ridiculous extreme. When I visited IST Energy last month to learn about its compact waste-to-energy machine, executives told me the biggest obstacle to selling its technology is the tangle of inspections, reviews, and permits that potential customers face, which are different from town to town. “The best support we could possibly get from the state would be clearing regulatory pathways for all new energy technologies, not just ours,” IST Energy’s vice president of corporate development David Montella told me. “No one would characterize the Northeast as an easy locale” for green energy projects, he said.
Obviously, this problem doesn’t affect information technology companies as severely as it does cleantech firms. Software developers bent over their terminals are a pretty benign bunch, environmentally speaking. But even in infotech, the expense and difficulty of building and permitting facilities like clean rooms for semiconductor research force many companies far out of their way. SiOnyx, an innovative company exploring applications for “black silicon,” settled in an office park in Beverly, MA—quite a hike from both downtown Boston and the core of the state’s electronics industry along Route 128—because that was the only place it could find an existing, unoccupied clean room.
Legislative reforms enacted in 2006 created a system that lets Massachusetts towns opt into a fast-track permitting system, but as of mid-2008, fewer than 50 of the state’s 351 cities and towns had joined, according to Boston-based research and consulting firm Mass Insight. The state government needs to do more to reward communities that adopt fast-track permitting and penalize those that don’t. (You can see how individual towns are doing along several measures of tech-friendliness at masstrack.org, a site maintained by the Massachusetts High Technology Council.)
4. Play up New England’s gay-friendly credentials. Any startup that’s trying to choose between, say, Cambridge and Palo Alto for its HQ needs to consider what kind of environment it will be asking its employees to live in. Is it one that respects the rights of all citizens equally, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, gay or straight? With the passage of Proposition 8 in California last November, outlawing gay marriage, the place that Apple, Google, Facebook, and eBay call home joined the ranks of states where voters have said gay people are not entitled to equal protection under the law.
Eventually, majorities in those states will realize that they are on the wrong side of history. But for the moment, Massachusetts and Connecticut have the right side to themselves—and as I argued in a column in November, it’s time to play up that fact. This is one area where a little marketing wouldn’t hurt. What better way to wake up California and other anti-gay-marriage states than to launch a campaign to lure their most talented gay and lesbian employees here, where they, their spouses, and their families will be fully welcomed?
5. Make non-compete agreements illegal in Massachusetts. Local venture capital leaders like Spark Capital’s Bijan Sabet have been arguing for some time now that the Massachusetts tradition of strict enforcement of non-compete clauses in employment contracts stifles innovation. It prevents qualified engineers or marketers from moving from one company where their services or ideas may not be needed to another where they may well be. It keeps the creative professionals who are germinating ideas and potentially building tomorrow’s leading companies from even talking with one another, for fear of retribution from their current employers. For the new legislative session that began in January, State Representative Will Brownsberger has introduced a bill that would (non-retroactively) disallow non-compete agreements, putting Massachusetts on an equal footing with California in this area. The Patrick Administration should get behind the Brownsberger bill.
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Implementing a few of these business-friendly changes, or the many others being suggested nowadays, would help Massachusetts entrepreneurs keep doing what they’ve always done best—innovate. Take care of that, and the branding will take care of itself.