The Idea Factory
If Kendall Square is ever going to be a true capital of high-tech innovation, it needs to produce its own superstar - a local Google or YouTube or Wikipedia. And if that's going to happen, it will most likely be born inside this drab-looking place that may just be the brainiest address in town.
(Photograph by Jonathan Beller)
TONIGHT IS HUGE. It's approaching 6:30, and most of the office buildings around Kendall Square have cleared out. But inside Conduit Labs at One Broadway, nobody's going anywhere. A stack of pizzas sits untouched, growing colder by the minute. The staff is in that manic state of flux obligatory for a year-old start-up. About a dozen over-caffeinated engineers in T-shirts and baggy shorts are hunched around computer monitors hustling to fix software bugs in LoudCrowd, their multiplayer Internet dance game that's been under development for five months.
They are young and burning with ambition. They have grown up playing with animated images on screens, and now they are eager to create their own. They fervently believe LoudCrowd will be the next hot breakthrough in Internet gaming, the platform on which high school and college kids around the world will want to cyberboogie during homework breaks.
Until now, only a handful of outsiders have ever seen it in action. So tonight's session could answer the single most critical question for the company as it moves forward: Will its target demographic - video-game addicts and rabid social networkers - spend 15 minutes on LoudCrowd without getting bored and straying to some other site? Because if they won't, LoudCrowd is destined to be just another firework that never popped, one more cool idea for the Web that fizzled before it ever exploded. For every Google, YouTube, and Facebook, there are hundreds of thousands of Pets.coms.
THE LOUDCROWD TESTERS EVERYBODY is waiting for, mostly students and college grads recruited on MySpace and Facebook, were supposed to have checked in about 20 minutes ago, but only one has arrived. The promised pizza sits in boxes on a leather couch across from a giant Xbox monitor with an exploding psychedelic screen saver. And the crew, bleary-eyed from their bug-patching "surge," is growing hungry.
Nabeel Hyatt, the 31-year-old goateed Conduit chief executive who is wearing an unstructured army-style jacket, strides into the cluttered bay where he is running his fifth start-up. He scans the room, seeing mostly familiar faces. "One tester," he says, disappointed.
"They're on their way," Dan O'Brien, the technology vice president whom everybody here calls Dan-O, assures him.
"They're college kids," another voice chimes in. "They're probably picking up beer on the way."
But the restless Hyatt, who started his first company in high school in McLean, Virginia, begins pacing, stepping over a Guitar Hero controller on the floor and passing a whiteboard plastered with Post-it notes. The company is a work in progress. Hyatt, a founder at the trendy consumer electronics maker
Suddenly, the door swings open. Three more testers shuffle in. Showtime.
WHAT MAY JUST BE THE MOST IMPORTANT building in Greater Boston, and for that matter the entire state, sure doesn't look like much. There is nothing flashy about One Broadway in Cambridge, just across from the Longfellow Bridge. If you emerge from the Kendall Square MBTA station and walk down Main Street toward the Charles River, you'll come to a small park with a bronze fountain shaped like a globe. Look across the street, and you'll see the nondescript concrete and steel office tower perched on the edge of a former industrial precinct once dotted with coal and gas processing plants.
This is the home of the Cambridge Innovation Center, where Conduit Labs and other entrepreneurial dreams are born. Walk inside and take the elevator to one of the CIC floors, and you'll bump into young techies stepping briskly through sunny warrens of communal bays (with names like St. Croix, Vladivostok, or Fortress of Solitude) and find micro-kitchens ringed by glass-walled conference rooms. The techies gossip about who's hiring, who's firing, who's getting funding, who's growing big enough to expand into a larger bay on another floor, and, tellingly, what their new neighbors in Kendall Square - Google and
It is not a stretch to argue that while a company like Fidelity Investments may be the most important financial player this state has, a hospital like MGH may hold in its hands millions of medical miracles, and a university like Harvard may house some of the brightest young minds in the world, it's a building like the 17-floor One Broadway that holds in its small, cramped offices the future of the Commonwealth. Because if technology and innovation are the lifeblood for our future, then CIC is ground zero.
That's saying a lot, considering it sits in the Kendall Square neighborhood next door to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which owns the building) and its cutting-edge research labs. The square also includes a sizable chunk of America's biotechnology industry.
But if the Boston area is going to produce its own Google or YouTube someday soon and restore its place as a high-tech hub on par with California's Silicon Valley, it's more likely to come bubbling out of One Broadway than any of the traditional technology geysers around town. That's because of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which is steeped in a culture of entrepreneurship. While earlier generations of hotshots gravitated to
Here, dozens of Sergey Brin (Google) and Henri Termeer (Genzyme) and Jeff Bezos (
"I want to swing hard, as the baseball folks say, swing for the fences," says Dharmesh Shah, the quietly tenacious Indian-born founder and chief software architect at HubSpot Inc., one of 170 tenants at CIC.
Here are Karen Ong and her boyfriend, Michael Reich, globe-trotting international students who met at Harvard Business School two years ago. Soon after, both launched their own social networking start-ups that operated side by side in the same cramped CIC bay, though Reich's business has since moved to a larger work bay.
Ong, 26, a brainy multiculturalist who grew up in the Philippines, started My Happy Planet Inc., a peer-to-peer site where users from different countries teach one another languages. "It's almost like YouTube, only for language learning," she says. Thirty-three-year-old Reich, a clean-cut German-born business strategist, founded UpDown, a virtual investing site that aims to create a wiki-style mutual fund harnessing the wisdom of "crowdsourcing."
Here is Shah, 40, the founder of HubSpot, which deploys analytics to help businesses boost traffic to their websites. A dark-haired software engineer who's lived in three countries and four states, he's already started and sold two companies. This time, he wants to go public and build "a significant, sustainable company" in the area.
And here is David Rose, 41, the earnest and philosophical chief executive of Vitality Inc., who's preparing to roll out GlowCap pill containers that remind patients to take medication. He previously worked with Hyatt at Ambient Devices. Rose now views himself as a "social entrepreneur," though he fears that can sound dogmatic. "At the end of the day," he says, "you want to feel like you're working on something important."
What makes CIC an even more interesting place is that the talent and money are almost roommates. Venture capitalists, who bankroll start-ups with the hope that somewhere in that big haystack is the proverbial needle worth billions, not only prowl CIC's corridors, but have even set up shop there. "That's how I got into Ember," says Todd Hixon, managing partner at New Atlantic Ventures, who has funded companies like wireless sensor start-up Ember Corp., a fast-growing CIC alum that moved across the river to Boston. "I literally ran into [chief technology officer] Rob Poor at the coffee machine here."
PRESIDING OVER THIS BEEHIVE IS 41-YEAR-OLD CIC founder Tim Rowe, who is innkeeper, matchmaker, and troubleshooter, rolled into one. Rowe, a dark-haired, boyish-looking, and well-connected refugee from management consulting, got intrigued by the notion of common office space for entrepreneurs in 1999 when his wife, Amy, and several friends from MIT's Sloan School of Management were starting companies. His business was born on Main Street at the Kendall Square clock tower building and moved to One Broadway in 2000.
Rowe rents space from the building's owner, MIT, and licenses it to clients - start-ups, nonprofits, service businesses - on rolling four-week leases. But his role is much broader than gatekeeper. Holding court in the 14th-floor micro- kitchen early in the morning, sipping tea, he greets arriving clients, comparing notes and making introductions.
He launched a bicycle borrowing program, enabling commuters to grab bikes from a rack in the garage for meetings around Cambridge and Boston. During a 2006 fire at One Broadway, Rowe and CIC managing director Geoff Mamlet took up fire marshal roles and shepherded clients out of the smoke-filled building. (They also found them temporary space for five weeks before the building reopened.)
A major motivation for Rowe today is his fear that the Greater Boston entrepreneurial cluster has peaked at a time when Silicon Valley and other US technology centers continue to grow. "We're sitting on one of the greatest troves of innovation," Rowe says, referring to the intellectual property fl owing from MIT and the area's other universities and hospitals. "The challenge for us is that next step. It's converting those ideas into great companies, and great companies that stay here. If you're a Harvard or MIT student and you can walk into a place like CIC, you can see that you can do it here."
Rowe also worries about how long his innovation factory can survive as giants like Google and Microsoft expand in Kendall Square, drive up rents, and recruit the hottest talent with perks and pay that no start-up can match. He's begun talking to city, state, and MIT officials about how CIC could expand throughout One Broadway, preserving it as a base camp for commercializing technologies coming out of the university and elsewhere.
Ultimately, Rowe believes that the fate of his operation is bound together with Greater Boston's future as a hub of innovation.
FRANK REYNOLDS, 44, BOOTS UP HIS LAPTOP, connects to the Internet, and calls up the monkey video. Outside the 14th-floor CIC conference room, rays of sunlight sparkle on the Charles River.
Leaning back in his swivel chair, Richard Chebookjian, a Philadelphia money manager wearing a pin-striped suit, tells Reynolds he's considering investing in his biotech start-up, InVivo Therapeutics, which aims to prevent paralysis in people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. But first he wants to see the monkey video.
Reynolds, the stocky InVivo president, can hardly contain his enthusiasm. He's been watching the video over and over since his researchers in the Caribbean e-mailed it to him several days ago. "I'm here to get people walking," Reynolds says, waiting for the video to load. He spent five years in a body brace after a 1992 car accident but eventually walked again. Now he wants to help others.
In the black-and-white image projected on the wall, a long-tailed monkey is sitting on the floor of an ambulation box, moving only his head. The monkey's spine was broken, Reynolds explains, and he was given "high-dose stem cells" two weeks ago. The idea is to spare and strengthen the spinal cord tissue that remains after an accident. Without such treatment, much of it typically dies within 30 days.
Suddenly the monkey rises to his feet, putting weight on his legs. He starts peeking through holes in the box. Then he begins to amble, his toes extended in front of his ankles. This is significant, Reynolds says, because control animals with spinal injuries exhibit "drop toe," a condition where their toes drag behind their ankles.
Now the monkey accelerates into a scamper. "This monkey's really charged up," Reynolds says in his excited New York accent. "Look at the guy go." He pauses the video. "Look. He squats," Reynolds says. "The leg is under him. He uses it like a normal monkey."
"Very impressive, Frank," says Chebookjian, the president of Ryebrook Financial Group in Media, Pennsylvania. He nods and stares at the grainy video. "Very, very impressive."
Two weeks after showing the monkey video, Frank Reynolds walks across the street from One Broadway to deposit a check in the InVivo Therapeutics account at
CONDUIT CHIEF NABEEL HYATT STANDS OVER one of the LoudCrowd testers, Lise Caldara, an 18- year-old senior at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School, who's wearing a hooded sweat shirt. "What you can do for me," Hyatt says, "since I don't do a real good job of reading minds, is tell me anything that comes to mind - 'This is cool. This isn't cool.'"
Caldara puts on her headphones and listens to disco-style dance music and stares at a colorful background image as LoudCrowd loads. "I like the background. It's awesome," she says. But then she hesitates. "I don't know how to start," she says. "This looks cool. Very confusing, but . . . nice."
Hyatt squints over Caldara's shoulders at the computer monitor and watches her reaction. She peers at an animated scene of shadowy figures dancing and colored lights flashing. In the foreground, an avatar performs a series of programmed dance moves: air guitar, airplane bang, safe zone, slip and slide, thriller wave.
"Oh, I get it now," she says. "Man, I'm really bad at this."
Hyatt prompts her. "Click for dance," he says.
"So I can dance with other people?" she asks. "Awesome."
`Hyatt scribbles on a notepad as Caldara fumbles with the game. On the screen, words pop up: "Looking good. Now try dancing for someone." Caldara punches arrows on the keyboard, trying to match the beat of the music. More words appear: "Damon catches your eye."
Across the room, Conduit employees monitor another tester, explaining how he can win clothes, shades, hairstyles. "What did you win?" someone asks. "A hairstyle? What is it? A mohawk?"
Tester Brannen Huske, 25, a curly-haired employee of a nearby wireless start-up, sits ramrod straight. He creates a user profile for the male avatar with a green-and-white baseball cap stomping around on his screen. He chooses its skin and hair color. A succession of messages appears: "Jump around." "Slip and slide." "Guest 511 wasn't impressed." "You charmed Hula."
Hyatt explains the game. It's a competition, like American Idol and other reality shows. "You pick a dance move," he says. "You try to charm as many people as possible and pick the right people to charm." A player whose avatar charms another's gets points.
Huske complains to Conduit programmer Adam Conroy about a bug. "Essentially, what I'm trying to do is dance with the person who has the highest points," Huske says in a tone of frustration. "But I'm not really sure why one person has more points than another."
"It's a usability issue," Conroy concedes. "We don't really make it clear enough. Ideally, you want people to just be able to sit down and figure it out right away."
Conduit board member Will Kohler, seated at an empty desk, has begun playing the game himself. Within a few minutes, he's offering suggestions to Hyatt. "You should let me preview what I'd look like in these cool sunglasses while I'm trying to earn them," he says.
Hyatt nods. He's clearly pleased about the way things are going. One hour after the testers got down to business, only one has left his chair for more pizza. The rest are absorbed in the game and showing no sign of tiring.
Robert Weisman covers business and technology for the Globe. E-mail him at email@example.com.