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Globe 100

Making it real

Three leading innovators say that taking products from the lab to the marketplace is the Massachusetts advantage

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
May 20, 2008

Chief executives of the state's most innovative companies tend to share a single worry: that someone is about to render them irrelevant, whether a garage start-up or a conglomerate half a world away. A generic drug, a lower-cost service, a product with more features may be in development today and on the market tomorrow.

For this year's Globe 100 executive roundtable, we convened three chief executives to share their views on innovation, disruption, and what the future of Massachusetts business will look like. Henri Termeer has been at the helm of Genzyme Corp., a Cambridge-based biotech company, for 25 years. Emily Nagle Green leads The Yankee Group, a Boston firm that has been issuing technology forecasts for 38 years. And Paul Sagan runs Akamai Technologies, a Cambridge company that recently marked its 10th year of accelerating the delivery of content over the Internet.

Edited excerpts of their conversation with Scott Kirsner, the Globe's Innovation Economy columnist, follow:

GLOBE 100: A number of the companies on the first Globe 100 list - companies like Lotus or Bank of Boston or Fleet or Reebok - have since been gobbled up by larger companies. How much are you concerned about that trend, of Massachusetts as a branch-office state, and if you are concerned, how much can we do about it?

TERMEER: I don't think we need to be frightfully concerned about that. These are industry trends. Things move on. The big thing is that we are relevant for the future, and that does not necessarily mean Fleet or Reebok. It means technology com panies, biotechnology companies, and life sciences more broadly.

SAGAN: I think in the past we had more companies that were number one in their industry. So they had sway in lobbying and with industry standards. Consolidation won't go away - that's going to be the norm in a global economy. But if we only become the place of start-ups, do we lose the ability to influence the key decisions that set the direction in some of these industries? Today, the number of industry-leading tech companies is very small. We're the largest new tech company in a decade. I'm proud of what Akamai has done, but I don't want to be the only example.

GLOBE 100: Henri, Genzyme dates all the way back to 1981. Would you talk about how you've kept new product development going over 25-plus years?

TERMEER: Everything we do is all about innovation, taking risks, being first. Innovation is absolutely an attitude. It's very easy when you start up, because it's all you have. But once you've reached a platform where you can look at incremental innovation and say, "That's maybe good enough . . ."

GREEN: That's dangerous. It's a slide toward complacency.

TERMEER: And that's when you become less relevant.

GLOBE 100: Paul, every week I get an e-mail from some new company that says, "We're going to knock off Akamai." How do you think about that, whether it's competition from a giant company, or a two- or three-person start-up?

SAGAN: We have both, and we've always had both. I say to my staff when they're frustrated some days, "You don't want to be in a space with no competition because that means everyone else has figured out what you should've figured out, which is, you're in the wrong place."

GLOBE 100: What are the industries to you that feel like industries for the future? If you're advising a high school student, here's what you should study in college, what areas feel really fertile right now?

GREEN: I am a huge believer that the ubiquity of the network is going to give rise to a whole new set of devices that are connected, beyond the PC and the phone and the TV. If you assume that manufacturing is always going to happen in a less expensive economy, why couldn't we create new versions of devices that incorporate connectivity? Second area is, what happens if you have a ubiquitous network, and displays are everywhere? Tim Berners-Lee [the inventor of the Web] talks about pixel wallpaper. When the network is everywhere, and pixels are everywhere, individual media experiences could be everywhere. There are some very exciting opportunities to create a new, super-integrated media experience.

TERMEER: We have a tremendous shortage of people in technology, in science. I think it is a fantastic opportunity for any kid that still has the ability to choose what direction to go. The impact of life sciences on the environment will be massive. On agriculture, it will be massive.

SAGAN: I do think green tech and energy efficiency and energy usage is going to be a big issue for a while. There are all sorts of opportunities for understanding how we make every kind of industry more efficient.

The challenge for us in Massachusetts is the bifurcated workforce: the very high-end, super-educated group that increasingly doesn't stay in Massachusetts when they get their degrees, and the undereducated portion that doesn't have the skills to be in any of these industries.

GREEN: The challenge in keeping PhDs here is making it legal for them to be here. If people come here for education, but then can't stay . . .

SAGAN: We've taken it for granted that people wanted to come here and stay forever. Now, we've made it hard to stay, because we say, "No visa, go home."

GLOBE 100: We touched on manufacturing before - no one expects manufacturing in 10 or 20 years to be the core of our economy. But are there other areas where Massachusetts won't be able to compete?

SAGAN: If it's information-based, you have a shot at making it. If it involves screwing too many things together, I wouldn't do it in Massachusetts. It's just not efficient.

TERMEER: The great pain that we felt in the reporting of Gillette, or Reebok, leaving town in some way - I think we have to get beyond it.

SAGAN: The pain is real to the individuals who are displaced, but it is inevitable.

GREEN: The solution is not preventing Reebok from getting bought. It's finding the next Reebok.

SAGAN: Those cycles happen in business, and they'll speed up - not slow down.

GREEN: I just want to make sure they keep the sign; "World Shaving Headquarters" has got to be one of the best signs on the planet. You wonder, where is world nose-blowing headquarters or world hair-combing headquarters?

GLOBE 100: If I ask you to think about Massachusetts in 20 years, what are some of the things you'd like to see changed for the state to really remain competitive?

SAGAN: We do need to think about being globally competitive. If we only think about our competition being regional - Research Triangle in North Carolina and Silicon Valley - we miss the point that we're all going to lose to development in India, for example.

GLOBE 100: What is the story that Massachusetts should be telling about itself, as we move deeper into the 21st century?

GREEN: Commercialization of science. We understand how to take science and technology innovations and make them real, and make them practical.

SAGAN: We should tell an innovation story. It's not just about one industry, because those come and go. Being a place where people can take risks and get funded to do so.

GREEN: As a friend of mine likes to say, "We may die with our secret." There's a lot of things happening. People don't understand the degree to which this region is contributing to innovation.

TERMEER: We have been understated in the extreme. It's maybe part of the Yankee background. I think it's false modesty, and it's costing us a little bit. It's a little frowned upon to promote yourself.

GREEN: We need a new kind of Yankee. A prouder and louder Yankee.

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