Several weeks ago, I decided to stay in Boston between a morning meeting and evening event rather than return to my office on the 128-corridor. Armed with a laptop, iPad and phone, I hunted out space where I could be productive.
I spent the afternoon immersed in Boston’s Innovation District and discovered the geographic convergence of groups that care about, report on and participate in Greater Boston’s innovation community. Typically, these groups now sit in the same building or even the same room and create synergies that can’t happen at the occasional event, over the phone or through social channels. Additionally, I discovered that Boston’s international business community wants to learn what Boston is building, with other countries’ representatives participating in our new scene and often contributing to it as robustly as homegrown businesses.
The Financial Company
First, I met an acquaintance who agreed to give me a tour of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology (FCAT). This amazing space serves as museum, test lab, meeting space and showcase highlighting Fidelity’s global innovations in financial services. A wall-sized interactive map shows Fidelity’s global presence, including domestic and international offices, data center locations, call centers and more. The History Wall, a long length of hallway, showcases Fidelity milestones in a timeline from end to end. Even more impressive, a sliding digital panel brings the timeline to life through videos, images and words from Fidelity’s history and legacy of industry firsts. FCAT even offers an online Fidelity Labs with beta versions of Fidelity technology and apps for the outside world to test. Like me, you might end up most impressed with FCAT’s list of partners: organizations creating, supporting and reporting on innovation. These include Boston Interactive Media Association, Boston World Partnerships, MITX, TEDx Boston, Xconomy, Mass Technology Leadership Council and other important players.
With greater awareness of Fidelity’s history, global footprint and legacy of innovation, I made my way a few blocks east to the MassChallenge office for new adventures – and there were plenty.
MassChallenge has become more than a home to start-ups. A true center of innovation, the organization creates the ideal intersection between innovators and infrastructure to support Boston’s start-ups and innovation business culture.
First in line at MassChallenge: MITX (Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange), the business association for New England’s digital and marketing community. MITX relocated to MassChallenge last fall, its team now centrally located in the middle of the action. It’s clear the new space infuses the MITX team with energy and opportunity.
I spoke with MITX president, Debi Kleiman, about the value of the move to the Innovation District. “Being co-located with MassChallenge and the startups here has been fantastic for MITX. We are all about helping people make connections to grow their business and get inspired to innovate. This happens just because we run into each other walking around the floor or as we catch up with someone here visiting someone else. It’s the random run-ins and in-person serendipity that really powers the good stuff happening in our community. Proximity matters when it comes to supporting each other’s work.
“We’ve proven that more events where the goal is networking and information-sharing are really potent. We develop this friendliness, an ease with which we work together as a community, for example finding time to spend together over a beer. We’ve also seen an increase in smart, experienced people offering to be mentors. Most of the startup incubators/accelerators offer this, but we also have people willing to share their time with a startup in an informal way. With our MITX Up marketing mentorship program, our mentors tell us they get a ton from mentoring the startups on their marketing challenges. And the startups love it too. Any city that wants to grow its innovation ecosystem needs to consider how to build this effort in multiple avenues and offer various kinds of mentorship for young companies and entrepreneurs.”
Seeking an empty desk to pay attention to my day job, I ran into Vsnap founder and former Boston World Partnerships (BWP) director Dave McLaughlin. His company allows people to send short, personalized video messages and attachments using nothing more than an Internet connection and camera.
I asked McLaughlin for his take on being in the middle of Boston’s start-up scene.
“The greatest benefit of MassChallenge is being in the space. Morale means everything. For most of us, what we can do is really defined by what we believe we can do. And being around lots of other teams that are swinging for the fences helps everybody in the place push past all the challenges,” said McLaughlin.
Regarding the lessons global businesses can take from Boston's efforts around fostering innovation, McLaughlin shared the following: “Creating a real sense of community really makes the startup scene easier to navigate for newcomers and international visitors. It's such a network, as opposed to a series of silos, that if you enter at any given node, you can pretty easily make a meeting or a call without too much difficulty anywhere across the network. That accessibility matters a ton.”
After my conversation with Vsnap, I found a desk. After working for a few minutes, my friend Pascal Marmier, director of swissnex Boston, the Swiss science and technology Consulate, tapped me on the shoulder. Based in nearby Cambridge, Marmier was visiting MassChallenge, escorting a group of Swiss entrepreneurs through the offices to show them how Boston was responding to its innovation and start-up community.
Marmier’s tour prompted me to ask Pierre Dorsaz, project leader, Innovation and Partnerships at swissnex Boston, about the value of geography in an innovation culture. “The proximity to MassChallenge or other innovation centers like the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) allows us to develop long-lasting collaborations between Swiss and U.S. entrepreneurs. Every year swissnex bring 20 promising Swiss tech entrepreneurs both to CIC and to MassChallenge to improve their pitching skills and collect feedback from local peers. We could never do that in such a short amount of time without an existing ecosystem and a density of resources like Kendall Square in Cambridge or the Innovation District. Those institutions have contributed to boost Massachusetts entrepreneurial know-how and make the region an internationally acknowledged hub for entrepreneurs far beyond the U.S. borders. As in the case of swissnex for Switzerland, governments do understand the importance of supporting and funding initiatives fostering start-up creation.”
Dorsaz also explained why Massachusetts is attractive to international businesses. “Massachusetts is definitely on the map of most of the entrepreneurs that we bring in for our 10-day boot-camp. They are struck by the flexibility and the wide range of customized services provided to early-stage businesses: incubators, flexible office space, access to capital. Every year we host for one-to-two months in our facilities in Cambridge a few start-ups that have decided to explore the U.S. market from the Boston area because of its unique innovation ecosystem.”
The Media Outlet
Sitting across from me in its own corner of MassChallenge was BostInno, the online news outlet covering innovation in Boston. Their team was “heads down” creating content that captures the daily events, news and activity of the city’s innovation scene. Seeing the team working hard in this space made a lot of sense; the location serves as hub to report on the thriving innovation culture, businesses and people growing in Greater Boston.
Back to work for a few minutes, and then another shoulder tap. Yoon Lee, director for Boston World Partnerships (BWP), and Michael Lake, executive director, World Class Cities Partnership at Northeastern University, stand next to me, along with MITX’s Debi Kleiman, gathered for a planned meeting on the Chatham Forum. I know each from my role as a connector for BWP and I’m invited to the conversation, a brainstorm to chart out the “unconference” elements for the Cape event. I come into the meeting with no background and no preparedness, but enjoy the chance to throw ideas around and contribute a little bit to this event.
I asked Lake why Boston’s Innovation District was a good place to seek opinions for his organization and event.
“Massachusetts has a powerful combination of ideas, talent, financing and the entrepreneurial ecosystem needed to bring concepts to reality and turn ideas into businesses. Proximity to the people, places and things, like MassChallenge, that foster entrepreneurship and create an environment open for idea exchange and development is invaluable to securing a robust and sustainable innovation economy,” said Lake. “Businesses around the world engaged in research and development or innovation of any kind have turned to Boston as the leader in leveraging research universities and teaching hospitals to establish the necessary talent pool and laboratories capable of fueling innovation. Programs like MassChallenge and quasi-government agencies like Massachusetts Technology Collaborative or the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center provide invaluable assistance to growing companies, and more importantly they demonstrate through the state’s investments that the Commonwealth supports innovation and the innovators that fuel our economy.”
Innovation is alive and well in Greater Boston, with structure in place to foster local entrepreneurship and idea generation, and to attract and appeal to the global business community. The Innovation District, while still relatively new, is fulfilling its promise. Participants in this ecosystem are gathering, feeding off of each other, and raising and living the spirit of a business innovation culture.
There’s still work to be done though. How do we as a region extend the concept of innovation beyond this single important geographic center? Forty years ago, the region’s innovation lived in the suburban belt of Route 128. At that time there were still great companies dominating the industrial landscape in Central and Western Massachusetts. There are still great companies and organizations contributing to this culture outside the city and throughout the Commonwealth, but we can always do more. We have a great start, radiating out from Boston’s waterfront, and now need to extend the sense of community and inclusion to a wider circle.
Mark O'Toole, managing director of public relations & content marketing at HB Agency, helps clients tell their stories and engage with their audiences using words, images, video and search programs.
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