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Apples vs. Oranges: Choosing the Top Banana(s)

Posted by Devin Cole  May 17, 2012 03:24 PM

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Innovation is alive and well in New England and it has been fueling uncommon economic growth within what I lovingly refer to as our "Massachusetts bubble" through this recession. With a national unemployment rate near 8.2%, our unemployment rate in Massachusetts is about 22% lower than the rest of the country.

This good fortune is not due simply to the brilliant ideas flowing forth from our local pool of massive brainiac power. As my friend Steve Snyder points out in his recent blog "There's more than 'I' in Innovation", the true value is only realized when the innovative idea is developed and commercialized and becomes a contributor to our economy.

The Smaller Business Association of New England (SBANE) celebrated game-changing companies who are making just that type of impact at their 27th Innovation Awards on Thursday. Nominees came from a stunning array of fields including mobile tech, medical device, software testing, eco-friendly product retail, technology for learning, mobile payments and painted a rich and colorful picture of New England’s innovation.

Another sign of economic health is that nominations were up 43% over last year, to a record number of 268 companies competing for ten top awards. “Usually we see a 10% increase year-over-year, so this is by far the biggest increase we’ve ever seen. It tells us that folks in New England are excited about the innovation in their own companies and in their client companies,” says Todd Faber, who has been Chairman of the Innovation awards for the last four years.

The “Agnostic Awards”

In the excitement that filled that room, one thing rang loud and clear: like any complex ecosystem, our survival depends on diversity. Nicknamed the “Agnostic Innovation Awards” by Chairman Todd Faber, unlike every other award in New England this one has never been limited to any particular industry like biotech or geared only towards the "sexy tech" niche. There are even separate categories for non-profit and early stage companies.

Scott Goodwin of Wolf and Company, an Innovation Award judge for the last 3 years, described a few of this year’s powerful group of nominees: “When you look at a company like Parcell Labs, that company can actually change people’s lives. UTEST has taken a completely different approach of ‘crowd-testing’ to software testing; Xtalic and the materials they are creating can have a significant impact across a whole range of industries.”

Sometimes the innovation lies in simply looking at the way we all do business and finding a new angle. Corporate Reimbursement Services, Inc. maximizes tax incentives and reimbursements for vehicle expenses for mobile employees through an automated platform. "Where have you been for the last 20 years?" is what CEO Gregg Darish most often hears from his new clients - and voila! - there's the market reaction to this particular innovation.

The Value of Recognition

We also saw that a lot of the time it's the "unsexy tech" companies that deserve recognition because they execute on a facet of their vertical that no one else has been able to, and often do it quietly. Pamela Layton, CEO of Parcell Laboratories was especially grateful for the award “because we’ve concentrated our innovation efforts on patenting and bringing to market adult harvested stem cell technology faster than any other company in our space. That didn’t leave a lot of time or resources for PR, and being recognized alongside these other amazing companies meant a lot.”

With Finalist LevelUp everyone wins, both the consumer who uses their payment platform to buy goods and earn loyalty rewards and the merchants who enjoy significant savings on transaction fees and are able to reinvest in their businesses. “This process was well worth our while,” says Andy Freedman, “because SBANE opened their powerful network to us and we made valuable business connections at just at the right time.”

The value in connecting with other organizations that invest in innovation, as Erica Rife of the non-profit winner MassChallenge articulated, "was an important part of the experience for us. As a small non-profit with only 8 full-time employees, we spend so much of our time concentrating on our own model and improving it day by day, it is invigorating to get to know other like-minded companies in so many other industries."

Alex and Ani occupy a novel place among the competitors as retailers of eco-friendly spiritually infused fashion. CEO Giovanni Feroce felt strongly about the benefit to his company as well: “Participation in the SBANE program is a must for any company wishing to enter and thrive in a world of constant innovation. Being selected as the finalist has elevated Alex and Ani's position in ranking our effectiveness as an innovative company.”

The Top 10 Bananas

Fifty two judges narrowed the field to 20 Finalists and then the Top 10 Winners. Somewhat a comparison between apples and oranges, the consistent criteria focused on where each company fits within their sector and the significance of their industry impact. I join SBANE in congratulating each and every one for their commitment to innovation and invite you to meet them here.

Laurisa Neuwirth is a Boston World Partnership Connector, Ambassador of Relationship-Based Staffing at John Leonard Employment Services and President of The Rotary Club of Newton; Laurisa can be reached at lneuwirth@johnleonard.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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