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Innovation Economy

This June, let ideas bust out all over

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / May 31, 2009
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If you want to understand real economic pain - and how it is alleviated - you have to rewind the tape a little more than two centuries.

Most people remember that when George Washington and his Continental Army drove the British from Boston in 1776, it was one of the first victories of the Revolution. It was also the start of "the most significant depression in Boston's history," says Bob Krim, executive director of the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative. "Eighty-five percent of the population left," and because of the war, the merchants of the city could no longer trade with Britain or the West Indies. The foundation of the city's industry crumbled overnight.

But within a decade, Boston had discovered a new business opportunity - shipping otter skins from the Pacific Northwest to China and importing products like silk and tea - and figured out how to dominate it. "Trade with China had been barred by the British, and it was such a long trip, no one thought it would be worth it," Krim says. "But these merchants had some seed capital, and they took the incredible risk of figuring out what could be sold in China."

Creating new industries is what we've done in these parts to deal with economic disruptions for more than 200 years. From textile mills to nanotubes, mutual funds to medical devices, the people of New England know, deep in our DNA, how to come up with the new ideas, products, and businesses that make economic rebounds possible.

As the irrepressible entrepreneur and investor Bill Warner puts it, we've gotten used to the idea that "after every downturn comes the inevitable recovery." (One month after Warner founded video-editing company Avid Technology Inc. in 1987, the stock market crashed; today, the Tewksbury company employs more than 2,000 people and has a market capitalization of more than $500 million.)

But even if you believe that innovation eventually propels that "inevitable recovery," the main thing we can affect is how quickly it comes.

That's why I'm declaring, by the power vested in me by you, the reader, that June 2009 is going to be Innovation Month in New England.

What is going to happen during Innovation Month? Two things: connection and conversation. More on both later.

We're lucky to have a fairly healthy innovation ecosystem in New England, from the research labs at universities and large companies that churn out scientific and technological breakthroughs to the entrepreneurs and investors who come together to commercialize the best of them to the lawyers who help form the corporations and file the patents.

But there is much we can do better if we hope to bring about a recovery soon - and ensure New England has a prominent place at the table in the global economy.

We can do a better job of connecting executives who've built big, influential businesses with entrepreneurs who are just starting out. We can do a better job helping shaky start-ups find the funding they need to succeed. We can do a better job ensuring that every student who comes to New England to earn a degree has at least some exposure to some of the innovative companies based here, whether through an internship, a company visit, or a classroom presentation from the founder.

And that's far from a comprehensive list of areas for improvement.

Lots of us have a vested interest in ensuring that our region remains one of the most innovative places on the planet, whether we're marketing gurus who work with start-ups, parents who want solid job opportunities for their children, or realtors who help companies find room to grow. (Or, for that matter, columnists who write about innovation.)

My idea behind designating June as Innovation Month in New England is to get everyone talking and making new connections in a focused way over the next 30 days.

Like all good Internet-driven initiatives, there's no controlling central authority here - though there is a website I set up, www.neinnovation.com. It's up to you to determine how you can have the biggest impact. No idea is too ambitious or outlandish, but I'd lay out two ground rules: It should be something that can at least be begun, or announced, in June, and it shouldn't rely on vast amounts of funding from the government, a foundation, or an anonymous benefactor to make it a reality. (Unless you are close pals with Bill Gates.)

Maybe you want to think about ways to expand your company's internship program or ways to get more young scientists schmoozing with the senior scientists at your biotech firm. Maybe you want to start a monthly lunch for environmental entrepreneurs in your area or help get more people involved in a robotics competition that already exists at your local high school.

In order to make this communal brainstorming public - and to enable all of us to spread the word about the great ideas that bubble up - I'd encourage you to blog, Tweet, create Facebook groups, or otherwise publish what you're doing, and use the label (or tag) "#neinno," so that others can find it easily. (When you search on Twitter for #neinno, for instance, you can already find a few early messages talking about New England Innovation Month.) If you'd like, too, you can post your ideas (or links to innovation-related initiatives more people should know about) on the Innovation Economy blog at www.innoeco.com/neinno.

And because live gatherings can also be a powerful way to foster new connections, I've created a list at www.neinnovation.com of about 20 conferences, panel discussions, workshops, and schmooze-fests taking place in June. Many are free, like the Open Coffee Club gatherings (geared to start-up types) in Cambridge and Rhode Island and Mass Innovation Night in Waltham. Others have fees associated, like Invention to Venture in Portland, Maine, and Mass TLC's UnConference on the Future of Software and the Internet in Burlington. I'd encourage you to go to at least one of these to help accelerate the inevitable recovery, spread your ideas, and support what others are working on. (Disclosure: I'm moderating one of these events, am on the advisory board for another, and will be attending as many of the rest as I can.)

"We've had the ability to come back from four or five major depressions over hundreds of years, thanks to the spirit of entrepreneurialism here and all the bright people coming out of our schools," says Bob Krim. "But just because we've done it in the past doesn't guarantee we can do it again."

To improve our chances, I suggest we spend the next 30 days talking about (and working on) new ways to spark innovation across New England.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.