There's a cultural revolution afoot in the Boston innovation economy.
One culture is dying out, and another kind of culture is emerging.
The old culture was clubby and insular. To get funding, you had to know someone who knew someone at one of the venture capital firms perched high atop Mount Money in Waltham. To get anywhere, it helped if you'd already had one or two successes on your résumé. The typical employee or executive went to work in Hopkinton or Burlington, put in a solid eight or nine hours of work, and went home. They weren't well-connected outside their own company, didn't go to industry networking events, and didn't make time to mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs. In technology, the focus was almost always on developing products for the world's biggest customers, whether they were banks, telecommunications firms, or health care providers. The old culture felt it needed non-compete agreements to create artificial employee "loyalty." The old culture was reluctant to boast about what it was achieving, or Boston's prominent place in the global economy. And Boston's metabolism was slow: only a year or so after a trend emerged in Silicon Valley, a handful of companies had been formed here to pursue it.
Lots of people still live and work in that culture. They're sort of like people who still break out the seersucker suit on the first hot day of July...people who still wait in line at toll booths to hand over their crumpled dollar bill... or those Japanese soldiers who didn't realize World War II had ended.
Are you part of that world -- or are you part of the new culture? Here's what defines it:
The new culture is open, fast-paced, and encouraging of first-time entrepreneurs. It's about blogging and tweeting and digitized networks of people sharing information about what they're interested in, and where they're investing. It's about informal "unconferences" popping up to discuss the latest tech trend. It's populated by people who see the value in having broad networks of friends and acquaintances across lots of companies. Employers who operate in the new culture realize that the way you keep people motivated and maintain your position in the marketplace is by giving them interesting projects to work on and rewarding them appropriately -- not by forcing them to sign lengthy non-compete agreements. The new culture isn't afraid to spread the good word about the innovation that happens here in Boston.
The new culture is about seizing opportunities, not reinforcing hierarchies.
When I think about things that represent the new culture of innovation in Boston, here are ten that come to mind:
- TechStars Boston, a summer program to help give young entrepreneurs a jump-start. It's taking place for the first time this summer, with support from people like Bill Warner (founder of Avid Technology), Shawn Broderick (founder of TrustPlus), and Brad Feld (an MIT alum co-founded the Colorado VC firm Foundry Group.)
- Web Innovators Group, a free monthly gathering that attracts roughly 500 people to see new start-ups demo their products. Run by venture capitalist David Beisel of Venrock.
- Stay in MA, a program funded by Flybridge Capital Partners that makes it free for students to attend seminars, workshops, and conferences.
- Blogs exposing the inner workings of venture capital and entrepreneurship, from local leaders like Larry Cheng, Bijan Sabet, Jeff Bussgang, Dharmesh Shah, Healy Jones & Prasad Thammineni, and Leah Busque.
- OpenCoffee, an entrepreneurs' gathering that happens every Wednesday morning in Central Square, introduced to Boston by Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital and Conduit Labs founder Nabeel Hyatt.
- Biotech Tuesday, a monthly schmooze-fest for life sciences types, founded in 2002 by Seth Taylor and Peter Kolchinsky.
- The Mass Technology Leadership Council's annual Innovation Unconference, held for the first time in 2008. One focus of the event is on encouraging successful entrepreneurs and executives to share their experience with up-and-comers.
- Microsoft's New England Research & Development Center (NERD). Yes, it's surprising that the Redmond, Washington behemoth would be contributing to the new culture of innovation in Boston, but the honchos at Microsoft's Kendall Square outpost have made it clear that they want to be part of the fabric of the community here. Their first-floor conference center has regularly hosted conclaves like CloudCamp Boston, a forum on how federal stimulus is affecting the cleantech industry, a June dialogue about the future of IT in Massachusetts attended by Gov. Patrick, and this weekend's GameLoop conference. (Many events are free, and they're listed here.)
There are, of course, a lot more people, events, and institutions contributing to the emergence of this new innovation culture in Boston -- from Mass Innovation Nights to Hubspot.tv to Betahouse to the Awesome Foundation.
What else am I missing? How are you contributing to (or participating in) this new culture? What are the signs that the old culture is stumbling towards irrelevance? (Or perhaps you believe that it's here to stay...) When did this cultural revolution begin?
Leave a comment if you would--
about the blogger
About Scott Kirsner Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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More from Scott
December 9: Web Innovators Group
Demos of new mobile apps and web ventures at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge. Free admission; cash bar.
December 10: Fintech Demo Day
Short demos from startups in the financial technology realm.
December 11: Unpitch
Entrepreneurs and investors sit down for lunch, advice, and feedback. Entrepreneurs must apply to participate.