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An open e-mail to Terry Ragon, Cambridge's anti-signage campaigner

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 11, 2010 12:37 PM

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Philip T. "Terry" Ragon
CEO and Founder
InterSystems Corp.
One Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA

Dear Terry-

I wanted to write to you about your anti-signage campaign in Cambridge.

Like you, I live in Cambridge. Unlike you, I’m very much in favor of sensible signage in our city. You’ve been very vocal about why Microsoft shouldn’t be allowed to have a sign atop the Kendall Square building where your company, InterSystems Corp., is also based, and you’ve funded an anti-signage petition drive, to put the issue to a vote this November.

I want to explain why I think we need a clear process in Cambridge that makes it simpler for some of our city’s biggest employers to affix their names atop their buildings — while at the same time forcing them to abide by pretty conservative guidelines about how large and how garish they can be. I definitely don’t want the skyline along the Charles River to look like the Las Vegas Strip — and there’s no chance of that with the way Cambridge’s City Council is approaching the issue.

There’s simply no place on the planet with the innovation density of Cambridge. Within a few square miles, you’ve got schools like MIT and Harvard doing important research; start-ups working to turn that research into useful products, in industries like software, energy, and life sciences; and bigger multi-national companies (yours included) that continually improve great products and sell them all over the world.

I’m proud of that. I want visitors to the city to see how much happens here. More importantly, I want the student population of Greater Boston to see, when they ride the T across the Longfellow Bridge or run along the Esplanade, the companies that they could work for if they choose to stay in Massachusetts.

We’re not talking about signs whose primary purpose is to sell us on a particular brand of Venezuelan gasoline (like Boston’s Citgo sign, which has become a beloved landmark anyway.) As I see it, we’re talking about signs that will serve to send a message to tourists about this area’s central role in the global innovation economy (just as the Old North Church sends a message about our role in the American Revolution), and will serve as part of the “welcome mat” we put out to students, encouraging them to begin their careers here. As it stands today, we don’t make a strong enough case to our area’s smartest graduates to take jobs here and launch companies here.

I got a robo-call over the weekend from Gary LaPierre, no doubt funded by you. “This law allows big, out-of-state national corporations to pollute our skyline,” LaPierre told me. Not true. It just makes the guidelines clearer for both hometown and out-of-state companies that want to let people know they’re here. Already, you can see a Genzyme sign atop their Kendall Square headquarters, and Akamai and Forrester Research signs just a few blocks away. The old signage process in Cambridge simply required companies like those to spend more money and jump through more hoops to put signs atop their buildings, by applying for a variance. They had to prove that it was a hardship for them not to have a sign atop their buildings.

I'm proud of our hometown companies, and I'm also glad that national and international players are investing in Massachusetts, too. I love the way Swiss-based Novartis put a DNA double helix on the old NECCO water tower in Central Square. I'd love to see a sign atop Zipcar's building in East Cambridge, so that everyone shopping at the CambridgeSide Galleria would know about that local success story. I sure wouldn't mind a sign atop the Cambridge Innovation Center, the office tower that's home to dozens of promising start-ups, or one atop the building where Google operates its Cambridge outpost.

Now, I’ve only been part of the tech scene in Boston for the past fifteen years. Somehow, we’ve never met, and I’ve never seen you speaking at any of the dozens of conferences I go to each year. I notice you aren’t involved in any of the big mentoring programs that help young entrepreneurs, whether TechStars Boston or 12 x 12 or MassChallenge. I’ve never spoken to a college student who is aware of InterSystems as a prospective employer — and I run into a lot of them on my frequent visits to campuses. I’ve never been invited to an event that you’ve hosted in your offices, to the best of my recollection. I can’t even remember ever receiving a press release about InterSystems.

Contrast that with your out-of-state building mate at One Memorial Drive, Microsoft. They throw an annual “welcome back” party for college students every fall. They dedicate an entire floor of their offices to community events, offering meeting space to various tech and entrepreneurship groups for free. (You and your company have been suing Microsoft since 2008.) Hardly a week goes by that I'm not in Microsoft's space for an event hosted there, and I've run into everyone from first-time entrepreneurs to people who've taken companies public to the governor. Whether you love or hate Microsoft's products, you have to acknowledge that they've created a clubhouse for entrepreneurship and innovation here — something that didn't exist before they arrived in Cambridge.

Other local companies — those with and without signs atop their buildings — run programs to get kids interested in technology and engineering, like iRobot; they offer guidance to younger entrepreneurs, like Diane Hessan of CommuniSpace; they put on mixers, as did Digital Lumens recently, to educate students about jobs in their industry. (Disclosure: I was involved in that last event as a speaker. I should also disclose that I've spoken at, moderated at, or covered many local events sponsored by or hosted by Microsoft.)

It’s OK if you want InterSystems to be incognito and unplugged from our city’s innovation economy. That’s your choice – you obviously run a very successful private company, and you employ about 300 people in Cambridge. (You've also been a generous philanthropist, funding work on an AIDS vaccine.)

But it doesn't benefit our city's economy to have everyone else here — local companies and out-of-state giants — be as low-key as InterSystems.

We live in one of the world's great innovation centers. In an incredibly competitive global economy, some of us would prefer not to keep that information classified.

Scott Kirsner
Innovation Economy columnist,
The Boston Globe / Boston.com

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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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