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What will the future of the Mass. Technology Development Corp. look like?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 27, 2011 08:01 AM

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Since 1979, the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation has made equity investments in start-ups that might not have found funding otherwise — mainly relying on taxpayer money. The goal of the quasi-public corporation is to nurture entrepreneurship and create jobs in Massachusetts. and the MTDC says that its portfolio companies today employ 7,500 people in the Commonwealth, with a payroll of $612 million.

But while the MTDC hasn't invested a staggering sum over its lifetime (about $83 million in 133 companies), and it boasts a 16.5 percent internal rate of return, its future always seems to be in doubt, given its reliance on money from Beacon Hill.

This summer is no different, says Jerry Bird, who took over last month as executive director. "The legislature approved $5 million for us about a year-and-a-half ago, but it's not yet in our bank account," says Bird. The hang-up? While the state has already issued bonds to raise the money, there's a technical issue related to freeing up that money to make equity investments, Bird says.

If the money doesn't come through, he says the MTDC might be able to do one new deal this year, reserving the rest of the roughly $7 million in its bank account for follow-on investments in existing portfolio companies. Then, the quasi-public entity would have to cut staffing and pray for some big exits among its current portfolio companies to replenish its coffers.

Among the companies MTDC has backed recently are Illume Software, which makes an app intended to curb distracted driving, and Harvest Automation, which is designing robots that can assist with agricultural work. Bird says that MTDC partner Dina Routhier "worked with Harvest for over a year to help them find other funders for the round."

Bird has been holding a series of dinners with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to try to understand how MTDC can best support the local ecosystem, and he has also set up an online survey to solicit opinions on the role that MTDC should play.

He shared some preliminary results with me (they've collected about 90 responses so far.) Eighty-two percent of respondents believe there is a "shortage of equity capital in Massachusetts for start-up companies," particularly those founded by first-time entrepreneurs and those in "underserved industries," like robotics or material science. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said that funding from MTDC helped make start-ups more attractive to other investors.

But respondents were split on whether MDTC could be an "effective catalyst in the innovation economy" if it didn't supply money at all, and instead provided only educational events and investor match-making to start-ups. Fifty-three percent believed it could, and about 43 percent said it couldn't.

If you've got an opinion on what the future of MTDC ought to be, you can fill out the 20-question survey here.

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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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