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Boston is getting an 'Innovation Center' to serve as a hub for the Innovation District

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 1, 2011 09:11 AM

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Boston's Innovation District will get a new building next year — the Boston Innovation Center — that could become the neighborhood's hub. It'll be built on land across Northern Avenue from the Institute of Contemporary Art, and not far from the MassChallenge's digs at One Marina Park Drive, the mostly-empty high-rise on Fan Pier. And the city officials nudging the project along seem to hope it will develop into something like Microsoft's NERD Center, which hosts dozens of community events each week in Kendall Square.

"We're not quite ready to talk about it," says real estate developer John Hynes of Boston Global Investors; his firm is building the Seaport Square project that the Boston Innovation Center would be part of. "But the primary purpose will be meeting room and conference and networking space for the younger workforce. It'll be geared to new businesses in innovative industries."

As part of gaining approval for the vast, 23-acre Seaport Square development, which will include offices, condos, shops, and restaurants, Hynes committed to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city's planning agency, to build and operate the BIC for ten years.

Unlike the Cambridge Innovation Center, the BIC won't have office space or co-working space that entrepreneurs can rent by the month. The one-story, 12,000-square foot structure will primarily consist of meeting rooms. It may include a café, and seating areas where visitors can work for a few hours on a laptop. The Boston architecture firm Hacin+Associates is handling the design.

And while city officials responsible for the BIC have spoken to several current and former employees of Microsoft's New England Research & Development Center, the BIC probably won't offer free meeting space for groups (as NERD does). Hynes says there likely will be a "nominal charge" for groups using the BIC. "We need to create some revenues to cover staffing and utilities," Hynes says, adding that he won't be looking to turn of profit on the facility.

"I basically gave them the NERD playbook," says Gus Weber, a former community liaison at Microsoft who now works at Polaris Venture Partners. "We talked about building a nucleus that can grow and grab more energy." Two issues key to the BICs success, according to Weber, are selecting the right "curator" to oversee the facility, and making it easier to get there from Cambridge. Weber notes that it takes him about 45 minutes to travel from Kendall Square to the BIC's future neighborhood using the Red and Silver lines.

"Having a place like [the BIC] in the Innovation District could do the same thing that NERD did in Kendall Square," Weber says. "The ecosystem is big enough that there's room for both. And hubs in each of the two neighborhoods could be magical, especially if you could do something to connect them more directly."

A City of Boston spokeswoman, Susan Elsbree, says it hasn't yet been determined who will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the BIC, such as bringing in events and speakers. My bet is that it will be someone — or some group — from the private sector, rather than a city employee. When I repeatedly asked Tim Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, whether he'd been talking with the city about being involved with the BIC in some way, he gave me several "no comments." Interesting...

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino briefly mentioned the BIC back as a magnet for business activity in June, in a speech at Boston College. From the Globe's coverage:

Menino said he hopes businesses will be attracted in part by the opportunity to collaborate with their peers on new business.

“We know that million-dollar VC deals, billion-dollar development deals, and business hires routinely happen outside of the office in common spaces,’’ Menino said in a speech at Boston College’s Citizen Seminar.

“We will be one of the first cities in the world to have a public innovation center — a place that fosters this type of collaboration.’’

Hynes says his zoning permits from the city require that the BIC will get built in 2012.

"By the end of November," Hynes says, "we will identify how it's going to be operated, who's going to operate it, what it will look like, and what will be in there."

One interesting possibility: if a corporate sponsor came along with some big bucks, the BIC is being designed so that it could be expanded from one story to two.

I'm eager to see the designs for the BIC, and hear more about it...

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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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