Of Red Wine, Robotics, and What Folks Would Do As Governor—Xconomy’s Forum Sparks Debate on the Future of Innovation in New England
I don’t know if the cold medicine was getting to me or what, but venture capitalist Michael Greeley was sounding awfully like a socialist for a minute there last night at the Xconomy Forum.
Greeley—a general partner at IDG Ventures, president of the New England Venture Capital Association, and an Xconomist—was moderating a spirited discussion on the future of innovation in New England. He had lit a fire under the tushes assembled in the MIT Media Lab’s Bartos Theatre by offering prizes for the most provocative question and for the most lively question. (The latter is a bit of an inside joke; I’ll explain in a bit.)
Taking the prize for most provocative—a Roomba generously donated by iRobot co-founder and chairman Helen Greiner, who was one of the panelists joining Greeley on stage—was a question from Cambridge Innovation Center cofounder Tim Rowe directed at each of the speakers. Noting that Tito Jackson, Industry Director of Information Technology at the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, was in the audience, Rowe asked, roughly: If you were the governor of Massachusetts, what you would do to spark innovation and address the fact that there aren’t more billion-dollar companies being formed in Massachusetts? (The billion-dollar-company issue was a central focus of last night’s discussion.)
Here’s where Greeley went momentarily pink on us, suggesting that the state should offer free housing for all graduates of Harvard, MIT, and the like. “It’s a tragedy that we educate these people and they leave,” he added. Of course, Greeley also said that as governor he’d take the capital gains tax to 0 percent, which was much more in line with what I’d expect from a VC, if a bit of an expansion of gubernatorial power.
Media Lab Director Frank Moss, another of last night’s panelists (and another Xconomist), went in the opposite direction on this question, though to similarly provocative effect. “I don’t think that the opportunities we have in front of us are going to be much influenced by government policy,” Moss said. What Moss advocated instead was, among other things, for the venture community to forge a new relationship with academia, getting involved with budding inventors and entrepreneurs by supporting them in some fashion while they are still students. With government and industry funding for basic research falling, Moss said, “Somebody’s going to rewrite the book on basic research. The only question is, is it going to be us?” Moss took the opportunity to issue a challenge to VCs, one he’s raised before: that they devote one-tenth of one percent of their funds each year to supporting students.
Moss also identified aging as a huge opportunity for the many different arenas of technological and scientific excellence represented in New England—from biotech to robotics to social science—to come together to forge new companies and revolutionize our quality of life. Almost certainly music to the ears of fellow panelist Christoph Westphal, the CEO of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which is developing drugs to treat diseases of aging such as diabetes and cancer. Sirtris was built around discoveries from MIT and Harvard about the biology of aging—including the observation that a compound found in red wine called resveratrol helps lab animals live longer. (Hence the bottle of cabernet-merlot for the most “lively” question.)
Westphal approached the question of building billion-dollar companies from the perspective that he might just be in the midst of doing just that. “If we’re right,” he told the audience, “I think 10 or 20 percent of you are going to use our drugs at some point in your life.” Key to realizing that grand a vision, he said, was combining great science, great people (biotech entrepreneurs with proven track records like MIT’s Phil Sharp, with whom Westphal co-founded Alnylam), and a certain, shall we say, frugality. Westphal explained that at Sirtris space is so tight he doesn’t even have his own office. “We just got cited by the fire department for crowding,” he said. “I made sure all our investors knew that.”
While the red wine was awarded for a question about how to create a safety net for engineers and others who might move to New England to participate in the nascent cleantech industry, we found ourselves wishing we had another bottle to award to the most lively panelist (not that they weren’t all fantastic), iRobot’s Helen Greiner. First of all, Greiner revealed that she takes up a new sport every year, and this year it’s kite boarding. When an audience member raised the question of whether New England was keeping pace on cleantech, she interjected: “Venture capitalists are sheep. Or maybe lemmings.” Having thus gotten everybody’s attention, she went on to suggest that rather than worrying so much about cleantech, local investors should be focusing on enhancing industries that are already established in this area–IT, robotics, RFID, and the like. “Why not support what we’re already good at, rather than taking on what everybody else is taking on?” she asked.
Greiner even took the controversial stance that non-compete clauses in employment agreements—derided by many as kryptonite to innovation—are good, saying that she had benefited from having them in the past. (I thought at first this was a veiled reference to iRobot’s ongoing suits against Robotic FX and its founder Jameel Ahed, and I was a little thrilled, since Greiner has been so assiduously mum on the case. But I dug back through the filings—you’d think I’d have them memorized by now—and was reminded that iRobot is calling Ahed out on the basis, mainly, of patents and confidentiality clauses, not non-compete clauses.)
The iRobot chairman did agree with the other speakers and many folks in the audience that one key to New England’s innovation future is finding as many ways as possible to bring members of the community together. To that end, we plied our speakers and guests with alcohol and snacks after the forum, and the conversations and debates continued on well into the evening. Thanks to all our speakers, and to all of you who joined us; we had a great time and hope you did too. (And for those of you who shook my hand last night, don’t worry about the cold. I’m a hand-washing, Purell-toting, near-pathological germaphobe—I’ve got you covered.) Next up, Xconomy’s Battle of the Tech Bands on January 22, where there will be yet more fun and prizes. Hope to see you there.
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