How Massachusetts Should Boost Innovation—A Compendium of Reader Ideas (And A Call for More)

How should Massachusetts strengthen and grow its innovation ecosystem? What are the best ways to foster entrepreneurship, improve the high-tech work force, and entice companies, whether here already or thinking about a local presence, to expand in the Bay State?

Last month, after witnessing a flurry of talk focused on addressing such issues by rebranding the Bay State as an innovation hub, Wade weighed in with a thought-provoking column. Rather than worrying about branding, he suggested the state’s time, money, and energy would be far better spent helping innovators and innovative companies succeed. “Indeed, there’s so much amazing innovation going on in Massachusetts already that it seems superfluous to worry about better marketing slogans…” he wrote. “It would be far better for economic growth in the state if public-private initiatives like the Information Technology Collaborative focused on a few substantive policy reforms targeting the all-too-numerous obstacles to prosperity for local businesses, technology professionals, and entrepreneurs.”

He put forth a list of suggestions that included replicating efforts like MIT’s Desphande Center for Technological Innovation at other universities, getting rid of non-compete clauses, and promoting the Bay State’s gay friendly credentials (especially compared to California). His column attracted a slew of comments. But more than their number was the quality of the ideas put forth. Unanimously, as far as I could tell, commenters who weighed in on branding agreed that it should not be the focus of Bay State attention. “Creating a new slogan or tag-line is backward. Real accomplishments [are] the way to attract attention. Nicknames like ‘Silicon Valley’ appear after that, not before,” wrote Dan Weinreb.

Many readers put forth their own ideas for what should be done. Some came from well-known innovation leaders (including two Xconomists), others from voices I hadn’t heard before. But as a whole, their ideas and perspectives were so interesting that I wanted to round them up and draw fresh attention to them in hopes of evolving the discussing even farther—and faster. Indeed, we need to get this discussion more out in the open, and not leave it to committees alone—as important as those committees may be. Innovation comes from out-of-the-box thinking, and sometimes that can best be found through out-of-the-box outreach.

You can read all the comments here. But below are three ideas, or action areas, that particular jumped out at me.

  • Improve student engagement and encourage young entrepreneurs—This was one of the most talked about areas. Alexa Scordato laid out a key part of this issue: “Boston does a crappy job of retaining the youth population that is drawn to the city. As an academic acropolis housing an undergraduate population of over 250K, Boston misses the opportunity year after year by failing to convince people to stay…I was recently told that if I ever want to have a shot at being innovative, that I MUST leave Boston because leaders here would never mentor or cultivate my professional interests.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Tim Rowe, president of the Cambridge Innovation Center, home to a constant stream of startups, who put forth some ideas for retaining students after they graduate and encouraging student entrepreneurship:

—Fund programs like MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service in every school.
—Expand efforts like Flybridge Capital Partners’ Stay in MA program that pay for students to attend conferences and other networking events.
—Create a grant program for helping startups hire interns.
—Replicate successes like Northeastern University’s internship program in other schools.

But as important as such efforts may be, at least one local entrepreneur, Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan, thinks you can only do so much to retain students in today’s world, where students who come to Boston from around the globe naturally want to (and now can) return home to pursue their dreams. “I believe it is ultimately futile to try to increase (from its natural rate) the retention of the hundreds of thousands of students who study here,” Nijhawan argued. “In the flat world let’s make Boston the hub that all these alumni communicate through and occasionally gather at. Let’s create an annual alumni gathering in Boston, coordinated by all colleges. We can have sub-fairs at this gathering with themes such innovation, arts, sustainability, healthcare, etc. Economic activity will naturally arise from making Boston the ‘knowledge hub’ of the flat world.”

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5 responses to “How Massachusetts Should Boost Innovation—A Compendium of Reader Ideas (And A Call for More)”

  1. Eric Dahler says:

    I am in agreement on the issue of seed funding. Obviously the economy makes this piece even more critical as many bright young engineers and entrepreneurs are less likely to be going into jobs out of school which would keep them here and help fund their innovations.

    I believe a public-private partnership in conjunction with more incubator facilities is possible. I have started and run a technology incubator. I know first hand that bringing people together is critical to building momentum. Now is an ideal time to put together incubator space, along with seasoned technology executives, mentors, technologists and investors to provide the infrastructure – including seed funding, required to bring these ideas and innovations to fruition.

    There is ample space available for incubator facilities in the current market. I believe a public-private alliance could be formed that would make a very significant impact on retaining top young talent and innovators by provide seed resources (space, a place to interact with advisors and other entrepreneurs, seed money, communications infrastructure, etc.).

    Many of the public incubator programs are full or overbooked currently. There is growing demand, but public programs don’t necessarily provide the exposure and intellectual capital, seasoned executives and investors to generate fast growth successful emerging growth companies. This has to be driven by the private-sector to generate significant long-term success and attract the best and brightest young entrepreneurs coming out of the top schools.

    Eric Dahler

  2. Tim RoweTim Rowe says:

    Bob–Thank you for pulling these suggestions together in one place. I look forward to hearing more productive and concrete suggestions from the community.

    One thing I would add to the dialogue here is that we need to be careful about looking primarily to government for the actions needed to bring about change.

    If we want big, lasting changes that foster a more vibrant startup community, it needs to mostly come from us. This is simply because the part of state government that interfaces with the innovation community is a hand full of people, and tax dollars are scarce.

    If the emergence of “user generated content” as a driving force on the web can offer us a lesson, it is that when we create frameworks for many individuals to directly contribute to a project, even in a small way, the impact can be surprisingly big.

    Please indulge an analogy to drive this point home: if we asked the government to create an encyclopedia, and they did an exceptional job, they might come up with something that looks like the Encyclopedia Britannica. And this would come at a significant cost to the taxpayer. But if the community instead took this project on, we would get something that looks like wikipedia. A better solution that costs the tax-payer nothing.

    A real-life example of how government’s reach is inherently limited is Pell grants. The idea is to impact the high cost of higher ed. The government spends billions on it (get the figure). But it only reduces the average recipient’s college bill by $500 (confirm). A relative drop in the bucket.

    So what can we do?

    Well, once again, Flybridge’s stay-in-ma program is a model. They didn’t wait for somebody to tell them it was OK to do it, or for the state to fund it, they just launched their program. What if every venture fund in the state came up with their best idea and went ahead and implemented it? What if every innovative company with means did this too?

  3. Create the GlobalCommonwealth…

    We have examined hundreds of examples worldwide – initiatives to position companies, regions and countries in the Knowledge Economy []. Further, we have analyzed new performance measures and comparative ranking systems from around the globe.

    ‘Knowledge Innovation’ is the new concept – not technological; and Knowledge Innovation Zones (KIZ) is the concept-in-practice…Dubai Knowledge Village, Desert Knowledge Australia, Manchester Knowledge Capital, Øresund Region (connecting two cities across a sea), Medicon Valley, to mention a few. Beijing is celebrating 10 years of their Knowledge Innovation Program; and India seeks to become “the crucible of global innovations”. Hardly a company or country is not innovating itself into the future.

    Massachusetts continues to rank in the lead within the United States; but other countries have adopted progressive ways to measure and manage – what has become known as Intellectual Capital (IC) or intangible wealth. One might even suggest that amidst this global economic meltdown, we are ready for the Bretton Woods of the Knowledge Economy. More important, what is the innovation strategy for our State and under whose (collective) aegis is it cultivated?

    1st: Connect the dots within the Commonwealth: Massachusetts was one of the first to produce the Innovation Index and define the Innovation Economy. Associations, research institutes, degree programs and company positioning has capitalized upon this branding. Reality, though, is that we are not known as being very collaborative. In difficult times, there is more imperative to carefully leverage resources, the most important of which is human. The Massachusetts Miracle – however successful others may consider – was an umbrella strategy which coalesced – at least for a period of time – the leadership. We now need a shared vision, common language and innovation strategy to position us globally.

    2nd: Maintain US innovation prominence: Although Massachusetts enjoys premier ranking on numerous counts, other States are not standing still. The stimulus program in Pennsylvania is called Keystone Innovation Zones. Newark has a Chief Innovation Zone Officer. Rhode Island has their Business Innovation Factory. Maine has an Executive Office of Innovation. Research Triangle Park in NC is hosting the International Assembly of Science & Technology Parks. The National Governor’s Association has an Innovation Task Force. Last fall, an Advisory Group delivered a report to the US Department of Commerce on Innovation Measures. [Note: It is being used by the government-funded Intellectual Assets Centre in Glasgow.] The Chief Economist of BusinessWeek calls it Innovation Economics. Other articles call for a cabinet position of Secretary of Innovation – complete with an action plan. Why not ensure that Massachusetts remains the hub of US innovation by hosting the meeting to bring together leaders from these various state-wide and national ‘zone’ initiatives?

    3rd: Become the window for global innovation: Start planning now for the worldwide congress on Knowledge Innovation. Invite 40 heads-of-State to Boston to provide the State-of-Innovation in their respective countries. As someone who has now traveled to 35 of these nations, I know that innovation is high on the priority list for industrialized, developing and transition al economies. Abu Dhabi has its Festival of Thinkers. Davos has the World Economic Forum. South Africa hosted the IASP last year. The 2nd Knowledge Cities Summit is scheduled for Shenzhen, China, in November. The European IC Conference is slated for The Netherlands next month. We know that the old financial rules of a global economy are not working. The answers lie in new performance measures. But innovation is how knowledge is created, exchanged and applied to generate wealth. Why not host the international trade mission of the decade?

    There are ways to catalyze the dialogue across sector, industry and geographic boundaries locally, nationally and abroad. This is not rocket science; but it does take a new mindset for what we might do to innovate our future…together. Your blog is a GREAT beginning.

  4. Entrepreneur says:

    There is a TechCrunch home page article right now on this subject comparing Silicon Valley (once again) to Route 128. I get the sense that in the Valley there is an “we’re all in this together”atmosphere, whereas in Boston we have a “every man (or woman) for himself” mentality. While this is not Davos, getting practical about improving start-up funding processes in 2010 may benefit from government leaders reaching outside the US for capital (Dubai?) to fill the seed capital gap that local firms do not. Out of box ideas in the community are great for discussion, but discussion gets you only so far. There has to be a locus for action. When key enabling processes are counterproductive in any business, management seeks to re-invent them. Aren’t the parties ultimately responsible for ensuring the best eco-system exists in MA to create next generation ICE jobs on Beacon Hill? They’ve helped quite a bit in film and bio-tech already, they may just need a little “prodding” to take on this cluster, filter good ideas, and make a public commitment to a sector known for its explosive scalability. Thanks Robert.

  5. Enrico Polazzo says:

    From, March 22, 2011 :

    “US Geithner: Small Businesses Need Greater Access To Capital

    …”we can’t promote innovation and investment in the United States unless we help innovative companies get the funding they need to succeed…
    Geithner said solutions could range from tax incentives and direct lending to “the innovative and alternative, such as creating a way to efficiently pool investments in small companies.”