Startups Gear Up for Scavenger Hunt of Boston’s Innovation Hotspots, to Benefit Young Entrepreneurs

Boston-area technology entrepreneurs may not get much work done on Friday, October 9. If Highland Capital Partners can drum up enough interest, hundreds of high-tech employees will be spending that afternoon combing Boston for digital clues as part of what it is calling “The Quest for Innovation.” It’s a high-tech scavenger hunt intended to raise money for local youth programs and universities, and to highlight Boston’s history as a hotbed of new ideas.

The plan is for at least 50 teams representing local startups, venture firms, service providers, universities, and other organizations to fan out across Boston’s Downtown Crossing and City Hall Plaza neighborhoods, competing to solve challenges linked to landmark locations in the city’s history of innovation. They’ll use their cell phones to download the challenges, send back their answers, and get directions to the next clue location, all powered by a game platform developed by SCVNGR, a Boston-based startup backed by Highland. (We profiled SCVNGR last fall.)

Teams will be encouraged to pledge cash to participate, and service providers such as venture firms, law firms, banks, and executive search firms are contributing sponsorships of $1,000 to $5,000, according to organizer Michael Gaiss, a senior vice president at Highland who runs the firm’s marketing, media relations, and entrepreneurial development programs. The proceeds will go to support youth-focused programs such as Youth Cities and the Boston Digital Bridge Foundation, as well as entrepreneurship programs at local undergraduate schools like Emerson College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Olin College of Engineering.

The idea for the innovation quest came out of discusssions with SCVNGR CEO and founder Seth Priebatsch about the best way to launch the Boston version of XPLR, the startup’s free tool for building text-message-driven scavenger hunts, Gaiss says. “We took a step back and said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can turn this launch into an innovation-economy gathering—to get together some of the area’s most innovative companies and use it as an opportunity to celebrate our heritage in Boston of centuries of bringing innovations to market,'” he says. “And if we’re successful, maybe there’s a way to give back to the next generation of entrepreneurs in Boston.”

Though Gaiss says the final details are still being worked out, the event will likely begin at City Hall Plaza around 1:00 p.m. on Friday, October 9, with opening remarks from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. The scavenger hunt itself will take about two and a half hours and will feature about 25 clue locations within walking distance or a short subway ride of City Hall. SCVNGR’s algorithms will send each team on a different path between the locations, with most teams visiting 10 to 12 locations in all.

At each station, teams will have the opportunity to earn points by solving riddles or challenges on themes that relate to the specific locations. (I’d give an example of a clue, but—full disclosure—Xconomy is a media sponsor of the event, and I’m actually assisting Highland and SCVNGR with clue research and writing, so my lips are sealed.) The winning teams will receive—in addition to bragging rights, of course—the honor of choosing the recipients for part of the event proceeds.

Silicon Valley Bank and law firm Wilmer Hale have already joined the event as underwriters, Gaiss says, and Deloitte, Microsoft, and the UMass Boston Venture Development Center are on board as sponsors. “Everyone who is going to participate is contributing in some way,” Gaiss says. “The proceeds will go into two buckets. One is youth-oriented entrepreneurial programs like Youth Cities, the Whiz Kids Yes program, and TiE Young Entrepreneurs, and then also college-level entrepreneurial activities, not at the MITs and Babsons where they already have robust, well-funded programs, but at places where a $2,000 or a $4,000 contribution to start an elevator pitch or business plan competition would have some good impact.”

Local companies interested in entering the innovation quest will be strongly encouraged, though not required, to collect pledges, walkathon-style, and to include at least one C-level executive on their teams. (“That shows us the companies are committed—we’re looking for the most innovative companies in the area, and the ones that want to give back to the community,” Gaiss says.) Student teams or those without funding sources can apply to participate under the banner of one of the event sponsors. Application materials are available online at the event website, questforinnovation.com.

Teams will have to cover the entire scavenger hunt course without resorting to their cars, Gaiss says. “We’re promoting this as a green event, so teams are going to have to walk, run, bike, or use mass transit,” he says. Highland and SCVNGR chose downtown Boston for the quest because it’s compact and walkable, and because it features a mix of modern and historical landmarks.

This won’t be SCVNGR’s first time coordinating a large community event. In October 2008, for example, the startup staged a massive search for a hidden $25,000 diamond ring, the “Robbins Diamond Scavenger Scramble,” in Philadelphia, where SCVNGR first took shape as part of venture incubator DreamIt Ventures. And it has run similar events in Detroit, Seattle, and Worcester, MA.

If the Quest for Innovation comes off well, it certainly won’t hurt the SCVNGR’s image—but “we are not using the event to put SCVNGR in the direct spotlight,” Gaiss says. “This is no longer about the company. It’s about what I view as cool people bringing cool people together to do good things.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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