“Not Your Father’s Route 128”: Jason Schupbach Promotes Massachusetts’ Creative Economy

In his 2006 run for the Massachusetts governor’s office, Deval Patrick campaigned on the need to make the most of the state’s “creative economy,” meaning industries such as advertising, architecture, design, digital media, film, gaming, marketing, music, publishing, tourism, and the arts. It’s a sector that employs at least 100,000 people in the state, and that has long been one of the Boston area’s strengths. But Patrick’s point was that putting even more emphasis on these industries, through public and private investment, could help to counteract declines in other fields such as manufacturing, bring in more high-paying jobs, and maybe even make life more interesting.

Well, the recession that set in shortly after Patrick took office and the state government’s resulting financial woes have pretty much ruled out significant new public spending on creative-economy programs. There’s even a movement to roll back the state’s one major economic initiative in the arts, the costly film tax credit enacted under Governor Mitt Romney in 2005 and expanded under Patrick in 2007. But Patrick has made good on his campaign promise in other ways, notably by launching a new Creative Economy Council to identify the biggest needs in the creative sectors and appointing a full-time “creative economy industry director” within the Massachusetts Office of Business Development to work directly with companies in these sectors.

The man who fills those shoes—and, so far as Xconomy can tell, the only person in any U.S. state agency explicitly tasked with helping local creative industries—is 33-year-old Jason Schupbach. While peers at the MOBD cover areas such as life sciences and defense, Schupbach’s primary job is to help for-profit businesses in the creative sector find the resources they need to grow in the state. (The MOBD is part of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; last month we published an extensive two-part interview with Greg Bialecki, who heads that office.) Schupbach is also pinch-hitting right now as acting technology industry director while that title’s usual holder, Tito Jackson, is on leave to run for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council.

Schupbach seems omnipresent in the entrepreneurship community lately. If you’ve been to recent events such as the TechStars Investor Evening on September 11, the Tech Tuesday game-industry meetup on September 15, or the MassTLC gaming panel at the UK Consulate on September 24, you’ve probably run into him or seen him speak. His oft-repeated refrain at these events is that the Patrick Administration cares about the state’s innovators, and is ready to promote their work in any way it can. One recent mark of that recognition was Patrick’s proclamation of September 9, 2009 (the day Harmonix Music released Beatles: Rock Band) as “Video Game Innovation Day”; Schupbach showed off the signed, leather-bound proclamation at several local meetups.

A 2003 graduate of MIT’s Master in City Planning program, Schupbach studied under the late J. Mark Schuster, a well-known proponent for cultural policies in urban planning. “I was really interested in how the arts and culture and creative fields fit into the design of a city,” Schupbach told me in an interview late last month. “I wanted to be a city designer, but I wasn’t very good at the design part, so I ended up writing my thesis about the trend of cities trying to bring artists into their downtowns.” He won the best thesis award—and went on to do exactly what he had written about, working for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and then for the Ford Foundation’s Artist Link project, which promotes affordable urban housing for artists.

In our interview, snippets of which are highlighted below, I asked Schupbach to describe his more recent role at MOBD and to talk about the office’s biggest creative-economy initiatives. While the state’s revenue crunch means that his job is largely about directing businesses to existing resources, along with a good measure of cheerleading, Schupbach says a recession is actually a good time to think and plan (that’s one of the roles of the Creative Economy Council, which he coordinates). “The state budget will come back. Things are cyclical,” Schupbach says. “This is the time to plan and write law for when there is money around.”

On the state’s new focus on retaining local innovators:

We are never going to be the state that pays a zillion dollars to move Boeing here. We don’t have oil money like Louisiana. What we have is an enormous amount of talent that’s here already, and we have to figure out the best way to get them to stay here so that we’ll have the next billion-dollar company here. That’s why you see us trying to show up at as many events as possible, to let them know we’re interested. I’ve been unbelievably pleased and amazed at just how much is going on out there—you guys have written about a lot of it. This is not your father’s Route 128 anymore. I’m at a different event every evening. That’s why I’m excited about MassItsAllHere.com. On the IT page we’re able to link to all of the events that are happening.

On the signs, from MOBD’s point of view, that the recession is waning:

Up until the time right around when Lehman Bros. collapsed, we were still busy. We’d get these calls—“Here is a national company that wants to expand in the state or add 200 jobs.” Then it just stopped. The fear was unadulterated. But around this July, the phones started ringing again, and it just felt like the fear had stopped, and people were acting like they had money again. Investments that we knew about from before started to move forward again. It’s not great out there—there are still a lot of people unemployed, and we still need a lot of jobs in the state. But we’re heading out.

On his biggest job:

My primary job is to work with businesses. That’s what I do. A company calls me, and I help them grow, and provide resources. If you look at our website, you’ll see there are about nine different services that we provide. If you are looking for angel or VC funding, we can point you in the direction of those guys and make recommendations. We have a small business development center that does nothing but work with entrepreneurs. We have partners we work with to help people find space—that’s easy to find, as long as you’re realistic. We also like to assist you if you’re looking for assistance around your workforce. We have a number of different tools—some of them have stalled a bit because of the economy, financing-wise, but if you are looking for 3-D designers, say, we can help you find those folks. We have good relatonships with the schools cranking out that talent. We also like to help businesses if they are interested in greening or improving the environmental quality of their busineses. We have a staff person in environmental affairs who does nothing but work to help Massachusetts businesses become greener, which is exciting. Obviously, we have a number of tax incentive and grants programs to assist with the actual growth of a business, depending on what the needs are. We don’t run the incentives from our office, but we can say “Here is the person you can talk to.” And we also have an export promotion office for companies looking to export overseas. So we’re like the Google of the state, or the traffic cops. We don’t want you to have to call around to 16 different agencies—it’s our job to do that.

On efforts to help creative-economy clusters build their identities:

The second piece of what I do is getting the clusters of different creative industries a little more organized. If you look at other clusters like biotech or clean energy, there is the Mass Biotech Council and the New England Clean Energy Council, and they are highly organized. They meet, they have organizations that promote what they do, and they have CEOs who get together and talk about the key issues. Very little of that was happening in the creative industries. Film has a highly organized advocacy group, the Mass Production Coalition, and we have a film office with film tax incentives that are pretty highly developed. So, for film, I don’t have to do a lot except work with individual businesses. The second most organized [creative sector] is advertising. There is both MITX and the Ad Club. Those are two very strong industry organizations with two incredibly bright people running them, Kiki Mills and Kathy Kiely.

But two sectors that were a little more disparate were video games and design. In video games, there is Boston Post Mortem, an incredible group that meets all the time and has built an amazing job making people feel like there is a great video game community here, but the CEOs weren’t getting together to talk about the issues. And now the MassTLC has stepped up to the plate and launched their gaming cluster initiative, which is very exciting. We have been working on that for about a year. And the biggest thing I’m excited about there is PAX East [the gaming conference coming to Boston on March 26, 2010].

And then design. There are almost 45,000 designers in the state and 3,000 design firms. But there was no really strong industry association, no one place where we could get together and have a broader conversation. So we invested in forming DIGMA [the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts]. We worked with the Massachusetts Cultural Council on a grant to coordinate that, and even before that DIGMA had a grant from the Mass Technology Collaborative. You’ve heard me talk about how we need to have a little more swagger. One of DIGMA’s roles is to validate that. We have the second largest product design industry in the country, and no one even knows that! DIGMA is planning a series of design and innovation events over the next few months to begin to help other industries understand.

Music and publishing are obviously both creative industries and are very strong here, but I haven’t had time to get to them yet, in all honesty. Part of that is that, again, there isn’t any one organization. There is no Post Mortem for music. I’d love to try to figure that out. Why don’t we have a “North by Northeast,” a signature music event? I am dying to have someone come to me and say “I want to start a festival.” But it’s got to come from someone in the community.

On the work of the Creative Economy Council:

The third piece of what I do is that I’m the staff person for the Creative Economy Council, the policy-suggesting, advisory council to the secretariat and the legislature. We just released our first report, and there’s a lot of suggestions in it. We did this big outreach, where we got all of these working groups together, and artists organized themselves and got to us. We tried to take as many suggestions as possible, and put it all in there. The next step for us is to form a strategic working group to look at what are laws that would address this. There are some perennial challenges: there is never going to be enough money to support everything. But the next few years, while the state budget is going to be extremely challenged, is the time to plan and write law for when there is money around.

On the challenges of working for an administration that comes up for reelection next year—meaning Schupbach might be out of a job come January 2011:

We’re very aware of that. I’m trying to leave a legacy of a better infrastructure for these industries and building the conversations, whether it’s with DIGMA or the video game cluster or MITX or the Mass Production Coalition. It’s about making sure that when and if I have to leave my position, I can leave behind a few things: First, the fact that the creative businesses themselves know that they can call the state and get some help to expand. Second, a stronger infrastructure. Thirdly, the big, long-term goal is to leave behind a lot more creative jobs. It would be nice, for example, to have such a strong film industry here that it’s spinning off jobs into other digital media companies.

On the role of the creative industries in repairing the state’s overall economy:

The creative economy and creative businesses can be successful in different ways in different areas. It’s county-by-county. Inside I-495, the innovation economy is incredibly strong. It’s also strong in other areas of the state, depending on what your definition is. Are creative businesses the silver bullet for every community? No, it is a mistake to think that. It’s an important piece of the puzzle for most communities, yes. But it can’t be the only thing you focus on. You have to have a diverse economy to be successful.

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

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5 responses to ““Not Your Father’s Route 128”: Jason Schupbach Promotes Massachusetts’ Creative Economy”

  1. I am glad there is actual organized and concerted effort to “re-start” the tech startup environment in Boston/RT 128 area – we need it.
    The good news is (as I learned at the MTLC unConference last week) that we have plenty of pretty good startups around in MA.

    -Stas Antons
    SmartSymbols Interactive Technology

  2. Being an industrial designer, I love Jason’s focus on this area of the creative economy. How many people know that one of the largest and most successful design firms in the world is in Boston? Continuum’s main office is right on the Mass Pike in Newton (they have a slick silver sign visible from the highway on the side of their brick loft building). Since its 1984 founding, Continuum has also spawned many successful offspring in the product development and design strategy consulting spaces. (Manta, Altitude, and ELEVEN come to mind quickly.) (Full disclosure: I worked there for five years when we were still tadpoles.)

    And yes Wade, Jason does seem to get around. I met Jason last week at the MTLC UnConference and he impressed me with his energy and vision. I am wishing him well and willing to help him succeed in this role in any way I can.