Cambridge Innovation Center Turns 10; Looking Inside a Landmark for Boston-Area Entrepreneurs

Tim Rowe, the founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, may be the only CEO in the whole building who doesn’t have his own desk.

To be accurate, he’s got half of one: he shares it with his assistant Midori Williams. But he probably won’t have it for long, as he and Williams happily pick up and move whenever a CIC tenant needs the room. Last week, they were on the 14th floor. This week, it was the 5th.

But that kind of service-with-a-smile might be part of the reason the CIC, the Boston area’s most famous collection of rental offices for technology startups, has lasted a full decade—and expanded far beyond its original location to occupy eight of the 16 floors at One Broadway in Kendall Square. For Rowe is much more than an itinerant landlord: he’s also the CIC’s chief impresario, ambassador, troubleshooter, salesman, and spreadsheet programmer, not to mention investor. (As a venture partner at Cambridge, MA- and Reston, VA-based New Atlantic Ventures, he spearheads one or two new deals per fund, often culled from the CIC itself.)

Tomorrow night, the CIC will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a huge party, planned, appropriately enough, by one of its own tenant companies, Clearly Creative. “We’ll have four floors just packed with stuff going on—music, bands, DJs, food, drink,” Rowe says. More than a thousand visitors are expected.

Lunchtime at the CICThat number may sound huge—especially given that the building’s narrow halls burst with entrepreneurs even on the quietest of business days–but it’s less surprising once you realize that the center has been home to 543 companies over the years. Some 230 of those are current tenants. (Lists of selected current and former CIC tenants in various business sectors are dispersed throughout this article.)

Along the way to its anniversary, The Cambridge Innovation Center has weathered big ups and downs—including two recessions and a 2006 fire that nearly shut down Rowe’s business. But it has left an undeniable mark on the infotech, life sciences, and energy startup scene around Boston. Nearly every entrepreneur or venture partner you are likely to meet around town has either worked in the building at some point, or has worked with a company based there, or at least travels to One Broadway several times a year for meetings.

Selected CIC Tenants

Advent Technology
Covalent Solar
EAPC Wind Energy Services
Heritage Group
Madera Energy
Renewable Power Manaagment
Sparkplug Power
Sustainability Roundtable

Avanti Metals
Blue Egg
Emerging Vehicles
Fraunhofer USA
Great Point Energy
Green Mountain Engineering
Natural Currents
Planet Tran

And the CIC’s influence spreads beyond Cambridge. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick toured the building and met with entrepreneurs from seven resident startups last January, and the center has become an obligatory stop for anyone studying entrepreneurship and economic development. In fact, Rowe says the facility get so many visits from delegations charged by their city, state, or national governments with boosting their local innovation scenes that he’s appointed one of his staff members as an informal “secretary of state.”

The Sherman Tank Building

Rowe loves the entrepreneurs who work at the CIC because he is one himself. His first job as a teenager was fixing Apple II computers, and before he finished high school he had started a software company that employed several of his fellow students.

After graduating from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1995 and then spending four years at Boston Consulting Group, Rowe decided to leave the big-company world and start his own business.

Of course, everyone was doing that in 1999—Rowe’s wife Amy included. “I was helping her do her startup, and I realized that we needed office space and phones and Internet, and all this stuff was a pain in the butt. Verizon would take two months just to install a phone line. You’d have to sign a three-year lease just to get a copier. All of our other friends were doing startups, and they wanted places for their companies too.”

Rowe saw an opportunity. He raised a $600,000 investment from his father, educator and entrepreneur Dick Rowe, and rented 3,000 square feet of offices and common working space in the old Kendall Square Building, the one with the clock tower. That was the Cambridge Innovation Center’s first location. “One thing led to another, and we never looked back,” Rowe says.

By 2000 the CIC had already outgrown the Main Street space and moved across the street to the 14th floor of the One Broadway building. It has since taken over the 5th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 15th, and 16th floors, along with part of the 12th—more than 100,000 square feet altogether. More often than not, when other big One Broadway tenants’ leases have expired, the CIC has been ready to expand into the space.

One Broadway itself, it must be acknowledged, is probably the ugliest building in Cambridge. Its one attraction is that it was built in 1970 by Badger Engineering, now a part of Raytheon, which means it’s solid—Rowe calls it “a Sherman tank of a building.” But its homely looks, compared to all the shiny towers that have gone up nearby, have turned out to be an advantage. “We like that—it keeps the rents lower, and startups don’t care,” Rowe says. “The fact that there’s a building that is often considered unattractive right next to MIT makes it the perfect location for us.” (Unbeknownst even to most tenants, One Broadway is also known as Building E60, in deference to MIT, its current owner.)

Selected CIC Tenants

Apple Tree Partners
Bluegreen Ventures
Cambridge Light Partners
Maxis Capital
New Atlantic Ventures
New Science Capital
Progress Partners
Sample Path Ventures

Networking Effects

The facilities and the services at the CIC—the furnished offices, the receptionists, the 100-megabit Internet connections, the on-site development servers, the conference rooms with stunning views of the Charles River, the kitchens stocked with loads of drinks, fruit, chips, and other snacks, all provided as part of the rent—are all about making life easier for entrepreneurs. “We have always said that we can’t run a perfect working environment, but we’ll do a better job than you could,” Rowe says. “That’s not hard because most of our clients aren’t office space management experts. We can take the boring stuff out of operating a place to work off the plates of people who really have better things to spend their time on.”

Selected CIC Tenants

Lyric Semiconductor
Tap N Tap

Ambient Devices
Aurora Flight Sciences
Luminus Devices

The CIC’s rent is high compared to what companies might pay for space in many other locations in Cambridge, Boston, and the suburbs. But Rowe argues that moving to the CIC lowers companies’ total operating costs, because of all the shared services that the center provides. “If you put 220 companies in their own spaces, they’d need 220 conference rooms, but if you share, you can get by with 30,” Rowe says. “That applies to the phone system and the kitchens and the person who figures out why the printer is jammed. That is why the economics work.”

CIC Conference RoomBut while convenience and location are probably the two main reasons most CIC tenants move in, there’s another important benefit that helps to keep them there: propinquity. Entrepreneurs “tend to be very outgoing, nice, flexible, curious, problem-solving people, so they are just constantly helping each other out,” Rowe says. That help might come for free from another startup in the building. It might be a consulting relationship (startups needing legal or public relations help, for example, can find it right down the hall at firms like Morse Barnes-Browne & Pendleton or Fama PR). Or it might lead to new business partnerships—at least one new company, Stamp Mobile, has already been born from a conversation between two entrepreneurs leasing space in the Cambridge Coworking Center, an open office environment that Rowe created on the 10th floor last May. “It’s just helpful to be around a whole lot of other bright people, in the same way it’s helpful for academics to be around other bright academics,” says Rowe.

Can the same effect help CIC startups win venture funding? That’s unclear. But it’s safe to say that the center is a popular fishing spot for local financiers. Several venture funds, private equity funds, and hedge funds have offices in the building. New Atlantic Ventures ended up investing in EnerNOC, one of the biggest Boston startup successes of this decade, because CEO Tim Healy visited Rowe at the CIC while scouting for office space. (EnerNOC went elsewhere, but Rowe says that’s exactly that kind of serendipity that makes it so logical for him to be part-time landlord, part-time venture partner.)

Selected CIC Tenants

IL Pharma
In Vivo Therapeutics
Gloucester Pharmaceuticals
Stryker Development

Trial by Fire

The CIC’s 10-year ride hasn’t been without its bumps. On the morning of December 8, 2006, an oil-filled electrical transformer in the basement caught fire, filling parts of the One Broadway building with thick black smoke. Ironically, the people trying to escape the building suffered the worst smoke inhalation; the building’s architects, it turned out, had placed the air intake for the emergency stairwell directly adjacent to the emergency exhaust port for the electrical vault.100 tenants were hospitalized.

The fire “shook us to our core,” Rowe says. “We were closed for five weeks, and we had 150 Cambridge startups on the street. Almost anything could have happened.” But with MIT’s help, Rowe and his staff were able to find enough temporary office space for everybody in the building, much of it at One Memorial Drive and 640 Memorial Drive. The CIC staff itself found temporary shelter in an abandoned deli at 290 Main Street (now home to Cosi). When One Broadway was cleared for occupancy in January 2007, all but five of the 150 CIC tenants moved back in.

And in the end, where else would they have gone? The Cambridge Innovation Center is unique in the Boston area—and may in fact be home to the single largest collection of startups in the world. The Plug and Play Tech Centers in California are the CIC’s closest competitor, hosting about 200 companies across six locations in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles.

And in another 10 years, Rowe predicts, the CIC will be twice as big as it is now. “Our target is 500 companies,” he says. When I suggested that he’d have to build another building to hold that many people, Rowe said he’s already in negotiations to take up to 50,000 square feet of additional space. He also pointed out that there are plenty more floors to be assimilated at One Broadway, and that in the era of Web 2.0 and co-working spaces, many companies might have just one or a few workers. “There’s enough room,” Rowe says, “if we fill out the nooks and crannies.” And if he gives up his desk.

Selected CIC Tenants

Groundhog Technologies
Stamp Mobile
Universal Metaphor

Enterprise Mobile
Subatomic Studios

Selected CIC Tenants

Boston Aviation
Clearly Creative
Fama PR
Global Partners
Innova Consulting
Last Panda Creative
Prompt Communicaitons
Redstone Partners
Warner Research
White Rhino Partners

Greentech Media
KMC Partners

Selected CIC Tenants

Design That Matters
Global Cycle Solutions
Institute for Pediatric Innovation
Ivey Consulting
Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition
Open Learning Exchange
Seeding Labs
Society for Organizaitonal Learning
Veritas Forum

Beyond Good Intentions
Body Politic
Carbon Challenge

Selected CIC Tenants

Cambridge Cloud Partners
Clear Methods
Conduit Labs
Good Data
Gupta Media
IP Vision
Linden Lab
Sustainable Minds
True Engineering
United Villages
Vertical Response
RES Group

Augur Systems
Exact Target
Maven Networks
My Happy Planet
Northern Light
Opus 3
Scan Scout
Starsoft Development Labs
Scholastic Networks
Top Coder
Untravel Media
The UpDown
Vertica Systems
Visible Measures
Wild Media

Selected CIC Tenants

BSDG Consulting
Deborah Halber
New England Country Foods
Steinberg and Associates
Twining Properties
Michael Schrage
Matthias Wagner

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

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11 responses to “Cambridge Innovation Center Turns 10; Looking Inside a Landmark for Boston-Area Entrepreneurs”

  1. I’m not a tenant of the CIC, alas, but I’ve spent a lot of time there, and the thing that always strikes me is how cool it is to have a landlord with a generosity of spirit and can-do attitude. That’s so aligned with the nature of the tenants. I would argue that spirit stems directly from Tim Rowe himself, who lives those qualities in his own professional life. I’ll never forget the incredibly helpful conversation Tim had with me, a total stranger, when I was forming my business. I still remember most of what he said and have found it to be uncannily accurate advice.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Our agency, March Communications, was a tenant of CIC’s for three years. During that time, we occupied offices on three different floors as our agency grew. The flexibility to keep moving up allowed us to focus on our business, our clients and our people not the office maintenance and headaches that typically come with office moves.

    Being a part of a community of entrepreneurs was exiting and insightful. We still have many friends at CIC and many more about to move in.

    Tim and Geoff were especially helpful when we decided to brave the world and lease our own space over a year ago. Their approach to our departure was so refreshing. They were just as pleased as we were that our business was now able to sustain leased office space. Their advice was spot and appreciated.

    Happy Anniversary CIC.

  3. The year of 2009 marks your tenth anniversary!!! As a former member of the Security Staff at One Broadway, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and congratulate you and your staff in this historic moment!

    Ten years is a long time to maintain the excellent reputation your company has. Your staff has always demonstrated a highly professional manner and courtesy toward your clients. I know that the growth and success of your company is largely dependent on having strong and capable staff members, and recognizing the contribution they make in helping maintain the position you enjoy in this industry.

    During these last 10 years, your company name (Cambridge Innovation Center) has become almost a household word for clients and prospects in the Kendall Square community and around many other great places. Best of everything to you as CIC expand great services and achievements in the years ahead.

    Please know how very much I appreciate CIC and the staff. I’m hoping that Cambridge Innovation Center will remain successful for many years to come and once again would like to offer my congratulations on this 10th Anniversary Celebration!

  4. I would have to agree with the positive review of CIC on all counts. These factors have led to my housing 4 of my startups (inTouch Technology Corp.,, Untravel Media and X7 Labs) there at various points in time.

    Congrats to Tim & all the CIC staff!

  5. Jon Pierce says:

    Congrats to Tim and Geoff on 10 great years! The Cambridge Innovation Center is an institution, and the Boston startup scene wouldn’t be the same without it.

  6. We (Prompt Communications) moved into CIC several months ago, and it’s been an eye opener to how a team and an office environment can drive and foster innovation. Tim and his team are stars – their enthusiasm is boundless: just being in this building inspires me. Here’s to the next ten years!

  7. 10 years in any industry is a very long time. Well done and i hope you have 10 more!