New Tech Clusters, Energy Boom, and VC Survival: Some Early Themes to Watch

Every so often, we like to step back and take stock of the bigger innovation trends we’re seeing across our network of cities. Though I haven’t quite landed permanently in Boston yet (glad to miss those flash floods), a few themes have caught my eye that I want to explore in more depth. They have to do with the regional mix of startups and entrepreneurs, and macro trends in the industries we follow.

—I’m getting a clearer sense for the balance of different kinds of tech companies around Boston. Sure, there are the well-known clusters: music, video, mobile apps, health, robotics. But what else is emerging? Online data management and new ways of doing cloud computing? Perhaps. And Boston isn’t known for its consumer Internet companies, but will we see the “gamification” of websites catch fire the way it has in places like Seattle, for business applications? And how is that mobile software cluster doing, anyway? From the MITX panel earlier this week, it sounds like mobile marketing is as promising as ever, but still has a ways to go. With Google’s Android platform starting to catch up to Apple (and a hundred other things happening every month), this could get very interesting very fast.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the Greater Boston Innovation Map that my colleagues put together in January 2008.

—Cleantech and alternative energy are booming. In the past two days, we’ve gotten the scoop from a stealthy MIT startup, XL Hybrids, which is working to retrofit commercial vehicle fleets with hybrid electric technologies, and we’ve seen local biofuels and enzyme firm Verenium (NASDAQ: VRNM) sell its cellulosic biofuels business to BP for $98.3 million. Those are almost opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of development stage, and there’s plenty of action in between. As far as I can tell, New England is far ahead of the Northwest (which has much cheaper power—that’s part of the problem).

—Venture capital is fighting for its life. That might not be obvious on the surface, but company exits are still down across the country, and VCs aren’t putting as much money into early-stage companies. Some are moving to later-stage deals to try to eke out returns faster. There have been some positive developments around town, such as Bain Capital Ventures reaching out to early-stage entrepreneurs with its new innovation center, and NextView Ventures, the new micro VC firm led by David Beisel, Rob Go, and Lee Hower, about to get off the ground. But these are at least partly responses to the harsh new reality of venture capital. And it is a reality, not just a down trend. We’ll be watching closely to see how the venture firms around town adjust.

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