When it comes to building vibrant tech hubs, the scenery might look different, but the ingredients are often the same.
At least, that’s been my experience so far in writing about innovation for Xconomy in both Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
When I moved from Milwaukee to Boston in September, I braced myself for an eye-opening and potentially overwhelming change of pace in covering tech in one of America’s most vaunted startup and investment hubs. Although I think the Midwest (where I grew up) often gets unfairly maligned as “fly-over country,” there’s no question that Milwaukee and Madison, WI, pale in comparison to Boston when it comes to the scope and track record of its venture-backed startup community.
But setting aside the obvious gaps between the two, I’ve found that there are more similarities between Boston and Wisconsin than I expected. I’ve outlined four of them below, followed by my four favorite stories that I’ve written since relocating to Boston.
1. Both look up to Silicon Valley. Everyone is trying to replicate the success of Silicon Valley, it seems, from Boston to Wisconsin (and beyond). Still, I was surprised by the hand-wringing I’ve encountered among some Boston-area entrepreneurs, investors, and startup advocates about lagging the San Francisco Bay Area in some ways.
Sure, no one can touch Silicon Valley’s dominance in consumer tech, with the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google. But the Boston area is still the home of Harvard and MIT; it’s the undisputed king of biotech; it’s the cradle of enterprise IT; and it’s arguably a leader in robotics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and other software-based sectors. So, why the inferiority complex?
“I think we should embrace that we’re a very strong number two to Silicon Valley,” said Michael Greeley, a general partner with Boston-based Flare Capital Partners.
Greeley would like to see more billion-dollar companies built here, but the Boston area has had lots of smaller success stories with startups selling in the $100 million to $500 million range, he said. As long as entrepreneurs stay in Boston after those exits and start new companies here, Greeley is happy. (Of course, it’s no guarantee they’ll stay.)
The key to Boston’s future is playing to the region’s strengths, which means doubling down on sectors like biotech and robotics, said Greeley, as we chatted over muffins at Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge this fall. “We should own innovation” in those industries, he said. “And we do,” he added.
Similar themes have emerged in Wisconsin, too—the importance of playing to the state’s strengths, growing the pool of startups (even if they’re not all home runs), encouraging serial entrepreneurs to stay put, and so on.
2. Both have (supposedly) conservative investors. I frequently heard Wisconsin entrepreneurs complain that local investors take too long to make decisions and are overly conservative with their funds. I’ve occasionally heard similar comments about Boston investors, although I don’t know if it’s a fair characterization of the local venture capital community as a whole.
But even in cases where it is true, maybe that’s not always a bad thing. Boston serial entrepreneur Michael Sheeley actually likes it when investors want to see a startup show more traction before they’ll open up their pocketbooks. That keeps entrepreneurs from wasting time on bad ideas, he said at a panel discussion in October.
3. Both are trying to build bridges between startups and corporations. Large companies often serve as the pillars of a local tech scene by providing lots of jobs, helping to recruit talented people to the area, and indirectly seeding startups when employees leave to form their own companies. Startups, in turn, can be sources of new ideas, business partnerships, and acquisitions for corporations.
Effectively connecting the two sides can be challenging. In Wisconsin, Epic Systems is seen by many as the anchor of Madison’s healthcare IT sector, but the giant electronic health records software company has also been criticized for holding back the local industry through noncompete agreements and other tactics. That should sound familiar to people in Massachusetts, where EMC has played the role of a tech titan defending noncompetes.
Politics and competition concerns aside, there seems to be a strong focus on bringing startups and corporations together in useful ways. American Family Insurance is among the large Wisconsin companies forging such ties through investments in startups and community projects, like StartingBlock Madison. In New England, Plexxi CEO and former EMC exec Rich Napolitano is among those calling for strengthening the local ecosystem through mentorship and collaboration. And big companies seem to be increasingly involved in entrepreneurial efforts like incubators and meet-ups.
4. Both have helpful communities. The East Coast might not have the Midwest’s reputation for being filled with friendly people, but in my experience in Boston, ask and ye shall receive. Every entrepreneur and investor that I’ve reached out to has been happy to grab coffee or hop on a phone call, and they’ve all been willing to connect me with other people in their networks.
Maybe it’s like this everywhere, but I’m certainly glad it’s the case in both Massachusetts and Wisconsin. It speaks to the character of the people in both places, as well as their passion for making their tech communities stronger and more open.
Without further ado, here are my favorite stories I’ve written since moving to Boston, chosen simply because I think they’re thought-provoking and fun reads:
[Editor’s note: Xconomy, headquartered in the Boston area, has always had a high percentage of Midwestern natives on its staff, so comparisons between the two regions come up often. The above photo of the Boston skyline is courtesy of Flickr user Bill Damon, via Creative Commons.]