A Tale of Three Cities: How Boston, Boulder, and Seattle Measure Up as Tech Innovation Hubs

I was chatting with a couple of local investors at the TechStars (seed fund and mentorship program) event in Seattle on Wednesday. They thought the VC panel discussion of the startup climate and culture in different cities around the country was boring. If you’re an entrepreneur or investor, they said, that’s just where you are, and you deal with it.

But au contraire, mon frère—as a journalist and outside observer—I view those comparisons across different innovation clusters and their respective histories as a way to generate some good stories and insights. On the panel, there were certainly some constructive (and at times controversial) things said about the entrepreneurial climate in Seattle, Boston, and Boulder.

Here are a few edited highlights from the panelists, several of whom bring an outside perspective to their current cities:

Brad Feld of TechStars and Foundry Group gave a brief history of the startup scene in Boulder, CO—useful for any city with entrepreneurial aspirations. “When I showed up in ’95, what I found was on the software side you had a lot of smart engineering talent but you didn’t have much else. A handful of entrepreneurial companies in storage and cable infrastructure. Not much in the way of entrepreneurial executive leadership other than from these pockets. In the mid-90s, because of the counter-culture community—and the Internet was purpose-built for places like Boulder—you had a lot of people who were independent, very smart, doing their own things suddenly intersecting with a medium that allows you to be anywhere. It’s 100,000 people plus 25,000 college students. A pretty small town, but it has the largest percentage, per capita, in the United States of computer scientists and PhDs. Yet there wasn’t a broad wave of entrepreneurial experience,” Feld said.

“In the mid-to-late 90s, there was huge activity around the Internet. Anybody with a pulse could get a company started. The predictable thing eventually happened, there was a lot of wreckage. But from ‘95-2001, Boulder had imported a lot of executive talent—CEOs, VP sales, engineering leadership. We also had a lot of entrepreneurs who had one or two companies in that cycle. So by 2003, people were starting to come back and get re-engaged in entrepreneurial activity. There were probably 50-plus people that made $10 million or more, so there was enough of an angel community. There was critical mass around this. But what was missing was something that tied the community together. There was the endless cocktail party circuit of entrepreneurs. Eventually people got bored and stopped going.”

That led David Cohen, Feld, and others to form TechStars in Boulder. “It cemented this notion of first-time entrepreneurial activity is the core of the ecosystem. What was needed was fresh meat into the system. We got a lot of new, young people into the community,” Feld said. “The other thing was that one of the hardest things for first-time entrepreneurs is to have an engaged relationship with an experienced entrepreneur. We found we were creating this thing that integrated the whole value chain of entrepreneurs. It really energized the existing entrepreneurial activity around a thing.”

Chris Sheehan of CommonAngels then gave his thoughts on the Boston innovation scene. [Disclosure: Chris is on Xconomy’s board.] “In the IT ecosystem in Boston, there are a number of things going on,” Sheehan said. “It’s a wonderful place for universities and colleges. MIT has been the granddaddy in terms of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. But what I’m seeing is a fresh set of energy coming … Next Page »

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