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Boston, a threatened El Dorado for European entrepreneurs?

Posted by Chad O'Connor  October 30, 2012 11:00 AM

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We tend to boast quite a lot about the attractiveness of the Boston area for startup entrepreneurs: no need to elaborate on a long list of advantages, from its proximity to the best research institutes in the world to an unlimited reservoir of talents to (fairly easy) access to capital and all kind of service providers and flexible facilities… We are preaching to the choir!

But when you actually zoom out and think on a more global scale, Boston becomes just one (very good) hub among many other competitive innovation ecosystems, from London to Silicon Valley. The “just” in the previous sentence may sound a bit provocative in the face of the long tradition of scientific and technological excellence in Massachusetts. Provocative, yes, but not completely wrong in an era where geographical location matters less and less and entrepreneurship is booming worldwide.

Indeed, the emergence of our 21st century economy broadens the access to key resources, making every talent, skills and technologies reachable in one flight or click! Except for in very capital-intensive industries like biotechnology or life sciences that require specific resources, young and talented people can turn their bold ideas into ventures everywhere in the world. We can already see the genesis of tech-entrepreneurship clusters in cities like New York City, London and Paris, where innovation takes place amidst the excitement of (very) big city life, the hype of the fashion and design scene, and, last but not least, an abundant flow of capital. No more reasons to be jealous of Route 128!

Don’t get us wrong, Boston is, and will probably, stay an innovation hub for some time to come. However, the city should not take its historical competitiveness for granted when it comes to welcoming foreign entrepreneurs, and it should carefully enhance its most valuable competitive strengths. Let two Europeans share the vision of the magnetism of the Boston area and the reasons why the French and Swiss consulates launched and currently maintain accelerator programs for entrepreneurs in Massachusetts.

The power of the community!

From a European standpoint, the main competitive advantage of Boston is the unique mindset of its community and the nearly-infinite mentoring opportunities. Philanthropy and entrepreneurship go together here, more so than in Europe. Back on the Old Continent, mentorship is still more commonly thought in a “for profit” approach and is less dissociated from coaching and consulting, even though the growth of startup accelerators is slowly shifting mindsets.

This sense of the need to give back to the community is what the Swiss and the French Consulates have tried to leverage through their programs. Indeed, Swissnex Boston has clearly chosen to focus its flagship entrepreneur bootcamp Venture Leaders on helping promising engineers or scientists develop themselves as entrepreneurs with the support of mentors, more than on offering business development opportunities.

“Every year, we are always struck by the power of the tech community in Boston. People are not only approachable and available; they even sometimes go the extra mile and spontaneously follow up with our entrepreneurs during their stay in Boston. People are really willing to help without asking much in return. This is still pretty unique to the US and Boston in particular,” explained Jordi Montserrat, coordinator of the Venture Leaders program in Switzerland.

Out of the ten days of intensive bootcamp, only three days are dedicated to executive education in the classrooms. The rest of the time the entrepreneurs spend in Boston is devoted to interacting with the community–a clear added value of the program. “They will learn as much during a casual chat with fellow entrepreneurs at Venture Café as in a very technical seminar focused on marketing or business model generation” adds Jordi.

At the Office of Science and Technology of the French Consulate, the New Technology Venture Accelerator program aims at training and exposing early-stage, high-tech French startups to the dynamics of US markets and ecosystems, focusing heavily on the Boston area (a Silicon Valley branch opened in 2012 as well). What strikes these companies every year, as they discover the benefits of the region beyond business opportunities, is how the pool of talents that exists in Boston can be a formidable accelerator of development to the extent that you know how to actually leverage it.

This sense of sharing and connecting that fuels the entrepreneurial community is the one that we, as a consulate, tap into to create valuable individual connections between the entrepreneurs and the community members. It still amazes us that we are able, almost effortlessly, to generate more than seventy individual meetings and get ten incredible mentors for these companies, each evolving into very different industries and having a big range of needs! Partners like the Cambridge Innovation Center, MassChallenge and Boston World Partnerships are a tremendous help for this endeavor. And it sometimes can be life-changing, in a good way, for the entrepreneurs themselves, who oftentimes have to reshape their whole understanding of US markets and ecosystems.

European companies tend to integrate the “international component” too late in their development plan, hence depriving themselves of great growth opportunities. This is the problem area that the Swiss and French consulates try to address through their programs by creating a unique form of “entrepreneurial diplomacy” that goes well beyond traditional trade missions. These initiatives benefit both the entrepreneurs and the Boston community while strengthening, on the ground, the ties between our knowledge-intensive countries. And this path has proven to be very successful up to now, positioning governments as facilitators of development, leveraging their unique knowledge of the ecosystems they are immersed into.

But this has to be a two-ways process. There is still more effort to be made by Massachusetts to promote itself internationally, especially in Europe.

A lot of great companies on this side of the Atlantic can’t wait to develop themselves in the United States, but have no idea who to reach out to in order to facilitate this process. They need to be taught and supported–and not only by their own governments. The U.S. states that learn how to market their economies the best will be in good position to win the competitiveness battle. New York is doing a tremendous job at this (let’s be honest), and the charisma of the city is reverberating all the way in Europe, especially in the web industry.

However, Massachusetts still has huge potential it can leverage to remain the champion of global entrepreneurship, such as state-supported private-public initiatives like Boston World Partnerships, MassChallenge or the Massachusetts Life Science Center. We are pleased to support the international growth of those programs that, like the foreign representations of the Boston area, try to nurture the development of growing entrepreneurial projects, but at a way bigger scale and more outreach power. These efforts need to be pursued at the city and state level; it’s an urgent matter in terms of economic competitiveness in constantly decentralizing tech economy.

David Boucard-Planel is the Deputy Scientific Attaché, for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, at the Consulate General of France in Boston. Pierre Dorsaz works as a project leader in the field of innovation, entrepreneurship and higher education at swissnex Boston, the Consulate of Switzerland. Both David and Pierre are connectors at Boston World Partnerships.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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