Innovation Economy

17 reasons to brag about the Bay State

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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Maybe we don’t brag enough.

We live in an incredibly innovative place: Massachusetts is a magnet for people who want to solve challenging problems, build substantial businesses, and conduct research at the edge of what’s known. But while other businesspeople boast about the wonderful weather and great golf in Tempe, Ariz., or the stock options they got from a friend’s Silicon Valley start-up, sure to be worth millions, we never know quite what to say.

Instead, we’re prone to jealousy, looking from afar at the happening digital media scene in Manhattan, or the lower cost of living in North Carolina. But what if we stopped comparing, and started sharing?

Here’s my list of 17 talking points — stuff you might share about Massachusetts when talking with an airplane seatmate from somewhere else or hosting a visitor here. Why not stash a copy in your wallet for quick reference?

■ An Australian research firm, 2thinknow, named Boston the world’s most innovative city in 2009 and 2010, looking at a variety of business, cultural, and urban design measures. The runner-up this year? Paris. When CNBC compiled its 2010 list of the best states in which to do business, Massachusetts was in the top five, duking it out with Texas (number one) and Virginia (number two).

■ The British fellow who invented the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, teaches at MIT. He’s also head of the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization based at the university that sets technical standards for the Web.

■ Before there was the Internet, there was the Arpanet, which mostly connected universities. And the guy who developed the first e-mail application for the Arpanet, enabling a user on one computer to communicate with someone on a distant computer, was Ray Tomlinson. Tomlinson chose the “@’’ sign to separate the user’s name from the name of the computer where they could be found. Tomlinson sent the first e-mail in 1971, and he still works in Cambridge for BBN Technologies, now a division of Raytheon Co.

■ Zipcar Inc., the Cambridge company currently preparing an initial public offering, is the world’s biggest car-sharing service, with 8,000 cars spread across 17 cities and more than 225 college campuses.

■ After a brief and completely civil decadelong debate, we’re planning to build the first offshore wind farm in the United States, in waters south of Cape Cod. The project, called Cape Wind, will rely on 130 wind turbines to generate 170 megawatts on average, which is nearly 75 percent of the typical demand for the entire Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, the developers say.

■ Boston is generally considered the center of the action in the life sciences field. How exactly do you define life sciences? I think of it as the research and development work that creates products that will help us live longer and stay healthier, whether that’s Hologic Inc. developing scanners that can detect breast cancer earlier or Biogen Idec Inc. trying to win approval for new drugs that treat diseases like multiple sclerosis and ALS or Boston Scientific Corp. coming up with new surgical tools that don’t require a visible incision (they go in through the mouth, or, uh, other orifices).

■ With more than 40,000 employees, Hopkinton-based EMC Corp. is the world’s biggest supplier of data storage technology. Over the past five years, it has spent about $7 billion acquiring other companies (last week, it bought a small Bedford company called Bus-Tech Inc.), and roughly the same amount on internal research and development.

■ Back in the 1860s and 1870s, Boston was a center of telegraphic innovation. Two inventors you may have heard of actually had labs in the same downtown building at 109 Court St.: Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Edison came up with his first few patented inventions while working in Boston — among them, an automatic vote recorder and a stock ticker. Bell, a professor at Boston University, designed and demonstrated the first prototype telephone there.

■ Boston is still a center of telephone innovation, though you might not like where things are heading. Apple Inc. is now promoting a new advertising service that displays ads within the apps that run on your mobile phone, called iAds. The service is based on technology that came from Quattro Wireless, a Waltham company Apple bought earlier this year.

■ The Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square could be the biggest collection of start-ups under one roof, anywhere. Founder Tim Rowe says it is currently home to about 320 companies, which employ about four people each.

■ If you’ve ever used TripAdvisor to hunt for the perfect hotel in Madrid or seek something fun to do with kids in Chicago, that’s a company based right here in Newton. TripAdvisor LLC, founded in 2000, calls itself the world’s biggest travel site, with more than 50 million visitors consulting it each month. (TripAdvisor runs a network of 16 other travel sites, including and

■ The biggest IPO of 2009 was Watertown-based A123 Systems Inc., a company that makes a new kind of lithium ion battery. A123’s batteries can be found in cordless power tools made by DeWalt and in next-generation electric vehicles being developed by companies like Fisker Automotive. The company raised $371 million from its IPO in September 2009.

■ Don’t you prefer to be knocked out before a surgeon operates on you? The first publicly demonstrated use of ether to anesthetize a patient before an operation happened in Boston in 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital. If you’re walking in the Public Garden, look for the Ether Monument, which commemorates the “discovery that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain.’’

■ We all grew up watching Rosie the Robot Maid on the Jetsons and wondering when we’d all have robots in our homes to do menial work. A Massachusetts company, iRobot Corp., has put more robots into homes than anyone else — more than 5 million bots that clean carpets, gutters, and pools. IRobot also supplies the military with robots that perform reconnaissance, keeping soldiers safe.

■ Some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., IBM Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Novartis AG, and Shire PLC, have plunked down research-and-development facilities around Boston to tap into the talent pool here. Right now, you’ll see Shire, a British drug maker, expanding its campus in Lexington again. The company develops and makes drugs for rare diseases in Massachusetts, and a spokesperson says they’re currently trying to hire 300 more people in the area.

■ Got any mutual funds in your portfolio? The first modern mutual fund was created in Boston in 1924, by the firm that is today known as MFS Investment Management. MFS is still based in the city, managing about 60 funds and employing more than 1,600 people worldwide.

■ This year, Boston saw the launch of the MassChallenge, which organizers say is the largest start-up competition in the world. One-hundred-eleven start-ups got free office space for several months, met with experienced entrepreneurs and investors, and competed for $1 million in prize money, which was doled out last month. The winners are doing everything from developing drugs to treat obesity to designing inexpensive water filters that could be distributed after natural disasters.

Is that enough? I could go on. But let’s start telling other people about what a revolutionary place this is rather than just talking to ourselves.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.