In Massachusetts, entrepreneurs are on a mission to make a difference

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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I was knocking back a Harpoon IPA last week in an old textile warehouse in Boston, thinking about what Massachusetts will mean to the global economy in this century.

The beer had been brewed by a company headquartered just a few blocks away, in the Seaport District. But it had been chilled in a giant steel vat designed by another company, Promethean Power Systems. Promethean is developing technology that uses energy from the sun to operate a refrigerator, intended to help farmers in developing countries keep milk and produce fresh longer, increasing their earnings. The sun-cooled beer was being served at a grand opening party for Greentown Labs, a grungy-but-proud-of-it workspace occupied by Promethean and eight other start-up companies developing new energy-related technologies.

Over in one corner was Rob Day, a venture capitalist who invests in companies like Next Step Living, which deploys an army of technicians to make homes more energy-efficient. Standing near a wind turbine prototype was Nina Dudnik, who started the nonprofit Seeding Labs, which collects surplus and outdated lab equipment and distributes it to academic scientists in developing countries.

It’s great that Boston has lots of high-paying jobs in mutual funds, enterprise technology, and razor design. But I’m not sure we get on the map in the 21st century by being known as the third-best city for financial services, the second-best high-tech cluster, or the 19th-best place for consumer products companies. (I made up those rankings, but they are in the ballpark.) To continue attracting investment, companies, and great people to the Commonwealth, I suggest we position ourselves as the place for solving big problems that make a difference to the world, at both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

From Kendall Square to Longwood Medical Area, Williamstown to Waltham, you will find scads of mission-driven entrepreneurs trying to reinvent education or eradicate diseases. When shipping and fishing was our trade, it made sense to be the Bay State. Maybe now, we’re really the Mission State.

You can go back to the first public school, the introduction of smallpox vaccine to America, or the abolitionist movement to find the roots of our desire to take on problems that really matter.

More recently, it’s interesting to look at a trio of the latest Massachusetts companies to go public. AVEO Pharmaceuticals is working on drugs that seek and destroy cancer; the Cambridge company’s most advanced product targets kidney cancer. Zipcar, the international car-sharing company, gives city dwellers the option to avoid buying a car by allowing them to rent one by the hour instead. The company says its members drive about half as much as car owners, mixing time behind the wheel with walking, biking, and public transit.

The third company, A123 Systems of Waltham, is developing batteries for the coming wave of electric and hybrid vehicles that may finally put the smoggy era of the internal combustion engine behind us.

In the nonprofit sector, there’s just as much happening — if not more. The Computer Clubhouse operates a network of after-school hangouts around the world where young people can learn about new technology by working on their own creative projects. It is about to open up its 104th clubhouse, in Hungary.

ACCESS — Action Center for Educational Services and Scholarships — just won a grant to expand from Boston to three other cities. It helps young people, who might not otherwise be able to attend college, by supplying free guidance on finding financial aid.

The Awesome Foundation, founded in Cambridge in 2009 to give $1,000 micro-grants to artists and inventors with awesome ideas, has spread to 18 other cities around the world.

It’s tempting to keep going. Know about Lotsa Helping Hands in Maynard, which coordinates networks of friends and neighbors to support people during times of need? How about NeuroPhage Pharmaceuticals, designing a drug to bust up the plaque that causes Alzheimer’s disease? Or Earth Aid, a website that encourages you to save more energy than your friends and neighbors? Does it matter which ones are incorporated as nonprofits, and which aren’t?

“The status quo has got to go’’ is the rallying cry of the Mission State. On university campuses and at start-ups, there’s an endless search for better solutions and even more challenging problems. “I think people come here because there is this entrepreneurial spirit to the place,’’ says Mary Jo Meisner, a vice president at The Boston Foundation, a philanthropy that makes grants to other nonprofit groups and promotes civic leadership. “A big part of our nature is wanting to try things first.’’

And the dot-com and dot-org denizens of the Mission State tend to support one another, says Tiziana Dearing, who runs Boston Rising, a nonprofit group focused on eliminating poverty in the city. When Dearing ran Catholic Charities of Boston, she cut costs by ditching the agency’s fleet of cars, and doling out Zipcar memberships to employees.

Now, she shares her Boston office space not only with other nonprofit groups, but with for-profit start-ups such as CommonPlace, which is building an online service that connects neighbors with one another. When CommonPlace’s founder needed summer interns, Dearing says, she helped find them from Roxbury’s Grove Hall neighborhood. (The internships are paid, she adds.)

Day, the venture capitalist and partner at Boston-based Black Coral Capital, says the annual influx of “idealistic college students’’ is one of the Mission State’s great energy sources. He adds: “Another thing that’s unique about Boston is you have people who care only about achieving an objective, but you also have people who want to see their products or their ideas adopted rapidly. That can mean that you make money, which we don’t see as a bad thing.’’

Chicago can have Groupon, New York can keep its derivatives traders, and Silicon Valley can be proud of Pandora, its online radio service. Massachusetts aims to solve significant problems. This is a state on a mission.

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