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Stars of invention

Walk of Fame in Kendall Square celebrates technology and the entrepreneurial spirit

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / September 16, 2011

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Actors have Hollywood Boulevard; athletes, the hall of fame. And now, for Information Age trailblazers, there is the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame.

Today marks the inauguration of this newest installment, steps from the Kendall Square MBTA stop in Cambridge, where the names of seven of the brightest minds in the history of American business, some with deep roots in Massachusetts, have been laid into the sidewalks like those of Hollywood movie stars. Inventor Thomas Edison, Microsoft Corp. cofounder Bill Gates, Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Jobs, Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitch Kapor, Genentech cofounder Bob Swanson, and Hewlett Packard Co. founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard, have been lionized underfoot with granite stars on Main Street, outside the Boston Marriott Cambridge Hotel. Each star features an inspirational quotation.

“We retire baseball players’ uniforms and have all kinds of celebrations for sports figures, but there’s no place to celebrate entrepreneurship,’’ said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Entrepreneurship Center, who came up with the concept a year ago. “These are the celebrities people will look up to.’’

The walk, a joint effort by the city of Cambridge, MIT, and a handful of foundations and groups, is meant to keep such figures as Edison, the father of the incandescent light bulb, and computer software and hardware giants such as Gates and Jobs alive in the minds of students, tourists, and curious passersby.

City officials hope the walk of fame will reinforce Kendall Square’s reputation as a hub of innovation. “Entrepreneurs are a reason why big companies like Microsoft and Google want to be in Kendall Square. It’s the most innovative square mile on the planet,’’ said Cambridge city councilor Leland Cheung, who helped the effort get off the ground. Kendall Square has the highest number of information technology and biotech firms per square mile in the country, according to The Boston Consulting Group.

“Entrepreneurs are the key to innovation, economic growth, and job creation that we need so desperately in America right now,’’ said Bryan Pearce, a selection committee member who runs an annual award program for entrepreneurs for Ernst & Young, the accounting firm. “When we celebrate these stories and tell them often, that’s how you build the movement.’’

Three of the honorees are still living: Gates, 55; Kapor, 60; and Jobs, 56.

Kapor, whose Lotus 1-2-3 accounting software revolutionized business computing, lived in Boston for 27 years and studied and taught at MIT. “I have decades in the Boston area, so to me, this is coming home,’’ he said.

The walk will also offer pedestrians such interactive stories as how Jobs created Apple in Silicon Valley in his garage in the ’70s, and how Gates dropped out of Harvard University to co-found Microsoft Corp. On the street, flags and signage featuring each inductee will carry barcodes that visitors with smartphones can use to watch videos on the entrepreneurs.

The idea is to inspire young entrepreneurs as they walk to class, said Aulet. But others hope the walk will become a tourist attraction.

Tim Rowe, chief executive of Cambridge Innovation Center and an architect of the project, believes the walk will one day have the same cachet as Boston’s Freedom Trail.

More names will be added each year, and their stars will dot the walkways around Kendall Square. “What you’re really walking down is the path toward becoming an entrepreneur,’’ said Rowe.

Those being honored must be respected US entrepreneurs who developed an innovative, technology-based idea into a billion-dollar company, and who are known as risk takers. They don’t need Boston ties, but they must have had a big impact - creating jobs, or an industry.

MIT’s Aulet chaired the eight-member selection committee. He said Gates was chosen because he created the software industry; Jobs, who was once fired from Apple, then returned and transformed the company into a powerhouse, because he embodies the principle of bouncing back from adversity. Swanson showed that anything was possible by helping to create the biotech industry while still in his 20s. Hewlett and Packard illustrated the power of the team.

As for Kapor, by taking off the tie and letting his hair grow, he became “the first rock ’n’ roll businessman,’’ said Aulet. And Thomas Edison embodied the spirit of innovation, creating both inventions and a major company.

Siting the walk at MIT makes sense to Edison’s great grandson, David E.E. Sloane, a college professor from Connecticut who will represent his famous ancestor at the opening ceremony today. “College is a place where people change and think and grow, that’s what entrepreneurism is,’’ he said.

Edison had two sons who went to MIT, and he donated equipment to the school.

“The interesting thing about the Americans of his generation is that their patriotism, entrepreneurism, and inventiveness was all wrapped up in one package; they considered it the identity of America,’’ Sloane said.

Driving around Kendall Square in a VW Rabbit in the 1980s, wearing Hawaiian shirts, Kapor founded Lotus, one of the first high-tech companies to put its headquarters in Cambridge, in 1982.

“We didn’t want to be out in the suburbs; we wanted to be able to attract employees,’’ said Kapor. “It felt like there was a great opportunity to do that in Cambridge.’’

Thousands of students and other spectators are expected to crowd the plaza at 1 p.m. today, when the stars will be unveiled. Speakers will include Dan Bricklin, inventor of the computer spreadsheet, Newsweek technology editor Dan Lyons, Sloane, and Kapor.

The induction ceremony will kick off a weekend of events at MIT that Aulet dubbed “a Woodstock of entrepreneurship,’’ including a festival and hack-a-thon at MIT.

“Students everywhere, even down to the high school level, have never been more enthusiastic about entrepreneurship,’’ said Aulet. The walk of fame “is about honoring these people, yes, but it’s more about the stories about them to inspire young people,’’ he added. “Children are great imitators, and we need to give them something great to imitate.’’