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New England: We're Playing Five Games, and Winning Two

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 15, 2009 03:49 PM

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I keep getting sent links to this TechCrunch article, via e-mail and Twitter: 'Why Silicon Valley Left Route 128 in the Dust.'

It's a pretty worthless piece of typistry. Entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa concludes that Silicon Valley is a more dynamic, vibrant, and supportive ecosystem for start-ups because, this past Columbus Day, he was invited to three different tech-related events. Yes, that's the only piece of data in an 1,100 word essay. About this deep primary research, Wadhwa writes:

    It was a really hard decision which one to pick. And I found myself wondering, where else in the world would I have to face such a decision? The answer is nowhere. Silicon Valley, which has expanded to embrace the entire Bay Area as an engine of entrepreneurship and innovation, is a unique place of powerful and concurrent overlapping networks.

Wadhwa also trots out some of the arguments from AnnaLee Saxenian's book "Regional Advantage," which accurately portrayed the cultural differences between Route 128 and Silicon Valley in... 1994.

I'm very interested in understanding the differences between these two regions, and in making New England a better place to do innovation.

But I prefer informed arguments to people just writing about what they feel when spending time in a certain area. (Some interesting data comparing the two regions has been presented by Tim Rowe of Cambridge Innovation Center and Paul Maeder of Highland Capital.)

If I were to use data the same way Wadhwa does, I would observe that on Tuesday, November 17th, I was invited to three different events: the MITX Awards, the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative Awards, and a cocktail reception focused on personalized medicine. By Wadhwa's sophisticated reasoning, this must mean that Boston is on par with Silicon Valley in terms of innovation.

...Or maybe you feel there's more substance to the TechCrunch article than I do?

I am not challenging the conclusion that Silicon Valley has more tech companies, big and small, than Boston, or that it serves as a beacon to smart techies and driven entrepreneurs from all over the world. That's obvious, and you probably knew that before reading Wadhwa's TechCrunch ramblings.

I think that we in New England are playing a different set of games than the Valley, and are (hopefully) getting better at each of them. We're playing these games as a region of the world that needs to be competitive in the global economy -- not against Silicon Valley.

The five games we're playing are:

    1. Attract the smartest people from around the world and proceed to make them smarter at our colleges and universities. (This game, we're winning.)
    2. Help connect those students with local companies, mentors, and investors. (We've batted about .150 at this in the past, but are improving.)
    3. Enable those students not born in the U.S. to stick around. (This game, we're losing along with every other state, because of the federal government's inflexible visa policies.)
    4. Focus on pressing, substantive problems in fields like energy, healthcare, defense, connectivity, commerce, and transportation. (We've been doing this since the 18th century, ever since Boston docs brought vaccines to the US, and pioneered the use of surgical anesthesia.)
    5. Grow innovative start-ups into industry-defining big companies. (We need a lot of improvement here.)

Your thoughts?

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22 comments so far...
  1. Scott, You have focused on the 5 key areas in the battle for tech supremecy. Vivek's article lacked that insight.

    I agree that Boston has great universities, and two of the best in the world with MIT and Harvard.

    Massachusetts has a great VC and Angel investor community too. The support system for entrepreneurs is amazing. All the events, conferences, and worksops are great.

    I like the tag line; Massachusetts - revolutionary ideas start here. It has always been true.


    Posted by Don Dodge November 16, 09 09:37 AM
  1. That article got under my skin too. I was wondering why the article? This is not a new topic, in fact it is pretty well exhausted. There was no new information.
    It just seemed to be done because the author knew that Michael Arrington likes to promote the Valley to the exclusion of other markets, and therefore it would be published.
    I found it interesting because in the past it is usually Boston that is making the comparison and lamenting our short comings. But in this case it almost seems like a defensive reaction and maybe there is some concern in SV that it is losing some "mojo" and therefore needs to re-assure themselves they are still great. Otherwise I didn't see the purpose or value in dredging up this rehash.
    If anything, Vivek should expand his vision to realize that Boston and SV need to be cooperating and cross pollinating, as it is the US versus the rest of the world that should be our competitive focus. Supporting the Founders Visa and changing immigration laws deserve ink, rather than flogging a dead horse

    Posted by tom summit November 16, 09 09:53 AM
  1. Scott, should there be a point 6?

    After we've made the young people smart at our colleges and universities, shouldn't we make them smart and experienced startup employees and execs?

    In my experience, there is a bias in New England against younger, less experienced startup teams.

    Posted by Simeon Simeonov November 16, 09 10:33 AM
  1. Great points, Scott.

    Some other events on the calendar for tomorrow, November 17:

    MassAccess speed networking event for the entrepreneur community at Microsoft Cambridge

    Drinks On Tap (iPhone dev group) at the Asgard, Cambridge

    for more, see the BetaHouse Recommended Events calendar:

    Posted by Brian Del Vecchio November 16, 09 10:49 AM
  1. Agree with Sim on Point #6. Need to get better at fostering entrepreneurially-minded recent college grads. This might mean less bias against young entrepreneurs starting a company, but probably a larger number of people would be well suited to joining existing startups.

    Posted by Lee Hower November 16, 09 11:04 AM
  1. I am w Scott on the 5 games being simultaneously played by Greater Boston. Our playing is global, and has been since the 18th century. Our 20th century tech innovation had some highs and lows. The point with Greater Boston is that the region has driven tech innovation at several points in the 19th, 20th centuries, and is a strong competitor in the early 21st. Due to our multi-pronged innovation (tech, healthcare, and social innovation), we have the ability to come back, and have. In 1990, some in Silicon Valley declared felt taht Greater Boston had tanked due to the mini-computer buisness going down. We have come back with the likes of Akamai, E Ink, etc.

    Posted by Bob Krim November 16, 09 11:27 AM
  1. Scott, I know you don't want it to be so, but my TechCrunch article is right. Silicon Valley and Rt. 128 were once equals and Silicon Valley did leave Rt. 128 in the dust. That is the harsh reality whether you like it or not. It's not about where I partied, it is about the vibrancy, openness and momentum of the tech center.

    I don't have time right now to get into debate, but let me refute your key argument with some hard data. You boast about how Boston educates the best and they stick around. This is wrong. Massachusetts stay rates for university graduates who found companies there are way below the norm.

    My team at Duke and Harvard analyzed the correlation between the state in which U.S.-born tech founders received one or more of their academic degrees (terminal, first, or second) and the state in which they eventually established a startup. Nearly 45 percent of the tech founders in our sample established startups in the same state in which they were awarded one or more of their degrees. Guess what the number for Mass. was? 29%. Yes, only 29% -- not immigrants who can't get visas. So you may be winning in educating people, but you're not keeping them in Boston.

    The stay rate in California was 69%.

    Please download and read this report yourself:

    I am from the east coast myself, having lived in NYC and NC for the last 30 years. After being in Silicon Valley for 5 months, I have been blown away by the dynamism of this region and the magic which happens here with the entrepreneurial networks. This is what I am researching. My belief is that if you can understand and replicate these networks, you have a shot at replicating some of Silicon Valley's magic.


    Vivek Wadhwa
    Visiting Scholar, UC-Berkeley
    Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization and Exec in Residence, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
    Senior Research Associate, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School
    Columnist BusinessWeek

    Posted by Vivek Wadhwa November 16, 09 12:16 PM
  1. Hi Scott,

    This is a tough one. I am a lapsed New Yawker (Mets not Yankees) and was at Apple in Cupertino for 8 years. I followed that with eight years in Scandinavia with projects across that region, the UK and Japan. I'm now based in Boston - Lexington - and remain baffled/frustrated about why there remains such a difference between The Valley and the Boston region. It's not an IQ thing. Its a state of mind thing. The Valley flows. Boston sort of lurches. I do think this New England reticence, this rather internal, inward sensibility plays a factor. Boston - bizarrely - reminds me a bit of Scandinavia in a funny sort of way. Interestingly, New York feels far more active then Boston due to the sheer velocity, the pace, of the place.

    I fear Boston is still a Prius. The Valley is a Tesla. New York is a ... never mind nobody drives there anyway.


    Posted by Douglass Turner November 16, 09 12:58 PM
  1. Vivek-

    As I mention above, no one here in Boston/Mass. denies that Silicon Valley had leapfrogged Route 128 by the late 1980s, a point made well by AnnaLee Saxenian in her 1994 book.

    More recently, I think there has been a cultural shift here that is, some believe, making the regional network in this part of the world more dynamic and energetic, and chiseling away at some of the issues that Saxenian spotlighted fifteen years ago.

    But we invite you to come visit Boston, where I will personally take you around to three parties on any given day of the week.

    And thanks for posting that data about student retention. In point #2 above, I mention this is an area where we could use a lot of improvement.

    Posted by Scott Kirsner November 16, 09 01:02 PM
  1. Douglass-

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Am I mis-reading your automotive metaphor? Boston develops innovative technologies that succeed in the marketplace, like the Prius, and Silicon Valley develops (perhaps flashier) innovative technologies that require federal support, but generate lots of buzz among a very small group of users?


    Posted by Scott Kirsner November 16, 09 01:09 PM
  1. Just a quick point about New York. My poster child for a New York start up that would feel right at home in The Valley is @boxee. Just perfect. If a @boxee can happen in NYC it can certainly happen in Boston. But it doesn't.


    Posted by Douglass Turner November 16, 09 01:20 PM
  1. @ScottKirsner,

    It's the complete package concept. New idea. Big idea. Inspiring. Flawless execution. Attractive on an aesthetic, technological, and team level.

    Prius is flossing. You know you should.
    Tesla? You wish you could.


    Posted by Douglass Turner November 16, 09 01:28 PM
  1. Scott,

    As always great insight -- and thanks for stoking the discussion some more.

    If the amount of events that one attends in an indicator of success, I (along with a few hundred other folks) must be darn near legendary. I've been in Boston about a year, and I see a drastic difference in the Boston that I came to in 2008 and the Boston that exists today.

    I agree with the list you put together, but think that a point that we must add is having more coordination amongst groups/organizations/events, in this case I beleive that the whole can truly be greater than the sum of the parts.

    Posted by Gus Weber November 16, 09 02:13 PM
  1. its interesting you are attacking @vivek for lack of numbers in his post. at the same time your post has no numbers on the progress on what Boston is doing. 1 through 4 is great but whats the result.

    Posted by kiran November 16, 09 08:19 PM
  1. Scott--thanks for pointing out what we do well, and what we need to work on.

    Vivek is right that 128 is not as dynamic as it once was. All places go through ups and downs. Recently I've run into a number of people moving here from the West Coast looking for work.

    These days in New England my sense is that the pendulum has swung back toward the center. I saw a study on life sciences venture capital recently that showed Cambridge saw more investment last quarter than any other city in the world.

    MIT's Professor Tom Allen showed in recent (as yet unpublished) work that researchers at companies in the biopharma industry collaborate intensively with researchers at other biopharma companies, labs and universities that are close by, and that after the distance goes beyond a limited threshold, the conversation falls close to zero. Tom is still working on how to describe the magic distance, but it appears that you need to be at most single digit miles apart to collaborate to any great degree. The biggest nexus of collaboration in his study appears to have been amongst firms and labs in and around Kendall Square. So much for the death of distance.

    It seems that venture capital firms are reporting that they are moving into town from the suburbs.

    Maybe we can out-fox our fun-loving West Coast friends by taking advantage of our higher density to be better collaborators?

    Posted by Tim Rowe November 16, 09 11:09 PM
  1. Hi Scott,

    You make some excellent points. And I have noticed more of a positive cultural shift this year.

    I am concerned that we as a region continue to fall down on not being able to break out of the "this is how things are done" mold and can't embrace change fast enough.

    The non-compete law debate is a great example of this. Not enough people are willing to stand up and push for change despite all the evidence that a change is needed and how it has contributed to California's success.

    Your tweet over the weekend about the Museum of Science employee making the dad delete the photos of his kids, while not exactly connected to entrepreneurship, exemplies the parochialism that holds many of us back.

    Posted by Pearl November 17, 09 12:45 AM
  1. Hi Scott. Just an anecdote here. I have lived in Cambridge and Boston for 10 years, and have spent some of those trying to get a startup started up.

    I just bought a one way ticket from BOS to SFO. Honestly, I don't like the overall atmosphere there, the near-full-time worship of money, the crappy architecture (excluding SF proper's gold rush mansions, which I can't afford), or the flat weather. The food's good, at least.

    But it's the attitude and opportunity that I need right now, so I'm going. If it doesn't work out, I'll move back east, but to NYC, where people are too busy to waste time with protracted "no" discussions... not Boston.

    Boston mostly ate up my time telling me why the things I have been working on are terrible ideas. But not only have my projects (both in-progress and scratched) not been bad ideas, but I've watched west coast companies launch "to check out the space" with less tech, background and resources than I'd assembled by the same point in time. Reality check: not once did any Boston/Cambridge startup roll out anything close to what I was working on. It's always come from the west coast.

    This is the point where the writer makes some general statement about Silicon Valley vs. Boston, but I don't have one. I don't know why things are the way they are. I just know I'm tired of arguing with local know-it-alls to get support to run to first base when it's clear that kids in Palo Alto are already stealing third.

    Posted by James November 17, 09 08:17 AM
  1. You got it, Scott: "We're...a region of the world that needs to be competitive in the global economy -- not against Silicon Valley." Spend some time looking at McKinsey's Innovation Heat Map, and you'll see why. (

    Posted by William Brah November 17, 09 08:36 AM
  1. While I think the amount of socializing opportunities and the talent in Boston has really improved I feel like the start-up mindset could be better among the younger crowd. I meet a lot of young people who talk about what they want to do or what they are doing but I am still looking to see more people executing in the high risk high reward mindset.

    Most of the young people I meet who are starting companies are still working their full time jobs and trying to moonlight their start-ups. I would love to see more people taking higher risks by working as few hours as possible to get by on a shoe string and then hustling like their life depends on it to get their start-up off the ground and generating dollars.

    Posted by Cort Johnson November 17, 09 09:10 AM
  1. Kiran-

    Have a look at the links to the Tim Rowe and Paul Maeder presos (linked above), which contain lots of good data (not all of it positive.) And this column from last year talks about the issue of retaining young people (with data):

    Posted by Scott Kirsner November 17, 09 10:05 AM
  1. Scott, I agree getting foreign students to stay here after they graduate could bolster our innovation economy a lot, but I also think we need to enable native students to do better. Math and science aren't really seen as "cool" in k-12 schools. If we can pioneer a change to that, Boston might even gain an advantage over Silicon Valley. It's easy for non-Bostonians to leave after they graduate Boston schools, but a lot of entrepreneurs I know who grew up here tend to stay here.

    Posted by Michael Raybman November 17, 09 10:58 AM
  1. A few people are hitting on this but it's worth emphasizing: young people do not have an easy path to break into the community or feel welcome.

    Yes, there are quite a few people who are willing to help if you find them, but until recently, finding them wasn't easy. StayInMA, office hours and more relevant, open events are helping change that, as are resource consolidation and aggregating efforts.

    Cort suggests more young entrepreneurs should take a chance and go 100% after something, quitting their day jobs, but it's hard to be convinced you should with the old culture and disorganized community to navigate.

    How common is it really to hear about successful young entrepreneurs in this area?

    Posted by Jason Evanish November 18, 09 02:10 AM


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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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