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The Red Line Tour of Innovation in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 10, 2010 09:40 AM

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One thing Boston and Silicon Valley have in common: it's very hard to see the places where innovation actually happens. The interesting work takes place in labs behind locked doors and in conference rooms that require clearance to enter. Want to dine at Google's cafeteria in Mountain View, or walk the halls at BBN in Cambridge where some of the researchers who helped build the Internet and develop e-mail still toil? You'll need a special invitation.

So when a visitor asks you how they might see what's interesting and vibrant about the tech scene in either place, the answer isn't easy.

That's why I wanted to put together a short tour of Boston places where you can actually get a sense for what has made the city's innovation economy tick, over more than two centuries. I asked some friends on Twitter for help and got it.

My two criteria:

1. There has to be something interesting to see or do, rather than just the exterior of a building to look at. Ideally, you can go inside. (Some stops involve getting something to eat amongst the folks who power the innovation economy here, whether investors, students, researchers, or entrepreneurs.)

2. I wanted to focus on locations in the city so you can do the tour without a car either by using the T, a bike, or even on foot.

The tour exists as an annotated Google Map, and I've listed the stops below as text. Are there nearby locations that are worth a look? Add a comment if you would.

(Special thanks to Bob Krim of the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative and Michael Gaiss of Highland Capital Partners for providing some helpful background info.)

Stops #1 & #2: The Ether Monument in the Public Garden and the Ether Dome at Mass General Hospitaltwo Boston locations connected to the first successful application of surgical anesthesia, in 1846. Be grateful the next time you go under the knife. 

Stop #3: The DNAtrium at the Broad Institute in Kendall Square, which presents visual and hands-on exhibits that explain (even to those of us who don't remember much high school biology) the ways that understanding the composition of the human genome are nudging medicine forward. The Broad Institute is a joint research project that involves Harvard, MIT, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Stop #4: Akamai's Network Operations Command CenterPeek in the windows of Akamai Technologies (this stop is better after dark), which houses its Network Operations Command Center inside the building at 8 Cambridge Center. The NOCC is manned 24/7, monitoring the health of Akamai's global network for speedy delivery of Web pages, video, and other digital content. The publicly-traded company (spawned by MIT's annual entrepreneurship competition) operates more than 60,000 servers and delivers two terabits of content every second.

Stop #5: The MIT Media Lab has been an incubator for next-gen technologies, companies, and entrepreneurs like E Ink (which provides the screens for Amazon's Kindle and other e-book devices); Lego Mindstorms robotics kit; the inexpensive educational XO Laptop for developing countries; Ambient Devices' digital info displays; and the guys who brought you the games "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero." Public events are often held in the Bartos Auditorium in the building's lower level, and the List Visual Arts Center inside is open to the public (and free). Thanks to its white tile exterior, the building (by architect I.M. Pei) is sometimes referred to as the Pei Toilet.

Stop #6: If the hour is right, stop by the Muddy Charles Pub for a drink: countless MIT spin-off ventures have been launched over a beer here. (No food is served.)

248px-MIT_Lobby_7.jpgStop #7: MIT's Lobby 7 is inside one of the domed buildings that is often the focal point for MIT students' annual hacks: harmless-but-impressive pranks take place on the roof or inside the atrium pictured here. There's a cafe here where you can grab a decent cup of coffee, and tables to soak in the MIT atmosphere. It's also a good entrance point if you're inclined to walk some of the Infinite Corridor (the indoor walkway that connects much of the MIT campus) and peek into labs, classroom, and student lounges.

(Photo by Brian Keegan, Creative Commons licensed at Wikipedia.)

Stop #8: Necco/Novartis, Central Square. Once a massive candy factory that produced Necco wafers and other sugary treats, now it's a research lab where the Swiss biopharma company Novartis develops new treatments for cancer and other diseases. Look for video displays in the windows, and check out the water tower atop the building that features a DNA double helix; it was once decorated to look like a roll of Necco wafers.

Stop #9: The MIT MuseumEven geekier (in a good way) than Boston's Museum of Science. Features permanent exhibits on holograms and robots, along with temporary shows. Don't miss the amazing mechanical sculptures of Arthur Ganson.

Stop #10: Miracle of ScienceGreat stop for a meal or a snack among the MIT crowd and techies from nearby Central Square (home to videogame companies like Harmonix, robotics start-ups like Heartland Robotics, and the Cambridge office of product design firm IDEO.) The menu here, drawn on a chalkboard, echoes the periodic table of the elements. Across the street from Miracle of Science is the Alpha Delta Phi frat house where the founders of iRobot (maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner), Harmonix, Bluefin Robotics, Art Technology Group, and venture capitalist Brad Feld once lived and made mischief.

Stop #11: Toscanini's Ice CreamAmazing ice cream and an eclectic crowd of smarties. Don't forget to use your phone to interact with the large flat-panel display over the seating area, which runs software from the Cambridge company LocaModa.

Stop #12: Out of Town News, Harvard Square. Pick up a magazine and get inspired to start a company...

It happened here to Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Allen bought the January 1975 edition of Popular Electronics from Out of Town News, which featured an article about an early personal computer, the Altair 8800. Allen, who was working as a programmer for Honeywell in Boston at the time, felt personal computers would be big, and he persuaded Gates to drop out of Harvard to start Microsoft.

Stop #13: As you walk across Cambridge Common, you'll be following the footsteps of George Washington, who took command of the Continental Army right here and went on to win a war against the British. Not long after Washington left office as the country's first President, in 1800, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (who lived at what is now #7 Waterhouse Street) was one of the first doctors on the faculty of Harvard's new medical school. Waterhouse brought a British innovation ? innoculations against smallpox ? to the United States, testing the vaccine first on his own family.

Stop #14: Henrietta's Table at the Charles Hotel. If you're in need of a nosh, stop in at Henrietta's. During breakfast and lunch, it's a major meeting spot for Boston area venture capitalists (the offices of General Catalyst are in an adjoining building), entrepreneurs, and notable Harvard profs like Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. Some of the initial meetings between a Boston venture capitalist and the founders of Facebook took place here. (The Boston VC firm, fatefully, opted not to invest.)

Stop #15: Harvard Business School's Aldrich Hall. Back in 1978, sitting in the Aldrich Hall's Room 108, Dan Bricklin had the idea to computerize the complex data entry and calculations he had to do as a Harvard Business School student to analyze businesses. The result was VisiCalc for the Apple II personal computer, the first electronic spreadsheet program. Though VisiCalc was eventually surpassed by Lotus 1-2-3 (created by a Cambridge start-up) and Microsoft's Excel, the plaque on the wall in Aldrich 108 commemorates VisiCalc as the "original killer app of the information age," which helped introduce personal computers into many offices. (Please don't go into Aldrich 108 if there's a class in session.) 

On the way to Aldrich, you'll pass Harvard Stadium, site of one of the great MIT hacks of all time, in 1982.

Stop #16: Bartley's Burger Cottage. Consider ending your tour with a shake and/or burger here (or a bite at nearby Henrietta's, LA Burdick, Tealuxe, or Oggi Gourmet Foods. The latter is part owned by Boston entrepreneur Bill Warner, who founded Avid Technology, an Oscar- and Emmy-award winning digital video editing company.) Among the items on the menu at Bartley's are the Facebook burger and the Steve Jobs iBurger.

Again, additions (particularly stuff worth seeing nearby) are welcome, and the link to the Google Map is here, or you can play with the small version below.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

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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