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MassChallenge, For the Win: Cultivating All Kinds of Great Start-Ups (Not Just Webby Ones)

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 21, 2010 09:35 PM

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OK, I was totally wrong about the MassChallenge.

harthorne2.jpgWhen John Harthorne (at right, in the yellow tie), Akhil Nigam and their team were running around town trying to drum up support for a competition that would bring start-up companies to Boston from around the world, my response was: do we really need another entrepreneurship contest? Doesn't every local school with a business class or two, from MIT to Babson to BU to Harvard, already run a contest of their own?

It also seemed unlikely that they'd be able to raise $1 million in prize money in the midst of a recession.

And when they announced the 111 teams that made it into the competition — and would receive free office space on the Boston waterfront and mentoring from local entrepreneurs and investors — they included a handful of start-ups that seemed to me like they were on life support, having failed to raise money or come up with a workable business plan.

But by the time tonight's final awards ceremony was held, I'd been converted. The MassChallenge, mainly funded by businesses and individual philanthropists though also supported by the state with about $500,000 of seed money, fills an important role in the local scene. While university business plan competitions encourage students to consider starting companies (and have spawned local successes like Akamai), there isn't much for post-collegiate entrepreneurs.

Sure, you can apply to get into an accelerator program like Y Combinator or TechStars. But many of those programs have a distinct bias for Web and software ideas — products that can be built and launched quickly with very little capital. 


What made MassChallenge work well is that it attracted founders of energy, life sciences, software, hardware, and retail businesses. It attracted founders fresh out of business school, and at least a couple in their 40s and 50s. 

Of tonight's winners, some are already up and running and generating revenue, and some are still in the prototype or testing stage. Tonight's event felt, as does TechStars and the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, like a community coming together to support entrepreneurs in pursuing their vision. (Among those who made the competition possible are people like 170 Systems co-founder Karl Büttner, A123 co-founder Desh Deshpande, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals co-founder Josh Boger, pictured at left with Greg Bialecki, the state's secretary of housing and economic development.) And handing out $50,000 or $100,000 apiece in prize money to 16 companies ain't bad either: a little financial boost, without having to part with equity.

The MassChallenge wound up being global, not provincial (they scrapped a requirement early on that would've required all entrants to agree to relocate Massachusetts after the competition ended.) As a result, it attracted support from Russian investors and entrepreneurs from Israel. And it gave many of the community's successful entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers, and PR consultants an opportunity to help guide the up-and-comers. 


There was a really nice moment that I caught as the awards were being handed out — the obligatory giant cardboard checks. Shelby Clark of RelayRides was heading back to his table from the stage, having just won $50,000 for his car-sharing start-up, launched earlier this year in Cambridge. I was standing next to Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, who is preparing to take his Cambridge company public. Clark looked over to Griffith and caught his eye.

That's the kind of Massachusetts I want to live in: one that is building industry leaders like Zipcar, and also cultivating the next wave of innovators, too, to keep them on their toes.

[...A few more pics follow...]


Eric Paley of Founder Collective and Elon Boms of Launch Capital.


Olivier Boss, chief scientific officer of Energesis Pharmaceuticals, a $50,000 winner.


Derek Ohly of Zyrra, a $50,000 winner, with Howard Davidson and Michel Ohly.

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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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