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New & Improved—5 Ideas For New England’s Innovation Economy

I have it on good authority that  June has been declared New England Innovation Month, per Scott Kirsner who has been tireless tender of the innovation flame here in New England for years now (http://www.boston.com/innovation).  See the growing list of June events at http://neinnovation.com.

In honor, a few thoughts follow on Innovation in New England.  First, a pointer to a related concept, called National Entrepreneurs’ Day to recognize what entrepreneurs do for this country.  It’s an idea sparked by a fellow New Englander, David Hauser, founder & CEO of successful tech start-up Grasshopper.  The date being requested of the Obama administration happens to be the first day of spring each year.  [Coincidence that the French word for “start up” also references the spring season–“jeune pousse,” loosely translated as “young sprout” or seedling).

See the video clip below for serious entrepreneurial inspiration, and the other link to add your John Hancock (yes, yet another famous New England innovator) to the virtual petition.

* Killer link for entrepreneurial inspiration– http://grasshopper.com/idea

* Link to petition– http://www.entrepreneursday.org/dh

Now, back to June’s month-long celebration of innovation.   Indeed, New England  has a storied innovation past.  However,   what may begin as a strength in our region can at times turn to weakness, the metaphorical double-edged sword.   I’ve penned a wish list of five ideas for innovation here in New England along that thematic refrain, akin to “innovation on innovation”:

  • #1 “Coopetition” in New England to foster national visibility
    New Englanders are known for their fierce independence and self-reliance.  We needed this when we came over as settlers 300+ years ago and put our MacGyver-esque skills to the test to survive (note, MacGyver was no doubt was an Irish immigrant from good New England pioneering stock).  It’s been said that unless you can trace your lineage to the Mayflower, you’re still considered an outsider.  New England has never been known for leaving fresh-baked pies for the neighbor who just moved in next door.  In fact, at times, neighbors live next to neighbors for years without getting to know each other, all in the name of “independence” and a desire to not meddle in others’ affairs.  However, New England could benefit a great deal if we pulled together and collaborated just a wee bit more.  Example, Peter Rothstein, recently named Director of the New England Clean Energy Council, has been driving for both State and Federal government resources (Department of Energy and other), to fund the concept of a “Regional Consortium” that would bring together all the components of the cleantech ecosystem in New England in a thoughtful, harnessed approach.    The only way New England can achieve this national recognition (and funding) is via collaboration.  OK, just to prove to hardy New England stock, we’ll call it “coopetition” just to retain a bit the independence streak that runs so deep up here.
  • #2 Greater sense for openness for new ideas/ways of doing things
    New England also has a wonderful sense of tradition—Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, the Boston Marathon, Red Sox, clam chowder… we’ve pioneered our fair share of “we were first to….” And “we have the oldest of….”  I’d like to see us bring back a bit more of the revolution versus  evolution.  A bit more General George Washington and Lexington/Concord derring-do, rather than what has grown to be our reputation as conservative  in all things “blue sky”-oriented.  Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to wait for the imprimatur from an MIT lab or a Harvard Business School professor before we tried something new?  New Englanders are possessed with pedigree.  And until something has been anointed with pedigree pixie dust, an innovation often languishes in ignominy.
  • #3 Be more “what you know” versus “who you know”:
    As an outgrowth of #1 and #2 above, New Englanders often suffer from an acute case of “who you know.”  This to some extent is a derivative of the circular logic involving #2 above on pedigree.   Despite our reputation as the nexus of sophistication and erudition, New England seems to grow more and more insular in letting outsiders into board rooms as well as bar rooms.  New England, despite being the original crucible of diverse cultures, has homogenized. Amazing ideas and innovations come from equally surprising and diverse sources.  One of the best examples of “what you know” is exemplified in one of my favorite recent Malcolm Gladwell articles in the New Yorker Magazine (dare we say also a New England masthead), chronicling a Silicon Valley entrepreneur from India who heretofore knew nothing about the sport of basketball, who—when tasked with coaching his daughter’s middle school basketball team—innovated game strategy to turn a weakness into a strength and a last place team into a near division winner (see http://www.bostonsearchgroup.com/blog/type-leaders-required-to-outpace-competitors-in-recovering-economy/ )
  • #4 “Hold” vs. “Fold” or “Sold”
    OK, so I’m not pioneering this idea, but if imitation is the highest form of flattery, I’m a big fan of this growing mantra in the innovation community here in New England that goes like this.  Massachusetts used to have an incredible set of tech & science crown jewels:  in biotech, Genzyme, Biogen & Millennium Pharma.   In tech, companies in hardware and systems like Data General, Digital, Wang, 3COM, and Banyan Systems.  In software & Internet the likes of Lotus & Lycos.  However, over the years, these companies have either been sold or forced to fold.  One of the few remaining companies embracing the “hold” mentality is EMC, preferring to buy others than sell themselves out.  However, just one EMC, or even a handful more doesn’t make for a robust, sustainable innovation ecosystem.  Innovation can metaphorically be cast in the same light as combustion– that combination of spark, oxygen and fuel that powers innovation and drives creativity.  Spark is the new idea, fuel is the money provided from investors in the idea.  And oxygen is the people who take the idea and the money, the business-saavy entrepreneurs who partner as the steel to the innovator’s flint to spark the novel idea, tech innovation, or scientific breakthrough.  I wish we were making more oxygen in New England.  This type of oxygen only comes from the talent that grows up and makes small companies into big companies.  These bigger companies serve as a training ground for the next generation of entrepreneurs to cut their teeth, get their training, build their network.  These larger companies offer entrepreneurial training wheels.  When we sell companies too early, they never get the chance to develop a critical mass of next generation talent who can apprentice at the knee of others and with greater security to make mistakes without having each decision be a bet-the company-one that risks putting the company in mortal peril.  When there is no larger company safety net, fewer young talents practice jumping into the uncertainty of innovation acrobatics, often key experiences required to be able to drive younger companies to success later in their innovation careers.

  • #5 Create a “Celebrate the student Week
    I’ve always been in awe of many of the Asian countries who celebrate things that we in the U.S. might find odd.  I believe they have a day that celebrates children.  And a day that celebrates the elderly wise ones in their communities and cultures.  There is likely no region in the U.S. that has more undergraduate and graduate students than New England.  And these students are the equivalent to our regional “innovation fountain of youth.”  Undergrads, Masters students, PhDs, Post-docs, Fellows.    I wish we could celebrate them.  What better time to do it than during New England Innovation Month.  Make them feel welcome.  Give them social stature to counterbalance the grumblings around U-Haul vans that descend like locusts in late August, or parties that get a bit too raucous.   New England students should be lauded.  Perhaps a regional “student innovation awards” as capstone to this celebration.   OK, at minimum, a free scoop from yet another New England innovation legend, Ben & Jerry’s.  A  scoop of a new flavor in their honor, “College Cram Crunch.”
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4 comments so far.

  1. Jason Evanish

    wrote on June 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Clark,

    Great post and interesting ideas. I wonder if you’ve seen or heard of the work of DartBoston, BostInnovation and GreenhornConnect? All 3 organizations (I run Greenhorn Connect) are working hard to break down barriers and make it easier for anyone, and especially young people, to become involved in the innovation community. What’s really exciting is that our efforts over the last 6 months (BostInnovation and Greenhorn) to the last year (DartBoston) has not gone unnoticed and many established organizations are now making changes and starting new initiatives to be more open as well.

    I’ll be publishing a post on Greenhorn Connect tomorrow specifically addressing how I think we can best engage students. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit to be had that could go a long way to improving our local innovation economy.

    Best Regards,
    Jason

  2. Walter Frick

    wrote on June 1, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Clark: Great post. Thanks for including the Consortia project! Here’s the latest update on that effort: http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/permalink/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20100601006847&newsLang=en

  3. Amy

    wrote on June 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    At MassChallenge, we regard your #1 idea as very important. We are a global startup competition, inviting anyone, anywhere, with any idea to enter by JUNE 11. Entrepreneurs receive free resources including networking opportunities, mentoring, and workshops, and at the end of the competition we are giving away $1 million in awards! We are a nonprofit organization, and our goal is foster collaboration and innovation in Massachusetts, and to highlight our vibrant ecosystem for the rest of the nation. Enter at http://www.masschallenge.org.

  4. Clark Waterfall

    wrote on August 11, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Jason,
    thanks for your thoughts. Vacation latency in response. Let me know/ keep me apprised of Greenhorn Connect and progress on the student engagement front.

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