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Innovation Economy

Look to the Patriots for scouting expertise

Aaron Ganick demonstrated a product in the Boston office of ByteLight, which he cofounded with a fellow Boston University undergraduate.

Jim Davis /Globe Staff

Aaron Ganick demonstrated a product in the Boston office of ByteLight, which he cofounded with a fellow Boston University undergraduate.

With the National Football League’s draft ­approaching next month, you can bet that every team has carefully constructed its list of the most promising college players they hope to add to their rosters.

What if Massachusetts devoted the same resources to scouting the next generation of entrepreneurs as NFL teams devote to finding their next great wide receiver? (The Patriots alone have 21 employees focused solely on identifying and cultivating future players.) Entrepreneurs, after all, can have a far bigger impact on the local economy than football stars, no matter how many seats they fill or jerseys they sell.

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I’ve been brainstorming lately about how a scouting program might operate, soliciting input from entrepreneurs who got their educations here, as well as start-up coaches like Katie Rae of TechStars Boston and Jeffrey Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners. Here’s how we might identify high-potential future founders, and also what we’d do once we identified them.

Let’s start with picking 10 Massachusetts trade groups who believe their mission should include planting seeds for the future of their industries: groups like the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Council, and Massachusetts Digital Games Institute. Ask each group to identify five Massachusetts students each year who have shown a spark of entrepreneurial potential. That gives you 50 students a year. Source another 50 by soliciting nominations from professors, student entrepreneurship clubs, and investors who spend time on college campuses already.

Put those students into a database, and send each one a nice fleece with the logo of the new Massachusetts Founders League embroidered on the back. The MFL would enable students to connect with one another. It would help them meet successful Massachusetts entrepreneurs and investors who might provide seed funding for their ideas. It would try to open doors in all sorts of ways, from finding free, short-term office space to getting pro bono legal advice to ironing out visa issues for foreign students.

MFL members would be chosen at the start of each calendar year (giving all the nominators the first three or four months of the school year to do their scouting), and they’d be welcomed into the group with a State House reception hosted by Governor Deval Patrick. Other events throughout the year might feature well-known entrepreneurs sitting down to share experiences: people like Constant Contact founder Gail Goodman, Staples founder Tom Stemberg, or restaurateur Barbara Lynch.

Venture capitalists and angel investors could sponsor bowling nights to get to know the group. Members would get free admission to any seminar or conference planned by the 10 trade groups making nominations for the MFL. Over the summers, group members might have an ­opportunity to “shadow” local founders, ­assisting them in exchange for office space and time to develop their own start-up ideas.

As long as MFL members remained enrolled as students, and for one year afterward, they’d be invited to attend MFL events; after that, they would go “emeritus,” but still have access to a network that provided assistance and connections.

Who would coordinate all this? One idea is to have the 10 trade groups dedicate one staffer’s time on a rotating basis. I expect you could run the MFL with one staffer dedicating one day a week to maintaining the member database and planning events. At the end of a year, the responsibility would shift to the next group.

There are several great initiatives that already exist in this vein, but nothing that works as a comprehensive, statewide scouting system. The Cambridge venture capital firm Flagship Ventures runs a summer “fellows program” for entrepreneurially oriented scientists and engineers, inviting them to help transform laboratory insights into real companies. Flybridge runs a program called Stay in MA that offers college students “scholarships” to local workshops and conferences that cost $100 or less.

One of the initiatives that has had the biggest impact is the Summer@Highland program, run by the Cambridge venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners. It invites collegiate entrepreneurs to apply for a 10-week program that offers office space, an $18,000 stipend, and access to a network of mentors.

The Babson College-educated founders of Gemvara, who were planning a move to Los Angeles, participated in 2008; the online jewelry site they created now employs 80 people, most of them in Boston. Two Boston University undergraduates founded ByteLight, a 2011 participant, which is designing an LED light bulb that can transmit data to mobile phones (directions to finding a product in a large store, for example). So far, ByteLight's founders have raised $1.25 million and brought on five full-time employees.

“People constantly say that the economy today is about a competition for the greatest talent,” says Bussgang, the venture capitalist at Flybridge Capital Partners. “Well, the greatest talent shows up on our doorstep and spends two to four years here. But we don’t compete for them and we don’t market to them. It makes no sense.”

Michael Gaiss, who helped create the Summer@Highland program, says, “If you could retain five or 10 more people every year that would otherwise move somewhere else to start their businesses, that would make a real difference.”

So what if we spent the next 10 years scouting future entrepreneurs the way the Patriots scout future football stars, and then looked back to analyze just how much of a difference it made? The goal of the MFL wouldn’t be something as glam as winning a Super Bowl . . . just creating the jobs that will keep our state a great place to live and work.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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