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Business

Innovation Economy

Elections may have big impact on tech, biotech

Tuesday, a primary with pretty poor voter turnout chose the two major party candidates who will face off in the Senate special election June 25, while two dozen candidates hoping to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston began collecting signatures to get on the ballot in November.

Boston’s next mayor and Massachusetts’ next senator have the potential to be helpful, harmful, or just so-so for the region’s innovation economy. But what has been surprising to me is how disengaged the tech, biopharma, and energy sectors have been in the process to fill these jobs.

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These are the seven major policy issues that leaders of our state’s innovation economy ought to be pressing, and that Boston’s next mayor and Massachusetts’ next senator ought to have high on their agendas.

1. The city and state should continue to upgrade the quality of science, technology, and math education offered in public schools. One initiative, the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), wants computer science to be taught in more schools and counted toward graduation as a science or math credit. It’s working in partnership with the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, a trade group, to develop a curriculum and plan for training teachers.

“Our member companies tell us there is a lack of enough people coming out of high school and college with solid computational thinking skills,” says Tom Hopcroft, chief executive of MassTLC. Massachusetts-bred kids ought to be able to fill jobs at Massachusetts-based companies.

2. “Sequestration is something that keeps us awake at night,” says Robert Coughlin, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. On a per capita basis, he points out, Massachusetts receives twice as much research funding from the National Institutes of Health as the next state on the list. “You don’t want to cut things like NIH research, which creates jobs, creates cures, and stimulates the economy,” he says.

Similarly, many local companies rely on Small Business Innovation Research grants from various federal agencies to sustain them through their early years. Our next US senator needs to fight to bring some of that money back to Massachusetts.

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3. The current immigration debate in Washington is considering an increase in the number of visas issued annually to workers with specialized skills (known as H1-B visas), and it could also create a new class of visa, the INVEST visa, for entrepreneurs and angel investors who plan to stay in the United States to create and finance new ventures. Both would be excellent, if enacted.

But Massachusetts’ next senator will need to be a champion for continued improvement in immigration policies — especially when it comes to finding ways to retain newly-degreed graduates of Massachusetts universities, who often have just 90 days after graduation to find an employer or leave the country. As Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung puts it, “We’re paying students to get a PhD, often through federal grants, so essentially if we send them back home, we’re paying to educate our competition.” That needs to change.

4. Many Massachusetts companies complain about getting shaken down by patent trolls — entities that amass collections of patents, but don’t actually use them as part of an operating business. Instead, they demand licensing payments from other companies they contend are infringing their patents.

Sometimes, the patents cover basic things like sending an e-mail of a scanned document. Our new senator ought to push patent reforms that reduce the time and money companies spend dealing with trolls.

5. Boston’s municipal government can do much more to support urban entrepreneurship. For a sense of how this can work, just visit Dewey Square on a busy workday: There are a handful of food trucks with long lines, and even a jumbo-sized tricycle that has been outfitted as an espresso bar (it serves better lattes than the nearby Starbucks).

Entrepreneurs who want to sell merchandise out of trucks haven’t yet received a warm welcome in Boston. And the city could create tax incentives for landlords to fill long-vacant storefronts with temporary pop-up shops. The best of those new retail ideas would likely turn into long-term tenants, bringing jobs and shoppers to neighborhoods that need them.

6. Boston doesn’t exactly put out a welcome mat for the students who arrive here each fall. City Councilor Tito Jackson says, “Usually their first interaction with the city is when we ticket or tow their car because it’s parked somewhere it shouldn’t be.” Jackson suggests a welcome party for students, followed by periodic gatherings that expose them to local employers or start-up resources: “You need to have several positive touch points where they connect with this community.”

And once students graduate, Jackson points out, they often make decisions about where to go based on lifestyle decisions. “People need to have fun,” he says. “We need to become more of a 24-hour city, with nightclubs open later, gyms open later, restaurants open later.” (Jackson decided last month not to run for mayor.)

7. At the city and federal levels, it’s tough for technology start-ups to get a foot in the door to demonstrate, beta test, or sell new products. Government remains one of the last bastions where, as the old saying goes, “No one ever gets fired for buying IBM.”

The incoming mayor and senator ought to find ways for small companies to get a fair shake with government agencies — particularly when they are offering powerful, new ideas for saving time and money. “Three guys at a start-up shouldn’t have to fill out a 3,000-page request-for-proposal document to do business with the city,” says Jackson. Boston’s public schools should also be open to the best new technologies that help teachers teach and students learn.

“We are the best place in the world for innovation,” says Coughlin at the Massachusetts Biotech Council. “Either we maintain that, build on it, or we lose it.”

I like that second option. If you’re with me, why not make your voice heard in these two races?

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

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