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Innovation Economy

Dr. Bose’s greatest innovation may be his company

Amar Bose, who founded Bose Corp. in 1964, died earlier this month. He used some profits to fund research into new areas, like auto suspension.

AP/File

Amar Bose, who founded Bose Corp. in 1964, died earlier this month. He used some profits to fund research into new areas, like auto suspension.

When the pope wanted to be better heard in the Sistine Chapel, he called Bose.

When General Motors wanted to improve the sound quality in its vehicles, it began integrating technology from Bose.

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And today, when travelers around the world want to tune out the sound of bawling infants, they clamp on a pair of $300 Bose headphones.

Amar Bose died earlier this month, at the age of 83. The privately held company he founded in 1964 became one of those rare Massachusetts brands that enters the global consumer consciousness, like Polaroid, Fidelity, and Gillette. Today, Bose Corp. employs about 10,000 people and rakes in more than $2.8 billion in revenue.

But Bose was never about the financials. Dr. Bose — he was always called doctor — created a company culture that is different from any other innovation-driven business today, whether Apple, Google, or Biogen Idec. It was essentially an exclusive engineering college perched on a Framingham plateau, where the profits from home theater systems and headphones were funneled into an endowment that allowed researchers to explore new areas, like car suspension systems or cold fusion. (No kidding.)

And before he died, Dr. Bose donated a majority stake in his company to MIT, the school where he earned three degrees in electrical engineering, and taught a course in acoustics.

Unlike a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, entrepreneurially minded college dropouts who helped create the personal computer industry, Dr. Bose was a college professor who stumbled into creating a start-up. He first tried to license several loudspeaker patents he’d been issued to established companies. When none expressed interest, he launched Bose with $10,000 fronted to him by Y.W. Lee, his MIT thesis adviser.

Most think of Bose as an audio company, but it was really a sandbox where Dr. Bose hired people to explore what was possible.

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Most people think of Bose as an audio company, but it was really a sandbox where Dr. Bose could hire smart people to explore the boundaries of what was possible. “He wanted the company to welcome creative people to work on various projects,” says Charles Hieken, one of Dr. Bose’s lifelong friends, an early company executive, and later Bose’s patent attorney. “Some of the projects he wanted to undertake would last a decade or more.”

Bose, for example, spent more than 20 years and $100 million developing a new kind of ultrasmooth automotive suspension system; it has yet to be adopted by a car maker. Bose’s rich-sounding Wave radio was in development for 12 years.

In 1989, after scientists at the University of Utah proclaimed that they had sparked and sustained a nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature — so-called cold fusion — Dr. Bose supported research into cold fusion that ultimately found that the scientists’ claims were false.

The whiteboard in Dr. Bose’s office was forever filled with diagrams and equations, and if you found yourself in a meeting with him, you had to be prepared to defend your thinking from every possible angle. The culture of Bose was about “creating something that hadn’t been done before, as opposed to me-too things,” says Don Coley, who spent 23 years at the company. “You had the ability to take time to look at problems and question convention.”

That, Coley says, enabled the company to do things like start its own chain of retail outlets (well before Apple did) or launch new product categories like noise-canceling headphones. (A helicopter once descended on Bose’s headquarters so employees could experience the technology.) The headphones lost money for a decade before turning into a profitable product, says Vanu Bose, Dr. Bose’s son and the founder of a Cambridge wireless telecom company.

The company was so devoted to research that at times it could feel like “a slow-moving oligarchy,” says former employee Matt Douglas. Today, Douglas runs his own company, Punchbowl, which offers online party-planning services, but he borrowed one of the practices he encountered at Bose. “They have a rule that you can’t eat lunch at your desk, so everyone gets together for lunch,” he says. “We do that at Punchbowl, too.”

Dr. Bose could throw a sharp elbow, as when he sued competitors over their advertising claims or the magazine Consumer Reports over a bad review. But he wasn’t one of those founders who needed to take credit for everything.

“People at Bose would say, ‘I build the best speaker in the world, or the best-sounding radio in the world,’ ” says Samrat Vasisht, a former Bose product manager. “People had a sense of things as their products, even though most of the brilliant ideas came from one person.”

Part of Dr. Bose’s genius was developing a brand that carried the same cachet as BMW or Godiva: Consumers willingly paid a premium, and the word “discount” was never uttered at the company.

Over the past three or four years, Dr. Bose had receded from view at the company, and a former MIT student of his, Bob Maresca, took the reins. Maresca declined to talk to me, but a Bose spokesperson sent a statement via e-mail: “No single person can ever replace Dr. Bose, but he has carefully chosen and mentored the Bose executive team. The direction of Bose will not change, and we will stay true to the principles upon which the company was founded.”

Maresca was once asked what he thought was Dr. Bose’s greatest invention, according to Vanu Bose. “His answer was, the company,” Bose’s son says.

As Bose the company moves on without Bose the founder and deals with a music world that is increasingly digital, wireless, design-oriented, and mobile, the big question is whether Maresca and a new generation of leaders will be paralyzed by wondering what Dr. Bose would do, or liberated to explore radically new directions. It may take a decade or more to find out which scenario plays out.

“I don’t know that there will be ‘What would Dr. Bose do?’ conversations,” says one current employee, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, “but there is a sentiment of ‘Let’s make Dr. Bose proud.’ ”

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