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Innovation Economy

Can more Boston tech firms open up and let partners in?

Fareed Mosavat, Chas Wagner, and Jason Jacobs looked at support tickets at RunKeeper, which is jockeying for position in the digital fitness universe.

Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe

Fareed Mosavat, Chas Wagner, and Jason Jacobs looked at support tickets at RunKeeper, which is jockeying for position in the digital fitness universe.

Wolf down a cannoli after a big North End meal. Drift off to sleep. Go for a compensatory extra-long jog the next morning. Step on a scale.

All that can go on your permanent record, thanks to RunKeeper, a Boston start-up that makes a free mobile app that lets your smartphone track the distance and route of your run or bike ride. But its bigger idea may be something called the Health Graph, launched in 2011.

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While RunKeeper measures one aspect of a fitness regimen, the Health Graph is a way for the makers of other apps and devices — like calorie counting software, sleep monitoring wristbands, and wirelessly connected scales — to send data to RunKeeper, so users can store it and see it on a single website.

The Health Graph helps RunKeeper and its 120-plus partners reach new users, says Bill Day, the “evangelist” whose job is to persuade prospective partners to plug in. But it’s also a way to position RunKeeper at the center of the digital fitness universe — a goal that big players like Nike are also pursuing.

RunKeeper is one of a handful of Boston companies that are working and investing to build a robust partner ecosystem. Succeeding is something that not only cements a company’s status as an industry heavyweight, but often produces financial rewards. For example, popular games built by Facebook’s partners help increase the amount of time people spend on Facebook, which adds to the social network’s advertising revenue

Facebook and other Silicon Valley players such as Apple, Google, Salesforce.com, and Twitter have some of the biggest partner ecosystems. But getting such an ecosystem off the ground is no cakewalk, says Dharmesh Shah, cofounder of HubSpot, an online marketing company in Cambridge.

“It has been harder than we envisioned,” he says, “and we envisioned it to be pretty hard.”

How exactly do you define a partner ecosystem? In my mind, it’s not just having distributors who help sell your stuff or service firms that help install and support it. It involves a set of rules or technologies that enable parties to build products that integrate with one another, and create additional value for the parties and their customers.

“When it works, it’s a wonderful spot to be in for a company,” says Tom Eisenmann, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies start-ups. “All these extensions of your platform attract more people to you. You get the flywheel going and it just keeps going.”

In Boston, we don’t yet have a single tech player that has created a significant partner ecosystem. “Boston is a very closed, proprietary culture,” says Jonathan Bush, chief executive of athenahealth, a company in Watertown that offers software and services to help doctors manage their practices. “Everyone thinks about licensing their product to others. Your first impulse is to keep information from slipping away to someone else. That culture is not good.”

In 2011, athenahealth started an initiative called “More Disruption Please” to introduce more innovations to the health care industry — and bring new capabilities to its customers, such as tools for analyzing a medical practice’s performance, that athenahealth wouldn’t have to build itself.

“Half the docs in the country are looking at our screen every day,” says Bush. “The idea is that others can sell to our client base through what you might think of as an app store.”

About 800 companies have signed up to be part of More Disruption Please, the company says, but only about a dozen are integrated so far. They include applications like ChartSwap, which makes it easy for one doctor to send a patient’s medical record to another.

In May, Boston-based LogMeIn launched a new initiative called Xively, with the goal of creating a partner ecosystem. LogMeIn today specializes in helping people access computers remotely. But the company sees all sorts of non-computer devices being connected to the Internet, like a shipping container that can send an alert if it’s opened while in transit. The hope is that people developing these new kinds of connected devices will use Xively to relay and store the data they generate, and pay LogMeIn for the privilege.

Roughly 100 new developers are signing up to participate each day, says LogMeIn chief executive Michael Simon.

A few blocks from LogMeIn’s headquarters, Rethink Robotics is trying to encourage partners to build different kinds of hands for its Baxter manufacturing robot. “It’s a way of increasing Baxter’s productivity in specific applications,” says chief executive Scott Eckert.

RunKeeper goes so far as to invite direct competitors into its ecosystem — rivals that duplicate the exercise-tracking features of its own app. “It’s good, healthy competitive pressure for us to have these ‘frenemies’ in the system,” says Day. RunKeeper’s business model includes selling training plans that help guide users in preparing for a race or losing weight, for instance.

It’s unfortunate that some of our biggest local tech players haven’t done much to try to create these kinds of partner ecosystems; they still seem stuck in the very 20th century mindset that the only way to succeed is by building more stuff yourself and then selling it to customers.

And one reason it’s unfortunate is that companies with robust partner ecosystems create a kind of gravitational pull, luring some of those partners to their hometowns. Being able to have a beer with people who work for Google or Facebook and get advice or a glimpse of what’s coming next, gives you a leg up over partners based in Singapore or Switzerland.

Successful partner ecosystems, essentially, can improve the local innovation ecosystem. That’s why I’m rooting for companies like RunKeeper and athenahealth to gain momentum. But it’s still early for this cohort. Bush admits, “We’ve gone from being in utero, to being a helpless baby lying on its back.” The key is learning to walk, and then run, before a competitor does.

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