You probably haven’t run into Charlie Baker knocking back beers at Kendall Square networking events, even though he has been a venture capitalist in Cambridge since just after his failed bid for governor in 2010. He’s not that kind of VC guy.
As an entrepreneur-in-residence at General Catalyst Partners — a firm that has backed Kayak and HubSpot — Baker hasn’t placed any bets on hot tech companies. Instead, trading on his decade of experience running Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, he’s been crisscrossing the country, thinking big thoughts for small health care companies.
He’s done three deals in three years, and up until recently, you haven’t seen much of him because he has been taking care of his portfolio companies in Louisiana, North Carolina, and New York. More on that later.
What I really wanted to find out from Baker, who recently launched another bid for governor, is whether he could be the state chief executive who really gets the tech community. Deval Patrick, as you may recall, lost his tech cred this summer after proposing an ill-fated software tax that he is now anxious to repeal.
Baker, like any other good Republican, was against the tax, even taking to Facebook to denounce it. He says that if Republicans had been in charge, the tax, which could have cost as much as $500 million, never would have been proposed.
“Why would you shove this into the heart of the innovation economy?” Baker said over coffee Monday at a Harvard Square cafe in an office building that houses General Catalyst.
Having had an up close and personal view of the state’s innovation economy, Baker said, Massachusetts tech sector leaders, like those in other industries, worry about the high cost of doing business here — from permitting to health insurance to affordable housing for employees. Utility costs are a particular concern. We have what are among the steepest bills in the country, and tech firms, with all their servers, gobble up a lot of power.
“Our whole focus should be efficiency: Replace coal with natural gas and use less electricity,” he said.
That doesn’t seem terribly innovative.
“This is boring, I apologize,” he said, before proceeding to explain at length how electricity works like a layer cake. Trust me, you don’t really want to know the details on how to lower our bills.
Baker is also big on creating and expanding the innovation economy beyond the borders of Boston and Cambridge.
It’s no coincidence that he held one of his first campaign stops at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s new Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, where educators, innovators, and the public and private sectors have come together to form another research focal point in the state.
“We need to do more of that all over the place,” Baker said.
Moving outside the traditional clusters would also drive down costs, especially of housing. “We should try to connect what’s inside Route 128 with what’s going outside of 128,” Baker said.
It’s also a good campaign strategy if you want votes from all over the state.
As a General Catalyst venture capitalist, Baker said he tends to favor what he calls “focused factories” — companies that drill down on a slice of the market.
Take Oceans Healthcare, where he led a $17 million investment earlier this year and serves as chairman of the board. It’s a Louisiana company that runs psychiatric treatment centers for seniors, such as those with Alzheimer’s.
He also serves on the boards of TearScience, a North Carolina company that has a high-tech treatment for dry-eye disease, and Oscar Insurance, a New York start-up that has generated a lot of buzz for taking a consumer approach to selling health insurance.
Baker spends a lot a time on the phone advising entrepreneurs. “I want to make sure these kids don’t make the mistakes I made. I made a million mistakes,” he said.
Baker will remain at General Catalyst while running for office, but managing director David Fialkow said in a statement that the firm doesn’t expect him to bring in new investment opportunities during this period.
The Republican hopeful hit the high points in terms of what the start-up community wants, and in this gubernatorial race techies will be getting involved and making their voice heard after nearly getting slapped with an unwanted tax.
Baker might not have been visible, but he has an opportunity to be the tech governor that Patrick wishes he could have been.