Business

Shirley Leung

Winning GE: Better than the Olympics

GE is one of America’s best-known companies.
REUTERS
GE is one of America’s best-known companies.

This is better than hosting the Olympics.

No controversy over potential cost overruns, or whether taxpayers will be on the hook for billions of dollars. No worries about traffic on the Southeast Expressway, or whether an aging T can handle throngs of visitors. No collective hand-wringing over whether the pain of throwing what amounts to a three-week party would be worth it all.

General Electric moving its headquarters to Boston is all glory, giving us a chance to step onto a global stage on our own terms. The world can now mention Boston in the same sentence as Silicon Valley when talking about where the future is being built.

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This is big. It’s about so much more than bringing a few hundred high-paying corporate jobs. If we play this right and recognize the significance of the moment Boston became a GE company town, we will be able to write the next great business chapter of our region.

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“This is a major milestone,” said Harvard professor Michael Porter, whose research has focused on what makes regions and companies competitive. “This is going to feed onto itself. This is going to attract other companies.”

In Porter’s mind, GE’s decision could set off a wave of high-tech manufacturers relocating to the area. They’d come for the same reason chief executive Jeff Immelt is: We have an ecosystem teeming with innovation.

That’s us. From the research labs at MIT and Harvard to the operating rooms at Brigham & Women’s and Massachusetts General to the life sciences and tech firms in Kendall Square. And just for good measure, we have a steady pipeline of talent graduating every year from our constellation of universities and colleges.

GE couldn’t have gotten that in New York, where the company was also looking, or in suburban Connecticut, where the company has been based for decades.

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Just as Boston has become a hub for biotech, GE could make the region an epicenter for smart-connected products. It’s not as sexy as say, Apple creating the iPhone, or Twitter and its followers, but it is no less important.

GE’s roots trace back to Thomas Edison and the invention of a reliable light bulb. Today it is a company that makes everything from jet engines to MRI machines, and what comes next is riding the wave of the “Internet of Things.”

That’s about attaching sensors to products so they send data to and from the cloud. It’s what allows service technicians to remotely repair wind turbines, or supervisors to monitor performance of all the equipment on a factory floor.

It’s a digital revolution that might be more innovative and transformative than the technological advances of the past half-century. Yes, that means bigger than the Internet itself.

This revolution will require a whole new generation of technology, from product design software to data analytics, and as Porter began researching this area, he found Boston, in particular, emerging as a leading center for this type of work.

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The professor also wasted no time bending the ear of Immelt, a former student of his. Porter, like many others in town, gave Immelt the hard sell on why Boston made sense as the conglomerate’s next headquarters.

“People are asking all over the world why is GE looking at Boston? They have gone nuts,” said Porter. “To GE’s credit, they understand the nature of the innovation that is going to determine their success for the next 20 to 30 years.”

GE’s move will make the world notice the beachhead we have here as it joins local companies like PTC, Analog Devices, and LogMeIn that are helping to build out the smart product ecosystem.

But Boston and state officials can’t rest on their laurels. They must aggressively pursue other companies in the field to grow this cluster.

Take biotech, for example. It became king in the region, but not by accident. Hospitals and academic institutions formed the foundation, but the catalysts came from Swiss drug company Novartis opening a research center at the old Necco candy factory in Cambridge, and from Governor Deval Patrick’s $1 billion biotech initiative launched in 2008.

Our leaders not only saw opportunity but seized it, and the life sciences sector sensed that. Now 15 of the world’s 20 largest biopharma firms have a presence in Massachusetts.

Now some of you may not like GE. You may think of “Neutron Jack” Welch, who hacked thousands of jobs when he ran the company. You may think it pollutes. Or that the conglomerate may not pay its fair share of taxes. Or that the No. 8 company on the Fortune 500 should not get tax breaks to relocate its headquarters.

But GE’s move to Boston is about a fresh start. So let’s give it that. It’s a chance to show how the company can be green. How it can be a good corporate citizen. How it’s not about cutting special deals.

We lost the Olympics, but we still have another shot at gold. Let’s not squander it.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.