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Forever 128

Innovation initiative takes aim at office parks

A group of Route 128 business leaders wants to transform a pair of sprawling office parks just off the highway on the Needham/Newton line into the next Kendall Square or Boston Innovation District.

The N2 Innovation Initiative kicked off Wednesday night before a full house inside a cavernous hall lent out by Digital Realty, a data server complex just off highway exit 19A on First Avenue in Needham.

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Roughly 250 executives from local technology companies and a myriad of other businesses, as well as an array of local and state officials, teamed up to brainstorm on what it would take to transform Needham Crossing and the Wells Avenue Executive Park in Newton into a major innovation hub.

“It used to be king, Route 128,” said Matthew Fisch, managing director of the Newton-based International Entrepreneurship Center, of the highway’s reputation as one of the Boston area’s original technology hubs. “This initiative can help bring that back.”

While Newton and Needham may be best known for leafy neighborhoods and top-notch school systems, both communities are also home to as many as 150 technology-related companies, said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce.

Spearheaded by members of the Newton-Needham Chamber, the N2 initiative aims to build upon that base.

“There is a lot here already, but there is a lot of opportunity for growth,” Reibman said.

‘We have to get over a very narrow view of geography that we have here . . . Silicon Valley is more than 50 miles long.’

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In fact, the new district already has an anchor tenant, with TripAdvisor, a fast-growing online travel site with 2,000 employees, building a new headquarters in the Needham Crossing park, he said.

Adam Medros, vice president of product development at TripAdvisor, said the suburban location is perfect for him and many other employees who do not want to spend their days in long commutes traveling in and out of Boston and Cambridge.

“This is where our headquarters are — this is where we want to be,” Medros said. “There is plenty of technology talent here.”

But in order for a new Kendall Square or Boston Innovation District to take root, more will have to be done, members of the N2 initiative made clear Wednesday night.

Debi Kleiman, president of the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange and a leader of the N2 initiative, led an impromptu brainstorming session in the middle of the hall, writing down ideas on a board with a black marker.

Incubator-style buildings for start-ups and growing companies headed the list.

In fact, at least one developer working with the initiative is now exploring plans for a complex that would be targeted at growing companies, said Janice Caillet, cofounder of Newton-based iStartup, who is also working on the N2 initiative.

“We are certainly looking at that — from Nashville to Boulder to Cambridge, there are some amazing ideas out there,” she said.

Other suggestions included more coffee shops, restaurants, and other places to socialize and meet.

Such amenities have been crucial in creating the collective, community feel that has made Kendall Square and now Boston’s Innovation District so attractive, said Kleiman, whose company is based in the Boston district.

Both tech hot spots are marked by the “bump factor,” the feeling that you are likely to bump into a colleague, friend, or acquaintance whenever you visit, she said.

Another goal of the N2 initiative is to forge connections with colleges along the 128 beltway, including Mount Ida, Bentley, Babson, and Olin.

“We have all the ingredients here,” Kleiman said.

Roadway improvements, including a new Route 128 exit that will empty into Needham Crossing park, are also expected to help, Reibman and others said.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren and Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, also spoke at the event and pledged support for the N2 initiative.

Bialecki said he sees potential for many other tech hot spots across the Boston area beyond just Kendall Square and Boston’s Innovation District.

“We have to get over a very narrow view of geography that we have here in Massachusetts,” Bialecki said. “Ladies and gentlemen, Silicon Valley is more than 50 miles long. Our goal should be to become one of the best innovation centers in the world.”

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis
@hotmail.com
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