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Chesto Means Business

Baker’s latest solution for transportation woes? Startups.

The governor is offering to fund an accelerator at the Cambridge Innovation Center, with help from the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Snarled traffic clogged State Street near Government Center.
Snarled traffic clogged State Street near Government Center.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

We don’t need a study to tell us traffic is bad out there. But what if there’s a silver lining to the worst rush-hour congestion in the country? Perhaps all this conversation around addressing this crisis can help foster an industry.

Just look at how efforts to create a local “mobility innovation hub” are coming together. The initiative received a big boost last week when Governor Charlie Baker included $250,000 for it in his proposed state budget. Assuming the Legislature agrees, it will be up to the Cambridge Innovation Center and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership to raise a matching amount from the private sector. Jay Ash, the former top Baker aide who now heads the partnership, would like to see at least $1.5 million raised in public and private dollars for a three-year period.

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The goal: to create a startup incubator for transportation businesses akin to MassRobotics or the biotech-focused LabCentral. Like those two nonprofit CIC spinoffs, the transportation hub would be run as a separate organization. The plan is to get it going by July. It would have its own staff and be physically based in existing CIC space in Cambridge or Boston. But it would also involve participants from across the state — a hub-and-spoke model, to borrow a transportation metaphor.

The seeds were planted when Baker convened a task force to study the future of transportation in the state. One recommendation that emerged in late 2018: an initiative to bring together the public and private sectors to tackle transportation challenges. It would leverage the brainpower at the big universities with the local expertise in artificial intelligence, robotics, and cybersecurity. Left unmentioned: the local expertise in crowded trains, highways, and bridges.

Steve Kadish, a former top Baker aide who chaired the task force, visited the high-powered CEOs who make up the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership early last year. Transportation, of course, is a big issue for all of them — or anyone else running a company with a major Boston presence. After Kadish left, Ash said his members talked about ways they could tackle this issue quickly. The idea of a mobility hub seemed like a no-brainer.

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But first, Ash needed to demonstrate there was already a critical mass in the state. He connected with Tim Rowe,chief executive of the CIC group of co-working spaces. They pooled their organizations’ resources to study the potential demand, Ash said, and eventually found more than 100 startups in the transportation space here. A wide net was cast: We’re not just talking about cars and trains, but drones and underwater robots, too. Still, Ash was surprised by the breadth of what already exists here.

Planners hoped to attract 250 people to an event at CIC in Cambridge last month, to gather people interested in mobility issues. More than 600 showed up: entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, professors, corporate muckety-mucks. Ash said he heard from two reps for major car companies — one foreign, one domestic — who expressed an interest in expanding here as a result.

Maybe some of these smart folks will come up with ways to address this state’s transportation challenges as a big debate on this issue looms at the State House. But Kristin Brief, an entrepreneur-in-residence at CIC working on this project, said the economic impact could be the bigger benefit by building a community to connect the various local players and fostering a new generation.

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Other places have a headstart. As part of her research, Brief checked out similar existing ventures, including the Transit Tech Lab in New York City and Planet M in Detroit. Others are up and running, she said, in Germany, the UK, and Israel.

Companies in the space are eagerly watching what takes shape here. They range from Zoba, a 12-person data analytics startup in the South End, to Zipcar, the most prominent local business in the field. Zoba cofounder Joseph Brennan said a central hub could be crucial for building partnerships, attracting investors, brainstorming ideas. And Justin Holmes, head of public policy at Zipcar, said the company welcomes the help with pursuing viable alternatives to car ownership.

But what about those of us who still own cars? David Keith, an MIT professor and entrepreneur, said advances in technology have changed the way we relate to our vehicles. This transformation has opened up an array of opportunities for scrappy software startups to get in the mix.

For young people fresh out of school who want to seek out meaningful challenges, Keith added, it’s hard to beat our transportation mess.

As the Kendall Square Association advocates for transportation fixes, the Cambridge group likes to say that you can’t find the cure for cancer while sitting in traffic. You can’t do a lot of things, to be honest. But all this congestion might just spur you, or some other brainiac in town, to find a cure for traffic.

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.