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GLOBE MAGAZINE

Kendall Square has a diversity problem. These women are trying to solve it.

The thriving ecosystem in Cambridge drives innovation, but has fallen short when it comes to integrating women and people of color.

A woman’s reflection is seen through a colored sticker adhered to a window in Kendall Square.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
"Where Futures Converge: Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub" by Robert Buderi goes on sale May 10.Handout

“Kendall Square in Cambridge is arguably the world’s greatest and densest innovation hub, an enormously complex ecosystem of people, ideas, companies, offices, and laboratories.

As is the case with all ecosystems, the area is constantly changing. It boomed in the early 1900s, leading the country in soap production, candy making, printing and publishing, and more. But a few decades later, virtually all of that was gone. Similarly, in the 1980s, a slew of startups out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were supposedly blazing the way to a bright future in artificial intelligence — only to go almost entirely extinct within a decade. Today, biotechnology dominates Kendall Square. But if history is any guide, that too could change.

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For all the innovation it drives, though, Kendall Square’s ecosystem — including its many MIT resources — has fallen short in one key area: integrating women and minorities into its culture. While remarkable efforts are underway to diversify the square, much work remains to be done. If progress isn’t made, opportunities for innovation will continue to be lost.

The problem is not new. Nancy Hopkins, an MIT professor emerita and one of the figures pushing for change, recalls having to fight for lab space at the school in the mid-1990s, when she was a tenured professor. “If you said you were discriminated against, people thought you were not good enough,” she recalls.

Hopkins shared her experience with two other women professors — and was surprised to hear that they had come to the same realization. The trio discovered at the time that all of the 15 tenured women in MIT’s School of Science saw similar disparities in their access to resources when compared with their male counterparts. They raised the issue with the school, prompting measures in the late ‘90s that eventually led to increases in women faculty in the School of Science and the reduction of disparities in lab space and salary.

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“If you said you were discriminated against, people thought you were not good enough," Nancy Hopkins, show in 2003, said of MIT in the mid-1990s.Donna Coveney / MIT

But for Hopkins, glaring discrepancies remained. I became more familiar with this assessment in 2018, when Hopkins was given a lifetime achievement award by Xconomy, a news site I had founded. In her acceptance speech, she warned of a major disparity between men and women scientists in terms of venture funding to start companies, and noted how few female biology faculty seemed to be starting companies or were even connected to the business world. At the end of her speech, the 300-plus attendees leapt to their feet for a standing ovation.

For Sangeeta Bhatia, an MIT professor, and Susan Hockfield, a president emerita at the school, the speech was a very loud call to arms.

The trio is now spearheading the Future Founders Initiative, a collaboration of about 30 Boston-area faculty members and businesspeople that aims to help women faculty become more familiar with the process of starting companies and building the connections to make that happen. (Disclosure: I’m a member of the group.)

The group’s work was sparked by a troubling finding from its initial analysis of MIT data about faculty and entrepreneurship, which found that there were likely at least 40 fewer biotech and health tech companies in Kendall Square than there ought to be. That’s the estimated number of companies that would’ve been spun out of the institute if women faculty had founded companies at the same rate as their male counterparts.

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“I mean, that just kind of takes my breath away,” says Hockfield. “Forty more companies, forty more drugs, forty more diagnostic devices, forty more cures. We’re just missing the opportunities that are really sitting in our hands.”

“I think we are in a moment where we may want to shift the way we think about it and talk about it," said Sangeeta Bhatia, on diversity in Kendall Square.Scott Eisen/Hughes Medical Institute 2019

By 2019, the group had been awarded a grant to study academic founder activities in seven faculty departments at MIT. Those departments, the study found, had 337 faculty members, of whom 73 were women, and those faculty had helped launch 252 companies. Women faculty, it turned out, had only founded 25 of these startups — despite comprising 22 percent of the faculties overall. Women were similarly underrepresented relative to their male counterparts as board directors or members of scientific advisory boards.

Another stunning fact: In the three departments most related to biotech company formation — biology, biological engineering, and chemical engineering — 26 faculty members had teamed with other MIT faculty members to form 27 companies. All were men. They had never once included a female MIT colleague when founding a company.

What’s more, inquiries by Hopkins and Bhatia had determined that women had not declined to participate in company formation — they had not been asked. One woman member of the working group described her experience as wearing a cloak of invisibility, like in Harry Potter: Her male colleagues couldn’t see her when it came to founding companies.

The disparities were most stark in biology. Only two of 56 companies started by current biology faculty had been founded or cofounded by women, despite the fact that women constituted 24 percent of the department.

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“Forty more companies, forty more drugs, forty more diagnostic devices, forty more cures," said Susan Hockfield, on missed opportunities caused by lack of diversity. Susan Hockfield (photo credit:David Sella

To address these problems, the group has launched several initiatives, including an entrepreneurship boot camp led by Bhatia and Genzyme cofounder Harvey Lodish; a fellowship program that will enable women faculty to take a paid semester to learn about company formation at venture capital firms; deeper dives into the data to illuminate the situation more clearly and inspire new ideas to make things better; and a $250,000 prize competition for women faculty with startup ideas.

However, the three organizers also have a different concern: that their focus on women has neglected to tackle the similar issues around opportunity and company formation for faculty of color.

“It’s something that I struggle with,” says Bhatia. “At the top line, our sense is that both of these stories are, sadly, old stories. So we shouldn’t be deterred on trying to advance this one.

“But I think we are in a moment where we may want to shift the way we think about it and talk about it,” she said, adding that as a starting point the group would try to make sure “women-focused activities have diverse women.”

The future of Kendall Square will at least partly depend on whether the ecosystem can change its narrative to include all types of people. Without this, the area will miss out on a wealth of potential. Just consider what might happen if efforts such as the Future Founders Initiative succeed in changing the culture?

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Those 40 missing companies — and the innovation they would bring — would be missing no longer.


Adapted from “Where Futures Converge: Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub” by Robert Buderi. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2022. On sale May 10. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


FREE EVENT: On May 10, Buderi will discuss “Where Futures Converge” at the MIT Hayden Library. To learn more and to register for the event, visit libraries.mit.edu/news/events.