Plans for a hub to foster transportation-tech startups stalled out in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, there’s a familiar face in the driver’s seat, to jump-start that effort: former state transportation secretary Jamey Tesler.
He will be executive director of the Massachusetts Mobility Innovation Hub, which is set to open early next year in Cambridge, in a CIC shared workspace. The Hub will provide space for startups as well as networking opportunities, events, and mentorship. It’s being launched as a public benefit corporation — a business with a public mission, that reinvests profits in operations, not dividends — through initial in-kind and financial support from Zipcar, CIC, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, and others. The founders are now ramping up their fund-raising efforts.
After Tesler stepped down as secretary early this year to make way for Governor Maura Healey’s incoming administration, he joined the Harvard Kennedy School as a part-time visiting fellow. It was a change of pace for Tesler after more than a decade in state transportation roles and a couple of stints in the private sector. He said he jumped at the opportunity to join the Hub after Partnership chief operating officer Rebecca Davis and Zipcar marketing and public policy chief Justin Holmes restarted the discussions that had been put on hold three years ago.
“What’s really motivating me in this point in my career is to help people with their great ideas,” Tesler said.
It’s fitting that a top administrator in Charlie Baker’s administration would conduct this train. That’s because the idea emerged about five years ago out of a transportation task force that Baker convened and asked Steve Kadish, his then-chief of staff, to chair. The hope was to leverage Greater Boston’s startup community and its academic experts to tackle hard transportation challenges — such as our notorious traffic jams.
The Hub’s board will be chaired by CIC chief executive Tim Rowe and include Davis, Holmes, Tesler, Google auto partnership executive Gretchen Effgen, MIT Mobility Initiative executive director John Moavenzadeh, Boston Consulting Group automotive expert Aakash Arora, and SparkCharge chief executive Joshua Aviv.
Tesler said the Hub is particularly important now because of the billions in federal funds being unleashed for transportation and energy projects through the Inflation Reduction Act.
“We want more Zipcars that make it through [the scaling-up] process to stay here and grow here,” Tesler said, referring to the Boston-based car-sharing service. “It is challenging for people who are focused 24 hours a day on their startup idea to have a sense of the broader ecosystem. That’s where we play a role, so they don’t make that journey alone.”
Shields opens doors for Brockton kids
Jack Shields says he skipped more days than he attended as a sixth grader in Brockton. “That goes to show you anyone can make it,” he says now.
By any financial measure, Shields has definitely made it. After graduating from Boston College High School, he went on to play football at the University of Notre Dame. Shields joined his family’s medical imaging business when it opened its first MRI center in 1986. He helped build Shields MRI into a major regional network (now known as Shields Health) before leaving just over a decade ago. He then launched Shields Health Solutions, a network of hospital-based specialty pharmacists that was eventually bought by drugstore giant Walgreens Boots Alliance.
While Shields now leads Shields Health Innovations, he’s also a busy philanthropist. He gave $5 million to BC High in 2020 to create an entrepreneurship program, dubbed the Shields Innovation Center. Now, he’s giving an undisclosed amount to help Brockton kids attend BC High.
The assistance goes beyond free tuition, and includes a range of support: mentorship, conferences, and internships, for example. The Shields Fellows Program will help four Brockton eighth graders go to BC High starting next fall, but Shields plans to grow that number and eventually expand to other locations such as Roxbury and Dorchester.
Shields announced the program last week at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro South, a nonprofit he helped to create more than 30 years ago. He hopes to give kids a reason to not skip class, while putting them on a track to success like the one he eventually found.
“I’m a big believer that those gritty city kids are going to outperform those Weston kids,” Shields added. Learning innovation at a younger age, he added, is “not a ‘nice to have’ [for city kids]. It’s a need to have.”
Downtown’s future remains up in the air
Kicking off an “Invest: Boston” panel on the future of commercial real estate last week hosted by Capital Analytics Associates at the UMass Club, Hunneman executive Peter Evans promised “to try to keep it as bright and rosy as I possibly can.”
Good luck with that one, Peter.
Evans talked about the state of play: Downtown Boston’s vacancy rate has reached a record high while only about half of people who used to commute there are doing so on any given day. He noted how the recent lab boom petered out amid an oversupply. (He cited the still-vacant former John Hancock headquarters in the Seaport as one high profile office-lab conversion that has not worked out yet.) And office-residential conversions, one idea floated to help downtown, are expensive and challenging.
“The one thing that investors and developers alike are looking at right now is time and patience,” Evans said. “It’s going to take some time [to recover]. We don’t see on the horizon right now what the great life science or technology boom will be, the next infill for our office markets.”
Well, maybe some help can come from the robotics and clean-tech sectors, Evans hinted. “It’s probably the one shiny bright light we have in Mass. regarding commercial real estate,” he added.
Greg Janey offered another bright light: higher ed. Janey said his firm, Janey Construction Management, pivoted early in the pandemic to focus more on college and university projects, mitigating some of the commercial real estate market’s volatility.
And Kate Dineen, head of business group A Better City, had surprisingly good things to say about the besieged MBTA. “I’m actually optimistic about the T,” Dineen said. “I’m listening for gasps.”
She praised Governor Maura Healey’s elevation of Monica Tibbits-Nutt to transportation secretary, as well as the news that the T will eliminate all of its much-loathed “slow zones” by the end of next year (though not without more shutdowns first). She even applauded the news that $24.5 billion would be needed to get the T up to a “state of good repair.”
“The good news is that the leadership is in place and now we need to ensure the leaders have the resources they need to really get the [MBTA] back on track,” Dineen said.
Now that’s keeping it bright and rosy.
EzCater serves up a Panera partnership
Big restaurant chains on Boston-based ezCater’s platform range from Subway to Qdoba to Olive Garden. But Panera Bread was missing, even though top Panera executives work nearby in West Newton. Until now.
Mike O’Hanlon, ezCater’s chief partnership officer, is a big fan of Panera’s food. So are many ezCater customers.
“They are one of our most requested brands,” O’Hanlon said.
Finally, ezCater announced Panera had joined its platform in late September. At least 1,400 Panera restaurants, including 18 in Massachusetts, are on it now.
After getting knocked back early in the pandemic, ezCater has seen strong growth lately. In 2021, revenue returned to prepandemic levels, O’Hanlon said, and in 2022, revenue nearly doubled.
It’s not clear what prevented a previous Panera-ezCater matchup; O’Hanlon said the companies had been in talks for several years. Maybe ezCater finally reached a scale that makes it hard for Panera, or any big chain, to ignore.
“That was the right time for the two companies to say, ‘Let’s lock arms,’” O’Hanlon said. “It just takes a while for the win-win to be super obvious for both sides.”