After 14 years of helping Kendall Square become a national hot spot for technology companies, the Cambridge Innovation Center is looking to replicate its success in other cities.
The Kendall operation is in talks to open two new innovation centers, one in Baltimore and another in St. Louis, by the end of 2013. Since opening in 1999, the Innovation Center has helped launch more than 1,200 companies by providing low-cost shared office spaces, fast Internet service, stocked kitchens, and a communal environment where budding entrepreneurs can mix.
“We are really trying to create communities of people who are making an impact,” said Tim Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge center. “We really should be doing that everywhere.”
The center is also branching out locally from its current operation in a high-rise near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a second building in Kendall Square that would boost its total footprint to more than 200,000 square feet.
It’s also helping to launch several similar start-up centers in Cambridge that will operate on their own. One is The Hub, a space intended for socially minded start-ups, and the other is LabCentral, which will provide lab and office space for life sciences companies.
Such shared working spaces — where small start-ups can rent desks or even small offices with amenities such as copiers and coffee — have become much more popular in Boston and around the country over the past few years. For example, the Boston shared office space Workbar plans to open a second location in Cambridge next month that will offer 12,000 square feet on two floors in Central Square.
The Cambridge Innovation Center is the largest in the Boston area and one of the biggest in the country. It rents desk space for about $500 a month; an office with a view costs about $3,000. Its tenants include Amazon.com Inc., which has plans to open an office nearby in the coming months, small venture capital firms, and dozens of tech start-ups.
The center benefits from entrepreneurs who want to be in the technology hotbed of Kendall Square and close to MIT without having to pay full freight for regular office space, which is among the most expensive in the Boston area.
There’s also a larger trend afoot of entrepreneurs wanting to work around like-minded people instead of alone in basements and garages, said Heidi Neck, the Jeffry A. Timmons professor of entrepreneurial studies at Babson College.
“The ability for entrepreneurs to come together in a face-to-face setting matters,” she said. “There’s a certain support there that can’t be matched online just yet.”
These sorts of start-up clusters, especially around institutions such as MIT that turn out computer science graduates, are breeding more businesses, she said. “You’re going to be motivated to give it a shot because everyone else is doing it,” Neck said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll succeed, but the propensity to start will be greater.”
Baltimore and St. Louis are just two examples of places where business organizations and municipalities are investing millions of dollars to encourage start-up growth. In St. Louis, an organization called Arch Grants is attempting to lure young companies there with a $1 million contest.
Last year, Maryland ran a similar $300,000 competition for early-stage companies in hopes of getting more entrepreneurs to consider locating there. While Maryland has produced some successful tech companies, such as Millennial Media, a Baltimore mobile advertising company that went public last year, it has had trouble hanging on to promising young entrepreneurs coming out of schools such as Johns Hopkins University, said Julie Lenzer Kirk, executive director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.
Efforts such as an innovation center modeled on the one in Kendall Square could be the magnet Maryland needs to keep talent, she said. “The CIC coming in provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to find their place. I don’t think we could have enough of those options around.”
Michael B. Farrell
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