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Innovation Economy

Field guide to Boston’s tech scene

Spotting the denizens of Boston’s innovation ecosystem in their natural habitat

These are boom times for the innovation economy in Boston and Cambridge. Venture capital firms and big companies are moving from the suburbs to scout deals and reel in young talent. Wannabe entrepreneurs are ditching stable jobs to go the startup route.

The only thing tougher to find than an affordable office — thanks, venture capitalists — is a “full stack” programmer who really understands cloud architecture.

Boston vaulted nine new biotechs onto stock exchanges in 2013, and tech players like Wayfair (home goods), Actifio (data management), and HubSpot (social media for businesses) are hoping to get there in 2014. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is trying to duplicate his predecessor’s Innovation District blueprint in Roxbury, while shared workspaces are popping up in Chelsea, Charlestown, and Framingham.

It used to be easy to spot Boston’s power players: They ran mutual fund companies and ad agencies, had breakfast at the Bristol Lounge, and rode the back seat of a town car to work. The emerging entrepreneurial class may also toil in the Financial District — taking advantage of the cheap office space — but they get there on a Hubway bike, stopping for a latte at Thinking Cup on the way.

Here’s my not-totally-serious field guide to these new power players.


Related: Quiz — Which of Boston’s tech clusters suits you best?

-Sam Washburn

Tech entrepreneur

Hunting for opportunities to disrupt big, established industries — and then sometimes cash out by selling his company to a big, established player. Can something be done in the cloud, on demand, or as a service? Can corporate accounting be gamified, or a social layer built on top of container shipping? The tech entrepreneur is on it.

Secret worry: Should I be doing this in San Francisco?

Transportation: On-demand car service Uber

Reads: Re/code

Seen at: Voltage Coffee + Art in Kendall Square

-Sam Washburn

Social media guru

Gets the call when companies can’t figure out what their marketing strategy on Pinterest should be, or whether they’re Instagramming enough. Will ghostwrite blog posts or advise you on the best way to get more “likes” on Facebook. Shadier gurus will hook you up with an agency they know in Romania that can get you 100,000 new Twitter followers in 24 hours.


Secret worry: Clients suddenly realizing they can do this themselves

Proudest of: Nabbing his first name as a username on every new social service

Reads: “Twitter is my window on the world, but I’m also getting into Jelly and Medium.”

Seen at: Events organized by MITX, an online marketing trade group

-Sam Washburn

Software developer

May not have been asked to the high school prom, but now every recruiter trying to fill a key technical position is practically stalking her. Can bang out bug-free Python or Java code while also bantering on several simultaneous Skype chats.

Secret worry: Should I have gotten more equity?


T-shirts with coder jokes that no one but a coder will get

Reads: “Social news” site Reddit

Seen at: Meadhall, a Kendall Square bar

-Sam Washburn

Venture capitalist

Everyone pays fealty to the keeper of the checkbook, who gets to decide which ideas have a future. Meets with entrepreneurs over breakfast, coffee, and lunch — but things aren’t really serious until he brings you back to his office to meet the other partners at the firm. Nothing makes him move faster than hearing someone else is about to beat him in

a deal. Laments the dearth of women in the venture capital business, but somehow can’t find one to join the firm.

Too often starts sentences with: “Keep me in the loop about your progress . . . ”


Attire: Freshly pressed blue jeans

Reads: Fortune magazine’s “Term Sheet”

Seen at: Henrietta’s Table in Harvard Square’s Charles Hotel

-Sam Washburn

Biotech entrepreneur

Driven by the desire to bring new medicines to patients who need them. But you also have to be a bit batty to bother with an industry where developing a successful new drug costs north of $1 billion. You’ve got to get good results from several phases of clinical trials, a federal agency has to approve it, and doctors have to be persuaded to prescribe it. . . . And that ignores the fickleness of investors, who fall in love with biotech one year, but won’t reply to your e-mails the next.

Secret worry: Running out of cash midway through the clinical trial

Proudest of: MD, PhD, and MBA

Reads: Nature Biotechnology, a scientific journal

Seen at: Catalyst, a Kendall Square restaurant

-Sam Washburn


Every entrepreneur needs some sage advice, and mentors serve it up in spades (even if they’re sometimes a little too stingy when it comes to actually investing in a promising venture). Some of their wisdom is timeless, but some has gotten a little musty since the heyday of Lotus and Wang. What were Lotus and Wang? Exactly.

Drives: 1988 Porsche Carrera, bought with proceeds from successful IPO that year

Too often starts sentences with: “When I was running my company . . . ”

Reads: Harvard Business Review

Seen at: MassChallenge, the Boston accelerator program

-Sam Washburn

Cleantech entrepreneur

In the world of cleantech, it seems like founders can either raise $50 million or $100 million for their new battery, wind turbine, or waste-to-energy startup — or zilch. Conferences and blogs are eager to celebrate their fuel-saving, wave-harvesting breakthroughs, but getting a company to survive past the seedling stage is insanely hard. If only the US government would put a price on carbon emissions . . .


Drives: Nissan Leaf plug-in

Proudest of: Speaking at the TEDxJamaicaPlain conference

Reads: The blog Greentechmedia.com

Seen at: Greentown Labs, the Somerville incubator



Quiz: Which of Boston’s tech clusters suits you best?

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on BetaBoston.com.