Boston-area startups never have to go it alone, but more could be done to support them
Sometimes you need to look at a snapshot from back in time to notice how much has changed.
A snapshot from a decade ago was the founding of MassChallenge, a nonprofit entrepreneurship program that accepts about 100 startups each year, and the arrival in Boston of Techstars, a startup “accelerator” originally from Colorado that provides a small amount of seed funding to about 10 companies annually.
Since then, startups that have participated in the two programs have created more than 100,000 jobs, raised billions in capital, and been acquired — one of them, PillPack, for a reported $1 billion by Amazon. But it’s worth noting how much other infrastructure needed to support such entrepreneurship has been built since 2009.
The list includes:
■ CommonWealth Kitchen (2009, originally known as CropCircle Kitchen), a shared kitchen facility in Dorchester that is home to more than 50 food truck companies, caterers, and fledgling packaged-foods brands making everything from pesto to dumplings to burgers.
■ Venture Café (2009), a weekly gathering in Kendall Square for students, entrepreneurs, visitors from other cities, and professionals at bigger companies. It offers free beer, interesting networking, and workshops and seminars on various topics. (This Thursday: tech for the insurance industry, and building high-performance teams.)
■ Artisan’s Asylum (2010), a nonprofit “makerspace” where artists, creators, and start-uppers can rent cubicles and get access to shop equipment like milling machines and laser cutters. There are also classes on how to build electronics or use a 3-D printer.
■ Greentown Labs (2011), in Somerville, which provides prototyping facilities and office space for startups in the clean energy and sustainability sectors and organizes events that bring together startups and larger energy players like Chevron and National Grid.
■ Harvard Innovation Lab (2011), Life Lab, and Launch Lab, which offer work space, laboratory space, and advice to students and alumni across all industries, including life sciences.
■ LearnLaunch (2012), a startup accelerator for education-related ventures, which recently hired a former Massachusetts governor, Jane Swift, as its president.
■ Boston Tech Jam (2012), a major outdoor party with music geared to techies and the tech companies that want to hire them. This year’s edition, Thursday on City Hall Plaza, is expected to attract about 8,000 people.
■ Rough Draft Ventures (2012) and XFactor Ventures (2017), created by local venture firms General Catalyst and Flybridge Capital Partners, which put money into startups founded by current students and women, respectively.
■ Smarter in the City (2013), a Roxbury entrepreneurship nonprofit that provides support — like a $5000 stipend, mentorship, legal services, and work space — to entrepreneurs of color.
■ LabCentral (2013), a Cambridge facility where biotech startups can rent space for scientists and businesspeople — and get access to sophisticated equipment for growing cell cultures and sequencing DNA.
■ MIT’s The Engine (2016), a $200 million venture capital fund that puts money into MIT-related startups working on “tough tech” that may take years to perfect. The Engine has office and prototyping space in Central Square, occupied by startups like Suono Bio (more targeted drug delivery) and Analytical Space (faster data transfer for satellites.)
■ MassRobotics (2017) in the Seaport District, which houses startups developing robots that will work in office buildings, operating rooms, underwater, and in the skies.
But enough back-patting. What could help Boston get even better? I asked many of the people involved in the above initiatives for their take.
Chip Hazard, an investor at Flybridge, helps to oversee the XFactor initiative for female founders. He says via e-mail that he’d “love to see any easier way for soon-to-be college grads from all of our great schools to get more easily plugged into young companies. Kind of a cross-industry startup career day or fair.”
Sam White, a cofounder of Greentown Labs, has a different idea about graduating students: What if we created opportunities for international students to help Boston startups test or sell their products back in their native countries?
Mark Lorion, one of the founders of Boston Tech Jam, notes that much of this new entrepreneurial infrastructure “has been the result of entrepreneurial groups, investors, and non-profits trying to do the right thing and investing for tomorrow.”
So what about city and state involvement? Lorion would love to see grants made available to help fund businesses that would make the city more fun and attractive to young people — as well as to help combat traffic gridlock.
“Another area we could do better in would be supporting consumer startups,” says Jodi Goldstein, managing director of Harvard’s Innovation Lab, referring to ventures that sell to consumers rather than businesses. “While a few of our ventures, like Whoop, Lovepop, and ArtLifting have stayed in Boston, we still see many go to other cities when it comes time to raise capital and scale.”
Jules Pieri, CEO of the e-commerce site the Grommet, says she’d like to see a Boston branch of Chief, “a peer group for executive women, with a club in New York.”
“Bringing a huge tech conference to Boston would help,” says Don Dodge, an angel investor and startup advisor who recently left Google.
“Something big that brings iconic leaders together would give Boston a big boost,” he said.
Serial entrepreneur Josh Wachman agrees: Bringing entrepreneurs from around the world to Boston for a week would enable the city to “reassert how this is the home for commercialization of impactful ideas, the home for deep tech, the home for health care and biotech, and the home for artificial intelligence innovation.” Wachman is building a Cambridge-based cluster of startups in the AI sector called Deep1.
Kofi Callender, the executive director of Smarter in the City, says there is a need for new mechanisms that help entrepreneurs of color access early funding from a variety of sources, since most can’t easily tap networks of “friends and family” for a few hundred grand of startup capital.
Callender also sees a need for shared co-working spaces in more parts of the city — not just in the Financial District, Back Bay, and Seaport.
The amount of new infrastructure for entrepreneurship built over the past decade is amazing; Just about any other city in the world would rightly be jealous. But there’s always more work to do.