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Boston Chamber looks to build ties to innovation community

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Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jim Rooney wants to bring more figures from the startup and venture capital communities into the fold.
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jim Rooney wants to bring more figures from the startup and venture capital communities into the fold.(Jessica Rinaldi)

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is one of the most influential business groups in the state, but it has largely missed out on one of the fastest-growing segments of the local economy: the startup and venture capital communities.

Jim Rooney is about to find out whether he can bridge that gap.

During his first year as the chamber's chief executive, Rooney has made a point of reaching out to the innovation sector. And on Tuesday, Rooney took the boldest step yet to prove that this chamber of commerce is not stuck in the past: hiring 30-year-old tech executive David Brown to serve as vice president of innovation leadership, a new position.

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Brown learned his way around Boston's startup space during his nearly three years as executive director of TUGG (Technology Underwriting Greater Good), a local nonprofit that fosters social entrepreneurship. He left that gig in February to run strategic partnerships at ZappRx, a venture-backed health information technology firm, and then he set out on his own later in the year to develop two startups.

"We're in a period of rapid change in which new entrepreneurial innovative startup companies are happening all around us, in all industries," Rooney said. "The chamber needs to be better connected to that phenomenon. To do that, I felt I needed someone with a high degree of connectedness to that ecosystem, and David brings that to the table."

Rooney, the former chief of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said he recognizes he's got a solid network within the city's established employers and its political power brokers. But that's not necessarily the case in the startup community. Brown, he said, has those connections. Next up, Rooney wants to bring on a new innovation and inclusion director, to encourage greater participation of women, minorities, and young professionals.

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Rooney said he knew he wanted to better integrate the chamber with the startup world, even before he accepted the job last March.

At the time, another finalist for the chamber chief executive position was C.A. Webb. She was seen by many as the startup community's preferred choice. Webb was then the executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association but left to help launch a venture capital firm, Assemble.VC.

By creating an innovation position, Rooney is looking to court such people as Steve O'Leary, managing director at Aeris Partners, a local mergers and acquisition advisory firm. O'Leary, a trustee with the Mass Technology Leadership Council, said the Boston chamber isn't regularly on his radar screen. But he thinks creating this innovation job is a smart step toward better connecting the city's longtime corporate leaders with its innovation economy.

"That's just where the growth is today," O'Leary said. "To have someone who can shine a light on what's going on in innovation and how that impacts each of these companies and how they can engage to develop innovation components within their business, I think it's all to the good."

Brown first considered the job after Jordan Fliegel, president of Boston-based CoachUp, mentioned it to him last fall. Brown said he decided to step away from the day-to-day work on two social enterprise startups to pursue the chamber job.

The chamber offers networking opportunities, leadership training, and public policy advocacy. Now, Brown will try to figure out how to deliver those services in a meaningful way to entrepreneurs and startups who haven't felt included in the past.

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"It hasn't had the relevancy to the startup community for a while now," Brown said. "We have some work to do in terms of proving our authenticity. But all the steps that Jim has taken so far are really good indicators that we mean what we're saying."


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.