Smarter ways to invest and launch businesses
Programs are helping everyone from hopeful food entrepreneurs to the city’s ambitious students develop their ideas. While some investors are jumping into socially responsible projects.
The following people and organizations are on our list of 2015 Game Changers. They did extraordinary things last year, reshaping the way we live and work.
WHERE ENTREPRENEURS GET COOKING
By Katie Johnston
Everyone wants to turn his or her prized salsa recipe into a business these days, but that takes the kind of space, industrial equipment, and know-how that most budding food entrepreneurs can’t afford. That’s where CommonWealth Kitchen , formerly known as CropCircle Kitchen and led by Jen Faigel, comes in. The Jamaica Plain incubator opened a 10,000-square-foot space in Dorchester last year, offering the growing ranks of cookie bakers and meal-kit preparers a fully equipped kitchen, as well as business advice, refrigeration space, and line cooks — all for around $35 an hour.
More than 100 startups have come through the kitchen. They’re an impressive group, from Clover Food Lab, the popular vegetarian food truck and restaurant business, to Lyndigo Spice, a chutney operation owned by a Boston police officer that made it onto the shelves at Whole Foods in just three months.
FROM THE GROUND UP
This venture capital firm doesn’t just fund good ideas. it launches them, too.
By Beth Healy
Flagship Ventures is a venture capital firm that doesn’t just invest in businesses. Sometimes it builds them from scratch. Flagship, which started 15 years ago, has grown into a juggernaut for startups and IPOs in the fields of life science and sustainable energy. The Cambridge firm run by MIT-trained biochemical engineer Noubar Afeyan has seen eight of its companies go public in the past two years. Those businesses, worth nearly $13 billion, include companies working on new classes of drugs, such as Moderna Therapeutics and Seres Health, and Joule Unlimited Technologies, which turns carbon dioxide into an alternative fuel.
Flagship is unusual among venture capital firms in that it operates both a traditional investing business and its VentureLabs group, where scientists dream up new ideas, put them through a rigorous vetting process with outside experts, and develop — or abandon — them over time.
“We don’t want to play in incremental innovation,’’ Afeyan says. Nor does he care for the idea of propping up startups that sputter along, short of capital and at high risk of failure. Among the things he has learned over time is to embrace criticism as a way of doing business, he says, instead of going far down the path with ill-conceived projects.
And there’s never a shortage of naysayers. Afeyan says he tells his innovation students at MIT that, after the sun, “the second most renewable, abundant resource on the planet is people’s propensity to tell you that you have a stupid idea.”
While that can be discouraging to some, Afeyan says he and his colleagues try to harness the negativity, putting it to Darwinian use to improve their products and technologies. “We do it knowingly. We do it with a learning curve,’’ Afeyan says. “We don’t want to do that by accident.”
Flagship’s VentureLabs has founded 30 companies. Its investment arm has backed another 50. The firm employs about 40 people and recently raised its fifth venture fund, attracting $537 million.
MAKING MONEY WHILE TACKLING SOCIAL PROBLEMS
By Deirdre Fernandes
George Overholser has always been a data geek. As an analyst for HBO, he determined which movies to run and at what times. He helped launch Capital One, figuring out how to use data and modeling to offer credit cards quickly and safely. Now Overholser, the founder of nonprofit Third Sector Capital Partners, is betting that data will help make a difference solving some of the most intractable social problems, from juvenile delinquency to homelessness.
Overholser and his firm are leading advocates for pay-for-success programs and help match funders and do-good organizations. Through this alternative financing method, philanthropists and investment firms, such as Goldman Sachs, invest upfront in social-welfare programs. If the data show the programs are successful and save money, governments repay the investment with a small return.
Third Sector is involved in the Massachusetts pay-for-success program to keep young men out of jail. The program, launched last year, was the first of its kind in the nation. Roca, a Chelsea nonprofit, will try to help 929 troubled youth and aims to reduce the days that released offenders spend back in jail by about 40 percent. The funders are providing $16.1 million in loans and grants.
This social-impact investing tries to align outcomes with money. Governments, which are updating their computer systems, are now able to better track what works, Overholser says. “Regrettably, so much of what we pay for as taxpayers in terms of social services doesn’t help communities the way it should,” he notes. “The sector is frozen, and it needs innovation.”
The Roca deal is in the second year of its seven-year contract, still too soon to tell if it will meet its goals. But Overholser and Third Sector officials are hopeful.
Interest is growing, and Third Sector is now engaged in more than 30 projects nationwide, vetting the possibility of pay-for-success.
OPENING THE DOORS OF TECHNOLOGY
The Smarter in the City technology accelerator launched last year has an ambitious goal: to change the largely white high-tech culture to include more African-Americans, Hispanics, Cape Verdeans, and other people of color. The group, founded by MIT grad Gilad Rosenzweig and funded by grants and foundations, helps budding entrepreneurs or even people with simply a good idea bring their businesses to life by giving them office space, seed money, and — perhaps most important — connections at technology firms. And it all begins at its Dudley Square office in a resurgent Roxbury neighborhood that also has some of the city’s most concentrated poverty. “We can’t pretend there is no racial divide in this city or country, because there is,” Rosenzweig says. “The good thing is we’re talking about it more than ever.”
A FOSSIL FUEL WORK-AROUND
State Street ’s investment arm made it easier for pension funds and other big money managers to put a little more “green” in their portfolios last year. State Street Global Advisors launched its new “Low Carbon” ETF, or exchange traded fund, designed for large investors that want less exposure to oil and polluting industries but can’t ignore entire parts of the stock market and still need to meet investment goals. The new SSGA fund oversees $94 million so far, including money from a United Nations pension fund. It sticks close to major indexes, but favors lower-emission stocks and avoids those with big fossil-fuel reserves.
FOSTERING STUDENT INNOVATION
Harvard University is a big place, where students studying law, politics, and chemistry might never cross paths. But they do at the Harvard Innovation Lab, an Allston center that’s open to startup companies run by students from every school and department at the university.
Fully formed ideas are not a prerequisite. The i-lab offers basic entrepreneurship classes and workshops with experienced professionals in various fields, plus coding boot camps, hackathons, and educational trips to Silicon Valley.
A new space called Launch Lab, for entrepreneurs who’ve already earned their Harvard degrees, opened last fall and quickly became so popular that director Jodi Goldstein plans to nearly triple the space to 8,500 square feet by the end of the summer.
A WELCOME MAT FOR STARTUPS
There are plenty of communal work spaces for startups in the Boston area, but not many come with the perks of a major research university. In the Venture Development Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, fledgling companies can use the school’s resources — everything from high-performance computer systems to lab rats — and partner with academic researchers. Of course, the center comes with standard incubator fare, too: mentoring, networking, and free coffee. The combination is beginning to draw an international crowd. Last year, the VDC welcomed the first two participants in its Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, which helps startup founders from foreign countries secure visas to stay in United States after earning degrees here.