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Game Changers

Boston is so far ahead of innovation, it’s like we’re in our own time zone

The city’s creative types often find themselves so far in the future, it’s hard to get back to the present.

Joanne Gebal for the boston globe

Let’s say that your backyard included Kendall Square, the Longwood Medical Area, and a half-dozen truly great universities. Its soil was fertile enough to produce the first mutual fund, universal health coverage, Facebook, the first successful robotic vacuum cleaner, an honest-to-goodness flying car company, gene editing, and The Awesome Foundation, “a global community advancing the interest of awesome” that stretches from Australia to Armenia. And you regularly bumped into Nobel laureates and MacArthur “genius” award winners while riding the Red Line.

You might get a bit inured to all the game changing taking place around you.

And then every once in a while you’re reminded that we live in a time zone of our own — not just a few hours ahead of some other spot on the globe, but often quite a few years.


Call it BST. Boston Singular Time.

I notice it often, but take as an example one rain-switching-to-snow evening in February in the private dining room of Bistro du Midi, a French restaurant overlooking the Public Garden. Executives from the venerable Silicon Valley giant Hewlett-Packard were in town, and they’d gathered a group of about 15 local entrepreneurs to talk about the future of manufacturing. HP was crowing that it had begun to sell, in late 2016, the first handful of Jet Fusion machines, its $130,000 3-D printers.

But if you were living on BST, as we do, you might have known that a quarter-century before HP got around to launching its own 3-D printer, MIT grad students were building some of the earliest ones — using scavenged parts from inkjet printers made by HP. Or that one of the first companies to make 3-D printers, Z Corp., was formed here in 1994. These days, you can find startups around town working on printers that will make superstrong Kevlar parts, metal parts, or parts out of resins that can be used to cast custom jewelry. One of the startups, Somerville-based Voxel8, has a printer that can include circuits in what it makes. Shortly after the HP printer went on sale last year, Voxel8 started shipping its product. For $9,000.


So the vibe at the bistro was a bit “Bienvenue au club, HP. What took you so long?”

We may not be able to brag about being the country’s most hospitable place to grow a company. CNBC ranks Massachusetts as the 20th best state for doing business; we’re hampered by high utility costs and housing prices. We’re in the middle of the pack for taxation, an improvement from the old days of “Taxachusetts” — but still not comparable to Texas. California leaves us in the dust when it comes to venture capital dollars. And even North Dakota gets more sunshine than we do.

But year after year, Massachusetts tops the ranks of the most innovative states. It’s held the title in the Milken Institute’s index since the biennial survey launched in 2002; Bloomberg has ranked us No. 1 two years running.

BST can sometimes take you so far into the future you get a little disoriented. If the Cambridge startup eGenesis is successful in raising genetically modified pigs with organs that can be transplanted into humans, is that ethically any more suspect than raising pigs to produce bacon that can taste great when fried up in a cast-iron skillet? If Woburn-based Terrafugia is successful at bringing flying cars into the mainstream and you can soar above the traffic of the Southeast Expressway, will Boston pilots be as fond of illegal U-turns as their earthbound counterparts? Local startups are already designing robots that would weed your garden (Franklin Robotics) and trim your weed (Bloom Automation).


The temporal distortion that is BST is created by seven things:

> Universities that attract smart young people and faculty from around the world.

> Funding from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy to support cutting-edge research.

> Entrepreneurs who form startup companies around that research.

> Venture capitalists and angel investors who put money into those startups.

> The lawyers, public relations firms, recruiters, and others who help those companies patent products, find customers, and grow.

> Larger companies that hire recent grads and collaborate with (and occasionally acquire) startups.

> Wealth creation that flows back to universities, nonprofits, and new startups.

There are reasons to worry that changes to a few of those elements could pull us backward. President Trump has proposed cutting scientific research funding and killing entire programs like ARPA-E, which supplies money to renewable energy technologies being developed by universities and startups. (Last month’s congressional budget deal forestalled those moves — for now.) He has attempted to curtail immigration from certain countries; several universities have already reported a drop in applications from foreign students. And Trump has suggested that he will solve the problem of steep drug prices — great news for consumers filling prescriptions, but likely not for the biotech startups that rely on the promise of a payday in order to survive for a decade or more of trying to determine if there really is a pony in there somewhere.


“Immigration restrictions and funding cuts are definitely bad news,” says Russ Wilcox, an entrepreneur who recently joined Pillar VC, a Boston investment firm. “It’s not good for the country to cut basic research. Each dollar we spend there leads to one hundred dollars of salaries later on, from salespeople to manufacturing. It all starts with innovation.”

There are factors unrelated to the new administration, too. Venture capital firms that once invested predominantly in Boston companies have been increasingly turning their focus to New York and Silicon Valley. “We’ve seen a lower number of high-quality deals here in Boston,” says Antonio Rodriguez, a tech investor at Matrix Partners who earned some nice coin by investing in California-based Oculus, the virtual reality company acquired by Facebook for $2 billion.

But Bostonians aren’t only game changers, they’re also habitual analyzers and worriers. Crown us the most innovative state in America, and our inclination is to exchange a quick high-five to acknowledge the accolade — before switching back into BST and trying to hammer away at some prototype of the future.

Scott Kirsner is a Globe business columnist. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.