From Sunday’s Globe | Opinion

Can Boston be the hub of the start-up universe?

Eight local entrepreneurs on creating a fertile culture for innovation

We need a 24/7 city

By J. Alain Ferry

START-UP ENTREPRENEURS don’t work from 9 to 5. We don’t drive to the office. We don’t cook dinner. And we don’t make tons of money. We sell our cars, operate out of our apartments, and hold meetings in coffee shops.

Even when we start in Boston and want to stay in Boston, Silicon Valley lures us away with its friendly investors and sunny weather, or New York calls to us with its non-stop action and center-of-the-universe vibe. We need to make Boston a city that never sleeps, instead of a city that chases us out of coffee shops at 7 p.m. We need creative ways to keep innovators and change agents here. Make Boston a 24-hour city, and you will make Boston more difficult to leave.


Better mobility: Bike lanes help, but only while the weather is good, typically from April to November. Expand MBTA hours to 3 a.m. so entrepreneurs can take advantage of 24-hour offices. Many start-ups crank out work at night; coders should not have to sprint to catch the T at 11:45 p.m.

More inexpensive and late-night food: Much of Boston’s start-up community is clustered near Kendall Square and South Station, yet most of Boston’s late-night dining options are clustered near its universities. We need more restaurants that are affordable to entrepreneurs on student budgets and we need them open until at least midnight.

Startup entertainment: Entrepreneurs work hard and play hard; entertaining adrenaline junkies is no small task. Bring more live music into the nerd neighborhoods. Make sports tickets more attainable. Plan geek weekends in the mountains and on the Cape. Organize group bike rides and kickball leagues and running clubs.

Living/working spaces: Entrepreneurs work 12 or more hours per day and want nothing more than a bed, fridge, and bathroom when they go home. Build innovative live/work spaces and make working out of living rooms less dismal. And make them pet-friendly; every start-up needs a four-legged mascot.


J. Alain Ferry is the founder and CEO of RaceMenu.

More media, more hype

By Jesse Bardo

IN OTHER cities where one industry makes up a sizable percentage of the local economy, media empires have been built up to cover them. There’s the entertainment industry in southern California, and Silicon Valley in northern California.There’s politics in Washington, and the media itself in New York City. In each of these places, newspapers, magazines, and blogs have sprouted up and aided - whether intentionally or not - the growth of each city’s specialty.

This media coverage builds celebrity. It builds interest in the industry. Inspires young people. Creates intrigue. It reinforces the city’s identity as a place that does what it does. It helps build connections between the people in the industry and other industries. It makes Hollywood, Hollywood, the Valley, the Valley, and the Big Apple, the Big Apple.

Boston is a sports town. The Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins. The success of these teams has made Boston the Title Town. But entrepreneurial success stories are happening in Boston every day as well. Some of them make national and international news - but not nearly as frequently as they should. Boston has yet to earn its start-up stripes as the Original Bay Area. If the media would focus on its start-ups, we could live up to that title, too.


Jesse Bardo is VP of sales for EverTrue.

Bring in the angels

By Michael Stone

ONE OF Boston’s greatest advantages is its concentration of educated young adults. Approximately 34 percent of people living here are between ages 20 and 34, and 38 percent hold four-year degrees. That translates into a steady pipeline of promising entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, our investment infrastructure isn’t poised to take advantage of this youthful landscape, leaving us vulnerable to an entrepreneurial exodus. Boston boasts over 25 venture capital groups, or VCs, which generally invest a minimum of $2 million per company. That’s ideal for advanced businesses with a proven product. But the area is home to only a handful of “angel’’ groups, individuals or networks that typically invest between $50,000 and $500,000. That’s the kind of seed investment young entrepreneurs need.

Angels are integral to early start-ups, investing in companies as they outgrow their initial “friends and family’’ stage, but before they seek major venture capital. Lacking a thriving angel community, Boston often loses entrepreneurs to New York, with fewer VCs but more angel groups, or San Francisco, which has an abundance of both. That’s partly the reason why Facebook “de-friended’’ Cambridge for Palo Alto, where more money was available faster.

My own company considered leaving Boston before we discovered MassChallenge, the world’s largest start-up competition, which offered free office space and other resources to help get us off the ground. The 111 start-ups in the 2010 program have raised over $100 million and created 500 Massachusetts jobs over the past year. Boston needs more of these “success enablers.’’ Investors should create more angel groups to attract, grow, and retain early-stage companies, which can then benefit from VC funds. We need people to see Boston as a destination, not a stepping-stone. What starts in Boston should stay in Boston.


Michael Stone is president of Abroad101.

Go big

By John Harthorne

BOSTON HAS a proud history of producing revolutionary ideas - since well before 1776. Yet we have perhaps the greatest opportunity to lead through innovation right now. To do so, we must start thinking bigger.

The world faces enormous challenges: Most people on the planet lack access to clean water, adequate education, effective health care, and sustainable energy. Boston is the global leader at producing practical solutions to complex problems. If we work together, we could benefit humanity and boost Boston’s bottom line.

First, we’d need new sources of revenue and talent. We already invest significant money, time, and energy into innovation. But there are many individuals and organizations that are not integrated into the innovation community. Adding more bodies, expertise, and money would help. That community would also need to collaborate, optimizing our activities as a system instead of working to maximize our short-term benefits as individuals. Collaboration would enable greater output and reduce wasted effort and investment, thereby increasing our long-term benefits as individuals, too.


It might be challenging at times to set aside short-term interests to collaborate toward bigger opportunities. It is critical, though, if we wish to maintain and expand our central role as global value creators. The time is ripe for another shot heard ’round the world, but this time let’s use a vaccine instead of a musket.

John Harthorne is the founder and CEO of MassChallenge.

Where’s the diversity?

By Derek Ohly

THE CONTOURS of Boston’s economy tomorrow depend on decisions made by the people who fund start-ups today. Their decisions - the kind of entrepreneurs they back, the type of products they bet on - help determine who and what succeeds.

The wealthy individuals who invest their own money in early-stage private companies around Boston are not a diverse crowd. My own informal polling suggests minorities constitute less than 5 percent of our start-up investor population, and women less than 15 percent. Older white men dominate. I have nothing against older white men (I plan to be one someday), but that lack of diversity means that the way opportunity and risk are assessed is biased along a narrow range of experiences and ways of thinking. We’re missing opportunities - big ones - especially for start-ups that fall outside the MIT-inspired tech profile. We need more diverse investors backing different kinds of entrepreneurs and products.

My own start-up experience is telling. I run a company that makes custom-made bras sold through home parties. Our goal is to revolutionize a female-focused industry that hasn’t changed in 100 years. While raising money in 2010, I pitched a women’s consumer product predominantly to men who made their money in financial services and software. Most of the investors could not personally identify with the fact that most women don’t like to shop for bras - something women instinctively understand.

To win over investors, I focused on the innovative technology of our product. We were fortunate: Enough of them understood how that technology had money-making potential. But not everyone can do that. Many great ideas have died or moved elsewhere for lack of an appropriate financial backer in Boston.

Derek Ohly is co-founder and CEO of Zyrra.

Forget the CEO

By Olivier Ceberio

WHEN I moved to Boston from France to study business and public policy at MIT and Harvard, my dream was to start a new business after graduation. Instead, like many other business students, I changed paths, and moved to Singapore to work as a consultant. Why did I abandon my dream?

I was turned off by the prevalent belief in America that “good’’ entrepreneurs must be demigods like Steve Jobs or Jack Welsh: charismatic mavericks who are visionary, fearless, and triumphantly determined. This idea pervades the American entrepreneurial ecosystem - from business school, where students are first introduced to these “superstars,’’ to the investment process, where firms regularly publish laundry lists of the key attributes they look for in entrepreneurs. I once saw a local venture capital guru explain to a crowd of young entrepreneurs that his firm only invests in people who have accomplished something extraordinary - like winning a world athletic championship - before they turned 25. It’s no wonder that anyone with an ounce of humility second guesses his or her entrepreneurial career path.

Fortunately, a strange twist of fate put me back on track. I lost my consulting job during the financial crisis and moved back to Boston. In six months, I had drawn up a business plan to help turn around the start-up business I now work for. Entrepreneurship, I’ve found, is less about the individual at the top, and more about the system in which the creation of business takes place. This includes the team and its internal dynamics, but also external factors - like mentors, investors, customers, suppliers, regulators, and influencers - and how those factors relate to each other. Boston should lead the way in changing the CEO-as-king mindset. It would attract more promising entrepreneurs with different skill sets, and make the exercise of entrepreneurship more efficient.

Olivier Ceberio is chief operating officer of Resolute Marine Energy.

Brand Boston as the birthplace of innovation

By Joselin Mane

Some of Boston’s notable firsts :

1635 The country’s first public school: Boston Latin.

1636 The country’s first college: Harvard University.

1690 The country’s first newspaper.

1845 The country’s first sewing machine.

1853 The first patented burglar alarm.

1859 The first house in the world to be lit by electricity.

1876 The first telephone.

1897 The country’s first subway system.

1999 The creation of Napster.

2004 The creation of Facebook.

IF BOSTON wants to cement its reputation as the birthplace of innovation - and it should, because it is - we need to make a stronger cultural case for why we deserve the title. To start, we should build a museum, publish a website, and host an annual awards show.

Boston’s innovation history is equally as impressive as its Revolutionary-era history - stories that are preserved and presented in bricks and mortar around town. How many tourists leave Boston without first walking, or at least hearing about, the Freedom Trail? Entrepreneurs in Boston have created institutions, products, and technologies that have changed lives around the the world. But there’s no one place, online or in the real world, where those achievements are broadcast loudly and proudly. As a result, tourists don’t learn the story of Boston’s breakthroughs when they visit, and the information isn’t even easily attained online.

It’s time to start showcasing that history. A website touting all of Boston’s firsts would help. It could be part online museum - a one-stop shop showcasing the past, present, and future of Boston innovation - and part online social network - a place where people can contribute, collaborate, and connect.

Second, there needs to be a real-world location that tells our story: call it Boston’s Innovation Museum. Finally, if New York can have Fashion Week and California the Oscars, why can’t Boston have an awards ceremony of its own? There would be no better way to celebrate people who save and change lives from their offices here in the Hub.

Joselin Mane is co-founder of BostonTweetUp.

Go small

By Ben Jabbawy

CONSIDER THE following scenario: You’re a college senior in the Boston area, graduating with a degree in computer science. You have several companies waving offers in front of your nose: The Googles and Microsofts of the world, and some large financial institutions. Some offers reach six figures. That would be hard to turn down. Why go to work for Niraj Shah at Wayfair or Matt Lauzon at Gemvara in Boston when you could work in the footsteps of Sergey Brin or Bill Gates?

Chances are if you’re not part of the tech community here, you’ve never heard of Wayfair or Gemvara. And that’s the problem. The Boston area needs to do a better job championing its little guys. We don’t have many giant anchor companies here, and oftentimes that’s understood to be a bad thing. Instead of collectively pining for Mark Zuckerberg to return to the Hub, we should focus on, promote, and celebrate the assets we do have: smaller companies and start-ups.

This shift in emphasis would help start-ups recruit and retain local graduates, and perhaps inspire graduating talent to take the risk of joining a start-up instead of taking lucrative corporate jobs.

The change could start at universities. They should invite more start-up founders as guest speakers to undergraduate classes, and they should provide more opportunities for local start-ups to recruit on campus. These schools could also offer more financial aid to students who join smaller start-ups after graduation instead of taking more corporate positions.