MassChallenge’s innovation rises above failures at Zynga, 38 Studios

Associated press/file 2012

On the same day last week that global game-maker Zynga shuttered its Cambridge office, and former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s failed video-game venture auctioned off office equipment and memorabilia, there was a much more encouraging story to tell as acclaimed startup accelerator MassChallenge awarded $1 million to 16 emerging firms. The confluence of these events underscored a strength of the region’s innovation economy: Even as individual firms lack the stability of the big manufacturing companies of the 20th century, a vibrant tech environment in Greater Boston helps guarantee that local workers with the right skills can move to new firms when old ones struggle.

MassChallenge’s winners include a host of promising ventures: devices for the physically disabled, software to help people resolve legal disputes, a website to help ex-military personnel find jobs, and imaging sensors to enable first responders to peer into dangerous sites. Not all of these companies will become quick successes. Some will fail, as Schilling’s 38 Studios did, infamously leaving Rhode Island taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars. But on the upside, many of 38 Studios’ 400 engineers, designers, and artists have migrated to other game makers in New England. Others of Schilling’s former employees teamed up to start their own companies. As for Zynga, whose Cambridge office grew out of the acquisition of local startups Conduit Labs and Floodgate Entertainment, other gaming companies were already courting its 50 laid-off employees. Eitan Glinert, founder of Cambridge-based Fire Hose Games, said, “These people are talented, and I have no doubt they’ll get snatched up by companies around here.”

For the innovation economy, it’s less important to shore up individual companies than cultivate an environment that attracts and retains workers with the right skills. With the seeding of startups, Boston will remain a global conduit of tech talent, able to rise above its occasional failures.