Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How Do We Better Connect Students to Boston's Innovation Economy?

I joined a group of people for an informal dinner discussion last night, the topic of which was: “What can we do to better connect Boston’s student population with the entrepreneurial sector in town?”

The dinner participants included three student entrepreneurs; two venture capitalists (representing Sigma Partners and Spark Capital); profs and career services folks from Babson, Boston College, Boston University, and Tufts; one person from an industry association (Tom Hopcroft of Mass TLC) and one from an angel investing group (James Geshwiler from CommonAngels); and several entrepreneurs.

It was an interesting mix of perspectives. Everyone felt that we can do a better job of exposing students to entrepreneurial companies here, and helping them build the skills and connections they’ll need to eventually start their own business. Some of my notes from the discussion are below (they’re not comprehensive), but let me try to summarize what I heard as some of the key constructive recommendations for addressing the issue:

    1. Our local industry groups, trade associations and conferences ought to offer student rates, even if they limit the number of students that can attend a particular event. Many do, but they don’t always make that clear.

    2. Students and universities are eager to have more entrepreneurs and venture capitalists visit their campus to talk about what they do. They’re especially interested in hearing from companies with summer internship or job possibilities. I know entrepreneurs and VCs are very busy, but would it be too much to ask to have them do this once a year, or once a semester – at their alma mater or another local school?

    3. It seems odd that Boston area students travel out to Silicon Valley for “Tech Treks,” where they visit the leading lights of Silicon Valley, yet there are very few opportunities for them to visit companies in their backyard, like EMC, Akamai, Genzyme, Zipcar, and Harmonix (creator of the “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” games.) Why isn’t there a weekly series of lunches, on Fridays say, that would run throughout the academic year, and invite a group of b-school students (and even a few motivated undergrads) to visit our most innovative local companies? If demand increased, this could be something that multiple companies do each Friday throughout the school year.

    And what about the VCs? I wonder why there isn’t an “open house” once a year up on “Mount Money” in Waltham, where most Massachusetts VCs have an office, that welcomes students and offers an overview of each firm’s portfolio companies.

    4. We need more events organized jointly by the students or faculty of several different schools. It’s nice that some schools have entrepreneurship conferences, or business plan competitions, but working together seems like it could accomplish much more. It was encouraging to hear that the BC and Harvard entrepreneurship clubs are beginning to work together on some initiatives.

    5. We need to do a better job of marketing/communicating to students the high-growth industries that are rooted here, from robotics to cleantech to videogames to life sciences. This could be through a combination of on-campus events, advertising in student newspapers, or creating online resources especially for students. This hasn’t been a traditional area of focus of our trade associations – aside from organizing the occasional recruiting fair.

Participants Rob Go from Spark Capital and Gregg Favalora of Actuality Medical have already posted their thoughts about the dinner, beating me to the punch.

My rough notes follow:

    - Companies ought to list internship opportunities on their sites. (Career services people at Boston-area universities: are there specific sites that you recommend to students, or see them using, that companies should also post to?)

    - Cindy Klein Marmer from Babson said she uses the BBJ’s list of the top 100 fastest-growing companies to suggest places students might want to work or intern. I published a list of fifty “cool” companies recently. It’d be nice to create a “list of lists” somewhere that career services folks, and students, could peruse. Don McLagan mentioned that MITX has a list of its member companies, all involved in digital media and technology. Other trade associations, like Mass Biotech, also have good member directories.

    - Pamela Goldberg of Tufts mentioned that she brought a table of Tufts students to a recent BBJ event honoring the 100 fastest-growing companies. That was the first time Tufts had done that, and she thought it was a success.

    - One issue at the federal level that has people concerned is the availability of visas for foreign students, so they can stick around once they’ve finished their studies. Paul McManus from BU said that 47 percent of BU’s grad students are in the country on a visa, and most can’t stay to work here afterward.

    - Entrepreneurial companies need someone to start today, CommonAngels’ James Geshwiler pointed out. They don’t have long-term hiring plans where they can recruit on campus in the fall for someone who’ll join them next June.

    - One issue is that students aren’t inclined to leave campus very often for activities. Pamela from Tufts said her approach to is to bring entrepreneurs to campus for group lunches with students.

    - Christine Griffin from BC talked about a recent visit to Silicon Valley. “There are no obvious hang-outs here,” she said, that compare to University Ave. in Palo Alto, where you might bump into Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Ross Mayfield of Socialtext.

    - She proposed a great idea, which is to pool resources among schools and create a “collaborative seminar” that would involve studying local companies and then visiting them. She’s working with some Harvard students on this project, and the idea is that students from a few local schools would each set up two or three company visits, sharing the burden.

    - Paul McManus noted that faculty involvement in that kind of project is important, because it gives things continuity as students move on.

    - At many schools, it’s not clear who the faculty point person is who could connect an entrepreneur to the most promising students – either for jobs or internships. Actuality Medical’s Gregg Favalora said that each school ought to have a “node” … an individual who is well-connected to the entrepreneurial and VC world, and also has a great sense of which students are hunting for jobs, internships, or even seed funding for a start-up idea. Running a blog would make it clear to the rest of the world who that person (or those people) are at a school.

    - James talked about “the power of role models.” Celebrity entrepreneurs, like Zuckerberg, encourage others to try to make their ideas work. “We have the anti-celebrity mentality in New England,” he said. It was jokingly suggested that I start an East Coast version of Valleywag.

    - Roger Krakoff of Sigma noted that Y Combinator is doing great work helping to cultivate early-stage start-ups. But he said that New York and Atlanta are much more focused than Boston right now on spinning up excitement about their tech scenes. He mentioned Tech Meetup in New York, which happens once a month. “New York is far more vibrant right now,” he said.

    - Among the events in Boston compared to Tech Meetup were WebInno, OpenCoffee, Mobile Mondays, Biotech Tuesdays, and Tech Tuesdays, the new monthly event organized by software pioneer and all-around nice guy Dan Bricklin. Most are free to go to, and open to students. Krakoff spoke very highly of events organized by TiE, including their entrepreneur forum coming up in May. A student membership is $25.

    - Hopcroft mentioned that students get half-off the member rate on MassTLC’s breakfast events, which makes the price $20.

    - Favalora told a very funny story about TellMe Networks recruiting at Stanford by storming computer labs at midnight and handing out free pizzas. This was during the dot-com boom.

    - Jessica Athas of The Martini Workout, a fitness entrepreneur, said that entrepreneurs from outside the tech world can sometimes feel excluded, since so many of the networking and educational events that happen here are geared to tech and biotech.

    - Paul McManus said we ought to expose liberal arts students to entrepreneurship, too – not just engineers. Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s founder and a Tufts alum, wasn’t a programmer.

    - Krakoff suggested we might need to create an event (“this big, combustible event” were his exact words) that brings together entrepreneurs with budding entrepreneurs, ideally from many different schools: Tufts/BU/Babson/Bentley/etc.

    - “Let’s make the community responsible for the problem,” Krakoff suggested. “Boston needs to promote itself better.”

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Blogger Travis said...

I very much enjoyed attending the dinner last night. It seems that - from an entrepreneurial student's perspective - many of the solutions proposed would be great: we would love to see more presence of VCs, angel investors, startup service providers, and startup recruiters on campus.

A question left unanswered by all of the proposals is WHY the entrepreneurial community should be more active on campuses. Instead of relying on moral impetus alone, the problem will be addressed more directly by making it within the self-interest of firms to interact with students.

The VC and angel community in Boston laments that it has missed companies such as Facebook, and - if it were feasible - they would like to somehow access the student entrepreneurship market. So the challenge is to find a systematic way in which working with student startups is profitable for individual agents within the entrepreneurial community.

I have attempted to solve this problem and overcome this market gap through my own startup - Over the last month, as I've been in California working on this startup, I have spent a substantial amount of time observing and meeting with the leaders of entrepreneurship clubs at universities on the West Coast. One insight I found was that, in the Bay Area, there are a few large, self-contained entrepreneurship programs that in themselves encompass most of the entrepreneurial output from universities there - most notably Stanford. Because so much entrepreneurship is at one school, the entrepreneurial community (VC's, angels, service providers, etc.) finds it profitable to invest time and money in that school to find the next big Google or Yahoo coming out of its gates.

Boston's asset, however, is the presence of several great schools in close proximity. While none of these schools in themselves offer the same amount of entrepreneurial output as Stanford (with the possible exception of MIT), these schools - when taken in aggregate - have just as many big entrepreneurial success stories. Yet, because these startups are scattered across schools, it is more costly for the entrepreneurial community to find these gems - so firms end up spending less time and money hunting for these businesses.

The thesis behind is that this can be overcome simply by aggregating all of the most promising startups in Boston. The site is an interactive, quality-screened directory of student entrepreneurs and their startups across Boston, and brings together high-quality ideas from across universities. From the Boston area alone, nearly 1000 student entrepreneurs have already joined the site, posting business plans for their nearly 300 startups. After our quality screening process, about 100 of these businesses have been selected to be viewed by professionals (law firms, early-stage investors, accountants, web developers, etc.). Students are eager to join, and participating professionals have already seen a number of successful deals. By decreasing the cost to interact with students, we are aiming to tip the balance so that it becomes profitable for firms to interact with the next Facebook before it leaves Boston.

This is not, in my opinion, the only successful model of making it profitable to work with student entrepreneurs. I have been very impressed by programs like Summer @ Highland, and I know that Highland Capital Partners has found the program to be a worthwhile investment so far: by providing grants to student startups, they have been successful in attracting many of the best students to work with them, who have in turn contacted them first when they were ready to raise financing.

To conclude, I would like to re-frame the question as: "what can we do to make the entrepreneurial sector want to work with the student population?" By aligning incentives properly, I believe that we can go a long way in catalyzing a new wave of student entrepreneurship in Boston.

Best regards,

Travis May
President, Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum

April 23, 2008 6:46 PM  
Anonymous KevinB said...

Perhaps the idea of starting an east coast Valleywag shouldn't be laughed off too quickly. We need somewhat of a regional, influential anchor to organize and execute a regular networking event. There's Techcrunch on the west coast, for example, and NewTeeVee, who organize anything from large events to smaller meet-ups. These guys leverage the massive social networks they've built up online, through blogging, Twitter, etc and then bring people together, out of the clouds to meet in person.

I, for one, would love to see someone like you begin to crystalize an effort, an event, and make it a regular occurrence (annual, semi-annual). Tap into the multiple universities so there's active participation from students and entrepreneurs. Tap into the PR community to help promote the events, etc. If we can get something started, it will grow. Wouldn't it be nice to have Boston be on the must-see list of tech networking events.

I'd love to brainstorm more with you to see how we could get something going, explore some ideas for events compelling enough to put Boston back on the map for students and young entrepreneurs.

Rambling now, thanks for listening!

April 24, 2008 8:15 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirsner said...


I agree that we could always use more events, especially ones that bring together students and entrepreneurs. But there is a lot of stuff here already (see the events mentioned above, in the post, like WebInno and Tech Tuesday). The Mass TLC is revamping their annual investor's conference in the fall. It'll be called 'Start Here' and it sounds pretty cool. I already help organize numerous events in the area, from dinners like this one to things like the Nantucket Conference (May 1-3) to gatherings at the Cambridge Innovation Center to Future Forward in the fall, which is free for entrepreneurs to attend.

Then, there's the Pop Sugar event (formerly Tech Cocktail), happening next month.

And in terms of information about the community, that's one thing this blog attempts to do. Xconomy does a lot, as do Mass High Tech and BBJ.

April 24, 2008 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Dharmesh Shah said...

I could not agree more that Boston could do a better job connecting students and entrepreneurs.

Having been a grad student myself recently, it was clear that big companies (the usual suspects) were doing recruiting on campus, because they had the resources.

One thing that is getting better now is just awareness of the startups that are in the area. A few years ago, unless you were already "in the network", you had little way of knowing which startups were hiring and growing.

One thing that might be interesting is a "HubCrunch" (a website devoted to just pulling together information about local startups, their status, their announcements, etc.)

The local events are nice, but they are getting big and it's hard to actually learn anything about new startups. Great to see the energy, but hard to have meaningful conversations.

If anyone is working on this problem somehow, I'm happy to be involved and help out (with the caveat that I'm an introver).

April 24, 2008 10:00 AM  
Anonymous KevinB said...

Thanks for that reply Scott, I appreciate you clearing that up for me (and I hope you didn't think I was implying you're not already playing a key role -- just thinking in terms of tying it all together in way that brings more students to the IE). And it's also clear I'm more plugged in to events outside our region than I am to those happening in my backyard. I'll need to figure out why that is!

I do appreciate your blog, but I clearly need to watch more carefully for the events in which I can become involved, and perhaps even contribute to. I'm very intrigued by the Nantucket Conference, but I understand that's invite only, correct?

Anyway, thanks for your reply; it was a good shove for me to get closer to the local events already taking place!

April 24, 2008 10:39 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirsner said...

Hi Kevin-

Here's more info on the Nantucket Conference:


April 24, 2008 4:58 PM  
Anonymous Dean Whitney said...

I spoke at Bentley last night on the topic of Web 2.0 & Social Media and it was a great experience. It wasn't Digitas that reached out to Bentley to get an expert to speak but it was a Professor that I met at an event and we connected directly. I have done a few such workshops and would love to do more; quite frankly no one is asking me. The question is how do we connect the innovators with the academic opportunities?

April 25, 2008 2:43 PM  

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