Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Brainstorming: How Do We Better Communicate New England's Innovative Mojo?

We had a great 2.5 hour brainstorming session last night at the offices of Flybridge Capital Partners in the Back Bay, focused on this question: how do we better communicate New England's innovative, creative, entrepreneurial spirit to the rest of the world?

The folks who participated are listed all the way at the bottom of this post. I would've invited more, but we wanted a small-ish group in order to give everyone a chance to participate, and wanted to represent various fields (like energy, life sciences, digital media, etc.)

Here are some of my notes on what we covered. I'd love your comments and ideas.

You can also download the audio of the entire conversation (MP3), or just click play below (it runs about 1:45).

1. The challenge

We don't do a good enough job communicating to the rest of the world the innovative stuff -- and important problem-solving -- that takes place here in New England. We also tend to communicate in a fragmented way as divergent fiefdoms (IE, Providence and Portsmouth and Western Mass. all work on their own strategies) and as verticals (healthcare data and cleantech and defense all work on their own strategies), rather than thinking about communicating about the entire region, and all of our industries. In a competitive global economy, maybe we need to think as a region, not just cities and states.

2. The audience

I suggested that the primary audiences for this communication are:

- Students who come here to get an education, and often leave
- Entrepreneurs in other places who may come here to build businesses in a given field
- Large companies (IE, Google and Novartis) who may feel its important to set up a satellite facility here

Other folks said that there are other audiences, like

- People who already live here, but may not understand the innovation industries
- People who work in one innovation industry, but don't have a good sense of the others
- Alumni: people who once lived here, but have moved away (Dave McLaughlin of Boston World Partnerships used a nifty espionage term for these folks: he likes to say we have "assets" in other locations)

3. The approach

I suggested that we focus mostly on things that are inexpensive (or free) to do, and don't require too much coordination. I told the participants that I didn't want to create six working groups that would each meet once a quarter to figure out what to do. I said my bias was more toward things that we could accomplish in six months to a year, rather than longer-term initiatives... and toward things that would be open to anyone's participation, rather than limited to a chosen group. (We then talked about some of the worthy initiatives that already exist, from Boston World Partnerships to MITX's efforts to connect students with digital media employers to the city of Boston's "One in 3" program.)

4. What's here

We talked a bit about the various industries based here, and the ways we are innovative... from medical devices to defense to transportation to film and the arts to clean energy to social and policy innovation. Saul Kaplan from Rhode Island suggested that instead of listing industries, we should talk about problems that we are trying to solve -- for instance, providing better and more affordable healthcare, dealing with climate change, etc.

5. The common attributes / what we're good at

We spent a nice chunk of time talking about the things that are common across all of the innovation we do:

This area is an "academic Hollywood" that attracts bright students and profs. (Some preferred the term "intellectual Hollywood.")

We punch above our weight... we're a small region that has a big impact on the world.

We're scrappy.

We connect across silos to solve problems.

We constantly reinvent and rebound -- the region always comes back after economic dips.

Contrary to the popular Brahmin perception, Dave McLaughlin of Boston World Partnerships noted that Boston is one of the most youthful cities in the country. (Second only to Austin, I think...)

Education is the root of everything that we do. I suggested that we're good at taking academic research, adding money and entrepreneurial expertise, and building companies that matter to the world.

Saul Kaplan suggested that we're focused not just on inputs to innovation (new research, patents, start-ups, and VC), but the outputs, too: having an impact on big problems in the world.

We're good at exploring the intersections and convergences of different-but-related fields.

Jamie Tedford of Brand Networks made the case that we (innovators) are the best salespeople for the region. (Me: Maybe we just need to be more coordinated or more clear about what we're selling.)

6. What we might do

Get more students to go to networking events/conferences. I mentioned the StayinMA program that Flybridge started, which provides scholarships to students to cover the registration fees.

Collect all of the studies about the economic impact of N.E. innovation in one place

A site/blog that serves as the "Daily Candy" of N.E. innovation

I suggested a one-page "talking points" sheet that people could download so they'd have a picture of what happens here, and be able to speak about it broadly ... for instance, if you sit next to someone from Iowa on a plane. Nick d'Arbloff of the New England Clean Energy Council talked about illustrating the impact of innovation here with charts, images, and graphs. (Maybe an iPhone app?)

More mentorship from successful execs/entrepreneurs

A wiki to collect info about various groups/associations/funding sources/companies connected to innovation here. A directory of innovation, someone termed it, or a "wikipedia of New England innovation."

We should have salons to connect students/young people with established entrepreneurs/innovators. (Bob Metcalfe does these occasionally at his Back Bay home.)

We might distribute Flipcams to people to go out and build a library of entrepreneur/innovator interviews. (Perhaps students at b-schools?) Another video-related project, which I think Don McLagan said he and MITX are working on, involves encouraging students to produce short videos about their first year at their first job at a company here in Massachusetts, for consumption by other students.

Doug Levin talked about creating an "oasis online geared to students."

I suggested that we need to create more ways for students to visit companies... one thought is picking a Friday every month when several companies around the region might host a lunch for students, where they could hear about what the company is working on, meet the CEO or key execs, and get a tour. Kind of a "tech trek" that would run the entire school year, not just for a week during spring break. (Which is when many b-school students head out west to visit innovative companies.)

Think about things that can leverage the unemployed, and their time. Steve Wardell mentioned that he relied on unemployed folks to help run a big event he put on in February, about healthcare IT...and I mentioned a local entrepreneur who has been thinking about ways to encourage unemployed folks to team up to try to develop start-up ideas. (Not sure if he's ready to talk about it yet...)

Homecoming Weekend: Encourage towns around the region to invite their natives back on one specific weekend, like July 4th or some time around Xmas... and spotlight companies hiring and things happening in those towns. (Newburyport apparently has a homecoming weekend like this.)

On the train ride back to Cambridge, Steve Wardell suggested that we need to get more innovators blogging, at little companies and big ones. "We need to create 1000 Scobles," he said, referring to the famous ex-Microsoft blogger. "We should encourage more people here to use social media, to get away from the perception that Yankees are insular and clubby and only talk amongst ourselves."

7. Next steps

I'm working on a small project to declare that June is "Innovation Month in New England," with a few collaborators. There are an incredible number of innovation-related events happening next month across the region, and we're going to spotlight a few and try to encourage people to attend at least one, if they agree with us that innovation and entrepreneurship are what will help the economy rebound. We'll start using the tag #neinno for reporting on those events, and see if that catches on for Tweets and blog posts and photos about innovation in the region.

I think/hope that other folks who participated last night will develop some of the ideas they feel most strongly about -- and if they do, I'll point you to those projects from this blog.

(Update: Here's a post about the discussion from Saul Kaplan, the delegate from Rhode Island.)



Fresh Tilled Soil


(formerly Comerica Bank, Mass Biotech Council)

Flybridge Capital Partners

Conn. Tech Council

Boston Redevelopment Authority

KMC Partners

NE Clean Energy Council

Mass. Technology Leadership Council

Business Innovation Factory

Kel & Partners

Boston Globe / Innovation Economy

Boston History & Innovation Collaborative


Entrepreneur & NE Clean Energy Council Fellow

Forrester Research

Boston World Partnerships

Entrepreneur (formerly

Mass. Innovation & Technology Exchange

NH Technology Council

Scott Lyon

Long River Ventures / Venture Well

Brand Networks

HIL Forum

Flybridge Capital Partners

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Blogger Joseph said...

Scott, thanks for pulling this together. First, I love the comment "We punch above our weight...we're a small region that has a big impact on the world." But what are the measurements of that? What is the baseline and how will we know we're doing better in the future? I left our session hungry for data. For example, is it bad that students leave the area and go work in Silicon Valley? How do we know this to be true? Maybe we produce so many of them that what we observe is simply excess capacity leaving our system. Maybe we actually absorb relatively MORE than we think we do (punching above our weight). I'd love to have some creative brainstorming about what are indicators that (1) we indeed need to create a better brand (2) that we are indeed punching above our weight (3) that any new branding efforts really are working.

May 13, 2009 1:55 PM  
Anonymous matt pierson said...

Scott, thanks for a stimulating evening. Looking at New England as a region is far more productive than trying to take a state-centric viewpoint. The two way flow of people and ideas across our borders is far more meaningful than a line on a map. One initiative in NH is the new Meaning of Entrepreneurship course at UNH. Targeted at freshmen, it introduces students to social and business entrepreneurship. Each student is paired with a mentor. (We've had more mentor volunteers than we've had students!) One goal is that these students will start to build our their professional network early in their college career. Many of the students are using the mentors to help find internships. It will be interesting to track how many participants stay in NE after graduation. We believe this course can be exported successfully to other USNH institutions and beyond.

May 13, 2009 2:43 PM  
Anonymous Matthias said...

Good writeup of an interesting discussion. The idea of targeting alumni in particular seems like it could have high yield. If you target specific reunions (based on life stage) you can focus on alums who have demonstrated interest in returning. With schools hurting for cash it seems sponsors (not just money, but content as well) would be very welcome. And alums would be thrilled to see the many companies emerging from their alma maters.

May 13, 2009 3:03 PM  
Blogger Fresh Articles said...

Thanks Scott, had a great time last night.

we have designed a basic landing page for the Innovation Month. I'll email it to you directly for you approval and then we can code it and get it up.

May 13, 2009 3:22 PM  
Blogger Jim Gregoire said...

Thanks Scott for leading and putting your money where you mouth is on branding Boston. Couple things strike me reading your notes: 1) do we do enough 'fun' stuff to celebrate/drive the culture - example: Silicon Valley Rocks a battle of the bands for SV company in-house bands and 2) if we are the Academic Hollywood or some kind of Hollywood do we do enough to put a 'face' on our region not only for identity's sake but also to 'sell' or glamorize it!!???

As you can tell these two comments come from my perception (somebody that's spent more than half his career away from Boston) of Boston as too sort of uptight and stuffy.

Btw Moco is certainly interested in being a part of the effort whether its open houses for students or any of the other solid ideas here.

Let's do this!

May 13, 2009 4:23 PM  
Blogger Scott Kirsner said...

Jim -

Xconomy runs a battle of the tech bands which has been pretty successful:


May 13, 2009 4:36 PM  
Blogger JC said...

I couldn't agree more with the sentiment behind this initiative. Many of your points touch on the fine students who act as ready supply of (cheap) talent. As an essential input into the system of innovative ventures, students seem to be both customers and suppliers of the problem you outline.

As a continuing beneficiary of both MIT and Harvard educations for the past 10 years while interning at a startup, might I suggest you include a student (or two) into future brainstorming sessions? I'm happy to volunteer and can suggest other students as well.


May 13, 2009 5:17 PM  
Blogger BHIC said...

Scott: Great energy generated by the session. Good group.

On punching above our weight - we have been doing this for 4 centuries. It is innovation which has driven the 4-5 major recoveries of the region. We have a culture based on taking on the existing way of thinking about things, coming up with new ideas, and making them happen. As part of what we talk about - and seek to spread - grounding it in our 5 drivers of innovation is key - from local financing to a culture of intense networking.

We should also work to make the group more diverse than we were Tues. evening. It is a strength of our region that many of our leading innovators are immigrants, and many of our greatest innovations have been made by racially diverse teams.

Bob Krim

May 14, 2009 11:35 AM  
Anonymous John Stack said...

I'm sorry to have missed the session. I think the results will say it all. The chief complaint (perception) seems to be all about vibe and less about substance. More: regional=good, NEInnovation Daily Dish=Great (I would augment with great feeds from wherever you find them), Keep a rolling progress list of startups rocking in New England (no one really has this) and outreach with more events. Perhaps built a list of folks willing to talk and at what stages. I've met more than one startup who is afraid of costs, loss of IP, etc.

Thanks for getting this out there!

May 14, 2009 3:27 PM  
Blogger sparkysmama said...

How about a combination of "Daily Candy"-type feeds meshed with "Trendspotter"? Engage the community and beyond. Create excitement and thought leadership.

May 15, 2009 11:53 AM  
Blogger Debra M. Amidon said...

Scott: Wish I'd known about this timely meeting and kudos for your initiative and dedication to action! It's overdue we meet and dovetail efforts; and now you have convened precisely the team to make a difference. I've put all in the form of a proposal for a GlobalCommonwealth; but your New England focus affords far more diversity and robust activity. In a nutshell, we have examined initiatives worldwide -; and our global E100 Network is poised to readily assist. Massachusetts may lead the United States in national innovation indicators, but a recent ITIF study places the US the bottom ranking of 40 countries in terms of innovation progress. We have little time to waste…and how might we help?!

May 16, 2009 3:14 PM  
Anonymous Dave McLaughlin said...

Thanks to Scott and everyone who attended and all the commenters. Such great energy around this topic! We're seeing the same thing in our conversations in these early months of building Boston World Partnerships. People are authentically passionate about where we live.

I've been thinking a lot about Tuesday's conversation (in between all the bruising sports losses), and I will follow up in further detail in the days ahead.

In the meantime, saw this event on MarksGuide: "The Fiscal and Economic Outlook for New England." Keynote by Charlie Baker. Seems relevant to this regional branding dialogue...

May 18, 2009 2:13 PM  

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