Brainstorming: How Do We Better Communicate New England's Innovative Mojo?
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 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
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
Boston World Partnerships
Entrepreneur (formerly Compete.com)
Mass. Innovation & Technology Exchange
NH Technology Council
Long River Ventures / Venture Well
Flybridge Capital Partners