Monday, May 4, 2009

Clean Energy Council (Quietly) Announces New Class of Fellows

The New England Clean Energy Council has just named its new group of 25 fellows -- experienced execs and investors interested in repositioning themselves for careers in cleantech. (There has been no official press release, though.) The program starts Tuesday at MIT, and runs through July.

This new bunch includes Ahmet Ozalp, formerly an IT investor at Atlas Venture... Paul Sereiko, founder of SensiCast, a sensor networking start-up... Doug Levin, founding CEO of Black Duck Software... and Tan Rao, whose wireless home theater start-up, Radiospire Networks, was funded by Highland Capital but folded last month.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Last Night's Event with Ed Roberts of MIT

There was a nice crowd last night at the Vilna Shul for the Fireside Chat with Ed Roberts. Ed is one of the gurus of entrepreneurship at MIT.

What we discovered during the conversation is that I tend to think locally, while Ed thinks globally.

I wanted to focus in on what more we can do to encourage the creation and cultivation of big, important, innovative companies here. Ed wanted to talk about the growth of China, and how Tsinghua University aims to become the MIT of China.

I started by asking Ed about the most successful companies he has been involved with. In Massachusetts, he was a founder of the hospital IT company MediTech, with 2700 employees and $400 million in revenue. But an even bigger hit has been, the Chinese Web portal.

I asked Ed about his biggest concern for the Boston/Massachusetts economy. His answer: our entrepreneurs and VCs sell companies too soon. Ed said that his friend, the late Alex d'Arbeloff (co-founder of Teradyne) would always encourage the companies he counseled to "fight the fight" and ignore the VCs encouraging them to sell.

But Ed said his bigger worry was one related to how a single federal policy position will affect the future competitiveness of our country. Since 2001, it has gotten harder and harder for smart people (like MIT grads) to stick around in the US after they graduate, and either get experience working at a company here -- or start a company of their own. MIT alums who hail from foreign countries, he observed, have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than U.S.-born alums, and we're now essentially telling them, "Go back to India, China, or Africa."

Someone from the audience said he is starting a consumer tech company, and has been having trouble getting funded by Boston area VCs. Ed said that even on the West Coast VCs can be reluctant to back consumer-oriented companies. (Perhaps, but I'd say they're less reluctant there than here.) He talked a bit about how slow established VCs can be to expand the scope of their investing. "VCs have as much of a problem as large corporations do in shifting their focus to new areas" like nanotech or cleantech, he said.

Ed mentioned he is working on a new study, to be released in the coming months, about the economic impact that MIT entrepreneurs have had on the world. (It's an update of an old study conducted by BankBoston.) Basically, it's huge.

I suggested that our next challenge in the Hub is helping our other great academic institutions -- not just MIT -- get better at spinning out companies.

And I also noted that if our region is already the center of the universe for life sciences innovation (it clearly is), and is becoming an important hub for cleantech, why don't we do a better job of communicating that to the rest of the world, to attract more people, money, big companies?

Doug Levin, the organizer of this event, mentioned that the next two guests will be Marvin Minsky and Nicholas Negroponte, dates TBD. Info here.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

How Can You Tell if Your VC is Jewish?

...I'll leave it to you to invent the punch-line to that joke. ("Serves bagels and lox at your celebratory closing brunch," maybe?)

The fall speakers series at the Vilna Shul is starting up this week, on Tuesday.

I'll be chatting with Ed Roberts, founder of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, and one of our region's top experts on investing, innovation, and entrepreneurship. His most recent book is "Innovation Matters." We'll take audience questions about raising money, starting and growing companies, and the challenges of entrepreneurship.

The event is free...and you definitely don't have to be Jewish to attend, though the venue is a Jewish cultural center on Beacon Hill (who knew?) There are snacks and networking before and after the program. Event runs from 6 to 8 PM.

This series is organized by Doug Levin, founder (and until recently, CEO) of Black Duck Software.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Catching up: Sunday's column, Tuesday's panel, Tonight's talk

- Last Sunday, I wrote about Cinital, a start-up that moved from Cambridge to Hollywood to try to improve the way TV shows and movies use "green screen" technology. From that piece:

    Ordinarily, it's hard to tell what live actors will look like once these digital backgrounds are laid in; that work, called "compositing," is usually done afterward by visual effects specialists. But the concept behind Mack's company is to mix the actors and the backgrounds in real time, so the director can see what the final shot will look like by glancing at a high-definition monitor - and reduce or eliminate the costs of all that laborious, after-the-fact compositing.

    Mack's Cinital system could be used on as many as 20 TV productions and a handful of feature films this year, says Sam Nicholson, chief executive of Stargate Digital, a South Pasadena, Calif., visual-effects firm that bought the first system. One of the first projects to which Cinital contributed is NBC's new made-for-TV movie "Knight Rider," which airs next month.

Here's the video:

- Tuesday we had a discussion about venture capital in 2007 and 2008 at the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill, organized by Doug Levin (who writes about it on his blog.) While no one was optimistic about where the economy is going this year, all three felt confident that going long -- investing in start-ups over five or six or seven years -- is still a good strategy. Larry Bohn said that his firm has placed some big bets in video, and doesn't see General Catalyst doing much more in that space, but he did predict the end of Microsoft's domination of the software world (Bill Gates retires, and everything goes to hell.) Jonathan Seelig from Globespan seemed very interested in how all of the "data utility" services we get at home, like voice, Internet, and TV, will be bundled and managed and marketed going forward. I think one of our audience members recorded the event, and I'll link to it once it's up. (Update: Chris Herot has some notes.)

- Tonight I'm giving a talk about the past, present, and future of the innovation economy here in New England -- and some of the challenges we should all be working on. While it's sponsored by the HBS Association of Boston, you don't have to be an HBS alum to go. (Just register as "Other Alum Guest.")

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Let's Fix What's Not Working

Usually, when I do fireside chat conversations at events, I'm the interviewer. Yesterday, at the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill, I was the interviewee and Doug Levin, CEO of Black Duck Software, was flinging the questions.

One thing he focused on, given the subject matter of yesterday morning's column ("Why Facebook Went West") was the differences between the tech economies here and in Silicon Valley.

I know that there's a feeling that we should stop obsessing about this... every time I make an East-West comparison in print or on this blog, I get e-mails and comments. To which I say, if you're not #1, and you've got a competitive spirit, it's natural to think about what you can be doing better.

Two people who were in the audience yesterday, David Aronoff of IDG Ventures and Chris Herot of Zingdom, posted some thoughts about the issue. (Dan Bricklin also has a post and a podcast recording of the event.)

As I see it, there are five things that aren't working:

    1. Our big companies locally don't seem to spawn enough start-ups.
    2. Boston doesn't yet have a truly vibrant blogosphere that can help bring attention to new products/companies
    3. Investors here can have blinders on when it comes to consumer-focused technologies, or anything that seems wacky at first (let's start a Web site that provides free hosting for videos, and has no business model, and let's call it YouTube)
    4. Graduating students (or drop-outs like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) sometimes don't feel like there's enough of a vibrant community here that will support their ideas/start-ups
    5. We don't have any big consumer device or consumer Internet companies locally.

Problem #1 will get solved, in part, if we get rid of non-compete agreements in Massachusetts. Let's make it as easy as possible for a smart person with a great idea to leave EMC, Analog Devices, Akamai, or Nuance and start a new company.

Problem #2 is getting solved -- slowly. But I'd challenge more entrepreneurs, VCs, and big company executives to start blogging (even if it's just once a week) about what you're interested in, cool companies you've seen, or new products you're playing with. In the Valley, one thing that can give new companies momentum is bloggers talking about, experimenting with, and evaluating their new sites or products. I don't think Flickr or Twitter would've been successful were it not for blogger support.

Problem #3 is hard to solve. We do have some VC firms and angel investors making risky bets. If they blogged about their riskiest deals, their most out-there bets, I think that'd be a positive thing (and it'd help with Problem #2). So I'm giving VCs permission to crow about the edgiest stuff they're doing. This does not mean explaining to us why your new enterprise software company is really a Web 2.0 company in disguise.

Problem #4 is getting solved; Chris, in his post, lists a bunch of new events that have been started in the past year or two, most of which are extremely open to anyone who wants to come. But there's more we could do. So two challenges to you:

    1. If your company benefits from having a vibrant innovation economy in our region, you ought to host (or co-host/sponsor/support) at least one event a year that is open to anybody, and will help foster connections and conversations about innovation. It might be a gathering about how the Internet is changing PR (which I suggested last week to my friends at Schwartz PR) or an unconference about video or a breakfast panel about reputation systems in e-commerce. But it needs to be open and free. Think about the BU student or recent MIT grad who is starting a company that you'd like to do business with at some point, and make it possible for them to attend. Publicize the event on sites like Mark's Guide or Upcoming.

    2. Established entrepreneurs, investors, attorneys, PR folks need to make themselves accessible to younger, less-established entrepreneurs. This might mean giving talks at local universities...judging business plan competitions...attending conferences on campus. This next generation of entrepreneurs needs your help, and the benefit of your connections.

Problem #5 will get solved if we work on Problems #1-#4.

So let's start working, shall we?

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