Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Crimson Hexagon: Tracking Online Conversations

Checked in this morning with Mike Troiano, a former ad agency and tech company exec who linked up with Crimson Hexagon back in April as an advisor -- mainly to help the company secure new funding. Crimson Hexagon, based on technology developed at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, is a Cambridge start-up that digs into all kinds of online conversations to figure out what people are saying about a given product or service. The company got going in 2007, has been funded by angel investors and angel groups, and officially launched last fall.

Lots of companies, Troiano says, are good at searching for keywords (like "Ben & Jerry's") across the Web and assessing how much buzz a given brand is getting. Crimson Hexagon, he says, has "the ability to find patterns in the dots of online conversation, across blogs, Twitter, bulletin boards, and forums. It's not just about the volume of buzz, but what people are saying." An example: the firm recently explored the positive and negative reactions on Twitter to Microsoft's Bing search site.

As for a new round of funding, Troiano told me to expect an announcement from Crimson Hexagon within a few weeks. It likely will come from angels, rather than VC firms. "I've never seen a [fundraising] market like this," Troiano said. "VCs are protecting their cash to allocate it to current portfolio companies." (Though Troiano admits that some VCs may simply think that Crimson Hexagon is still too young a company for them to fund.) "If we got paid by the meeting, we'd be sitting pretty," he quipped, referring to investors' willingness to take a meeting -- even if they're not doing much active investing.

Another company in the "social media monitoring" space, New York-based Techrigy, was just acquired today for an undisclosed sum. That could bode well for Crimson Hexagon.

Crimson Hexagon is part of what I think of as the "metrics and measurement" cluster here in Massachusetts -- a cluster that includes firms like Visible Measures (video measurement), Compete (Web traffic), and Localytics, a mobile measurement company that's now participating in the TechStars Boston summer program.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

How Awesome Is This? There's a New Foundation in Town

There's a new foundation in town: The Awesome Foundation is doling out month-long $1000 grants, plus office space at betahouse in Cambridge, to "people doing awesome things in the world."

Founder Tim Hwang, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and founder of the excellent ROFLcon series of events exploring Internet memes, describes the new foundation as "a fast-paced micro-MacArthur Foundation for your flashes of fast-paced micro-genius."

Hwang started hunting for micro-trustees in early June, and within a few weeks had assembled a group of 11 people willing to pony up $100 per month to support the idea. (More trustees are still joining...)

They announced the foundation, and started looking for grantees, yesterday. I'm curious what kind of projects will make the cut...

There is of course a Facebook group and Twitter feed.

Really nifty news to start the Fourth of July weekend with...

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Impact of Non-Competes: Event Next Tuesday at Harvard

The Kennedy School's David Luberoff e-mailed today to let me know about an event coming up on Tuesday, April 21st, on "Using Non-Compete Laws to Spur Economic Development in Massachusetts." Judging from the description, the focus actually seems to be about "getting rid of non-compete laws as a way of spurring economic development."

State Rep. Will Brownsberger, who has introduced legislation to nix non-competes in Massachusetts, will be there, as will Lee Fleming and Matt Marx of the Harvard Business School, Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, and Robert Fisher from Foley Hoag.

Here's the descrip:

    Massachusetts, like many states, allows firms in knowledge-intensive fields to limit their employees' ability to take jobs with other firms. These "non-compete" restrictions help firms because they limit the disclosure of trade secrets, honor customer confidentiality, and prevent competitors from appropriating employees' specialized skills and knowledge. But new analyses based on a "natural experiment" in Michigan suggest that the restrictions should be reconsidered because they can stymie individual innovation, which in turn may hamper regional economic development.

Details here.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Keep on Bailing, or Invest in Innovation?

Thermo Fisher chairman Jim Manzi and James Henry have an article in The Nation titled 'Invest in Innovation.' Well worth a read.

"For more than a century America has led the world in innovation," they write. "This has been true not only in science and technology but also in business management practices, the design of new approaches to service delivery, political institutions and civil rights. ...But if the United Stakes stakes its future on resource-based competition--the kind of low-innovation, 'big houses/big debts/big cars' model favored by automakers, Wall Street and the oil industry...[our long-term] competitive advantage shifts to countries with the largest supply of cheap resources, the lowest taxes and the cheapest, most oppressed workers--not a formula for vibrant democracies either at home or abroad."

One recommendation is to create more innovation hubs like Boston and Silicon Valley. Henry and Manzi write:

    Take a lesson from successful public-private collaborations in technology hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. In all these cases, private venture capital and entrepreneurs played crucial roles--and so did federal dollars. For decades the federal government generously subsidized basic research in fields like engineering, biology, physics, chemistry and computer science at premier universities like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Texas.

    ...The question is whether we can replicate innovative new Bostons and Silicon Valleys in other geographies, focused on energy, healthcare, the environment, education and transportation.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

WSJ on Harvard's Budding Start-Up Culture

The Journal has an interesting piece today about the interest in start-ups engendered by Facebook's success. From the story:

    [Trip] Adler is just one of the Harvard students who have caught start-up fever since Facebook, founded when Mr. Zuckerberg was at Harvard in 2004, exploded in popularity. Other recent Harvard-born start-ups include Internet companies Kirkland North Inc., Inc. and Labmeeting Inc. And Facebook has become a model for these start-ups on many fronts, from the look of company Web sites to their corporate strategies.

    "I would not hesitate for a second to say Facebook's a motivator," says Paul Bottino, director of Harvard's Technology & Entrepreneurship Center. "Facebook creates would-be Facebooks." He says a start-up contest this year attracted 55 entries, up from 10 to 18 for past contests.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Increasing Harvard's Entrepreneurial Output

Ran into Daniel Behr from Harvard's Office of Technology Development last night. He mentioned that they're planning an evening event on May 21st called "Unleashing Harvard's Innovation: The Role of Alumni." They're casting a wide net among Harvard-educated entrepreneurs, to join a conversation about how the school can better shepherd good ideas out into the world. Chris Gabrieli of Bessemer Venture Partners will help lead the discussion, and both alums and "friends of the university" are welcome, Behr says.

Info here, or e-mail

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Event for College and Grad School Entrepreneurs, This Thursday at Harvard

The Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum invited me to give a talk this Thursday evening, and I'm inviting you (assuming you're in a college or grad school) to come...for free.

My talk explores a bit of the history of innovation in Boston, talks about some of the cool companies and new industries germinating here, and then discusses what I view as one of the big challenges for Boston in 2008 and beyond: getting people plugged into the innovation economy here, once they finish college or grad school. We need to do more to help them start companies, or work for interesting and innovative companies that offer really great opportunities for growth.

I'll try to offer all the advice I know about getting connected to venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs here in Boston. And I'll ask you for your thoughts on what more we could do as a community. So it'll be a fun, interactive discussion -- and aside from hearing me yammer, it'll be a chance to meet with other entrepreneurs.

Here's the scoop:

    Thursday, March 13th at 5 PM
    Harvard University, Sever Hall, Room 103 (click for a map)
    Easy walk from the Harvard Square T Station

You don't need to RSVP... just show up. If you have questions, post them as a comment or e-mail me.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

The Bostonians behind BigThink, and a possible CNet takeover

The NY Times has two pieces of interest this morning...

- Former Harvard president Larry Summers and Nantucket Nectars co-founder Tom Scott are two of the investors backing BigThink, a new site that offers videos from well-known thinkers on topics like faith, truth and justice, and policy and politics. From the Times story:

    “I’ve had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age looking for more intellectual content,” said Mr. Summers, who resigned as Harvard president in 2006 after making controversial comments about the lack of women in science and engineering. “I saw it as president of Harvard when I saw C.E.O.’s come up to my wife and want to discuss Hawthorne.” (His wife, Elisa New, is a professor of English at Harvard).

    ...“I tend to follow my own curiosities, and I know millions of people are like me,” said Mr. Scott. “I’m into this kind of thing. I do think there is a market for this.”

- And Boston VC firm Spark Capital is involved in an effort to take over San Francisco-based CNet Networks. From that piece:

    The proxy fight is expected to shake up CNet, whose shares have underperformed the market and its competitors, leaving investors with a 19 percent loss over the last three years while other Internet-related companies grew. Over the same three-year period, the Interactive Week Internet Index rose 32 percent.

    Wall Street analysts have not looked favorably upon CNet, either: only two of the 18 analysts that follow the company have buy ratings on its shares, according to Bloomberg.

The article says that Spark partner Santo Politi will likely be nominated to join the board of CNet.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Stem Cell Start-Up Fate Gets $12 Million

Fate Therapeutics hopes to use stem cells to fix damaged tissue; the start-up just received $12 million in A round funding from ARCH Venture Partners, Polaris Venture Partners, Venrock, and OVP Venture Partners. The company's scientific founders hail from the University of Washington, Harvard, Stanford, and the Scripps Research Institute.

Fate says it'll have offices in both Massachusetts and Washington (the company was incubated in the Seattle offices of ARCH), but until a CEO is hired, they won't have a decision about where the HQ will be.

From the Seattle Times coverage:

    In Seattle "we're able to attract money to great ideas," [ARCH founding partner Robert] Nelsen said. "The hardest thing is finding the right team and the right CEOs."

    Fate will work on drugs that cause dormant adult stem cells to rebuild damaged tissue, as well as drugs that reprogram mature adult cells into stem cells that can repair ailing organs.

    The therapies could help treat Down syndrome, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as repair tissue after heart attacks, infections or transplants. Stem cells could also help fight certain types of cancer.

Mass High Tech adds:

    The firm aims to develop chemical-based, or small molecule, drugs intended to "awaken" stem cells in the body to combat diseases and regenerate tissue. Its other molecules would reprogram adult cells to an embryonic state. None of the firm's treatments would be derived from embryonic stem cells, the company says.

    Other local notables involved in Fate Therapeutics include Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Robert Langer and Ram Sasisekharan, both of whom serve on the firm's scientific advisory board.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Combating Global Warming: Last night's MIT Enterprise Forum

Last night I was at a meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge that focused on "How Innovative Businesses are Combating Global Warming."

Ian Bowles, Massachusetts' secretary of the executive office of energy and environmental affairs, opened the evening with an update from the State House. Bowles talks so fast I am pretty sure his compensation package has a words-per-minute clause. Very smart guy. But he predicted that we won't see any federal action on a carbon tax or CO2 emissions trading, either of which could help mitigate global warming, until the next Presidential administration.

I moderated a panel with Emily Kreps from Goldman Sachs, Daniel Goldman from Great Point Energy, Phillip Boyle from Powerspan, and Professor Daniel Schrag from Harvard. Schrag led things off with a short and dismaying PowerPoint overview of the latest data and projections about climate change: Houston, we have a problem.

Goldman talked about how his company is transforming coal into natural gas, and sequestering the CO2. Boyle explained how Powerspan removes acid-rain-causing pollutants from power plant emissions, and can also sequester CO2. And Schrag explained some of the thinking related to "global dimming" -- figuring out ways to reflect sunlight before the earth's atmosphere absorbs the heat. He's concerned that some country might decide unilaterally to try a global dimming experiment, with dangerous effects, since we don't know enough about how climate works.

The panelists all agreed with Bowles that we're not likely to see any federal implementation of something like the Lieberman-Warner bill soon, which would cap emissions and reduce them over time.

I suggested that citizen action is what's needed, given that we have a little more than a year before our next President takes office. Initiatives like Hull Wind and the CalCars plug-in hybrid movement work. Why wait for Washington to get moving?

Afterward, I met a bunch of entrepreneurs working on swell stuff.... Michael Chen is trying to develop wind farms in China...Jon Strimling from was explaining the benefits of using biomass fuels to heat one's home...and Benjamin Brown runs the Web site MakeMeSustainable.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Today's Globe column: The Elixir/Sirtris Rivalry

As a journalist, it's hard to resist writing about rivalries -- especially when big personalities are involved.

Elixir Pharmaceuticals and Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, two companies founded to exploit the science of sirtuins (which are enzymes thought to be linked to the aging process and age-related disease), have the big personalities: Jonathan Fleming and Ansbert Gadicke, heads of the two biggest biotech VC firms in Boston, are on the board of Elixir, and Christoph Westphal, the golden boy of Boston life sciences, runs Sirtris. (Westphal worked for Polaris Venture Partners before deciding to become a CEO.)

And Sirtris managed to go public first; Elixir is now trying to follow suit.

But the crucial difference is that Sirtris is still very much pursuing drugs based on the sirtuin work of local researchers like Harvard's David Sinclair, while Elixir has in-licensed a diabetes drug already approved in Japan (which has nothing to do with sirtuins), and is trying to get it approved in the US. Elixir, five years older than Sirtris, has decided to develop a near-term product, while Sirtris is still focused on the long-term vision.

“The decision was made that the company needed to really get commercial as quickly as it could,” Ed Cannon, Elixir’s first chief executive, told me. [His comments were snipped from the column before it ran.] “They needed later-stage molecules,” he says, referring to drugs that are closer to winning FDA approval.

Cannon is bullish on both companies' prospects (he still holds some stock in Elixir). “I think Christoph has been a magician,” Cannon says. “And it’s not just smoke and mirrors. He has surrounded the company with terrific scientists, and terrific business people and investors.”

Here's the video, featuring MIT prof and Elixir co-founder Lenny Guarente talking about his research:

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Harvard loses its main money man

The Wall Street Journal reports that Mohamed El-Erian, who oversees Harvard's $35 billion endowment, is taking off after a tenture of just a year and a half. Craig Karmin and Ian McDonald write:

    In August, Harvard said that the endowment had returned 23% for the fiscal year ending in June. That period marked Mr. El-Erian's first full year as head of Harvard Management Co., and he said he had only recently completed the hiring of a new team of investment managers. In 2005, Jack Meyer stepped down as head of Harvard Management to start the hedge fund Convexity Capital Management. Mr. Meyer took about 30 staffers from Harvard to the new Boston-based hedge fund.

    Harvard Management is considered one of the nation's most successful and trailblazing investment management firms. It has chalked up an annualized return of 15.2% over the past 10 years through June 2006, compared to an 8.9% median return for endowments and foundations over that same period, according to Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service.

The Globe's Steve Syre also has a blog posting about the news.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Today's Globe column: Why Facebook Went West

Ever since I moved back to Boston from San Francisco, I've been wondering about the story behind why Facebook was started at Harvard but has been based in Palo Alto, CA ever since the summer of 2004. So that's the topic of today's Globe column. Here's the opener:

    In April of 2004, two Harvard undergrads walked into the Charles Hotel for a meeting with a venture capitalist. What happened next either highlights Boston's deficiencies as a greenhouse for a new generation of Web start-ups, or illustrates the incredible magnetism of Silicon Valley - or a bit of both.

I didn't get to talk with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the piece, unfortunately, but pretty much everyone I spoke to said that he had his heart set on going to Silicon Valley for the summer after his sophomore year. (I do believe that for aspiring techies, Silicon Valley exerts a powerful pull the way Hollywood does for aspiring actors.) Scott Tobin of Battery Ventures, the one VC firm I could find that was aware of Facebook in early 2004, wrote in an e-mail:

    Zuckerberg was into going out to Palo Alto for the summer if I remember correctly, however it’s impossible to tell if whether he had influential advisors in NY or Boston working with him & suggesting to him that Boston was his place – that he would have considered doing so.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook, said:

    I think there was a sense that it made sense to start an Internet company from California. It was seen as a friendlier environment. It is really amazing that people in Boston missed out on it, even though it was a very risky deal, with lots of open questions.

David Sze, a partner at Greylock, said, "There is definitely an ecosystem advantage [in Silicon Valley]. There isn't a history for consumer Internet on the east coast, and I think Mark sensed that and wanted to have every advantage."

I mention the large number of local companies now building Facebook apps in the story....while I don't want to try to be comprehensive here, there are apps from (just launched today - a nifty one that lets you spin an animated Globe and then answer travel trivia), Tourfilter, Fafarazzi, TripAdvisor, StyleFeeder, OurStage, Finetune, GoLoco, Geezeo, and

The video that accompanies this week's column is an interview with Stephen Kaufer, co-founder and CEO of TripAdvisor, a Web 2.0 company founded here in Boston that stayed. In it, he talks about raising money, building a team, and staying flexible enough to find a business model that would work. (TripAdvisor was acquired a few years back by InterActiveCorp for $200 million.)

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Top Innovators Under 35: From Technology Review

Technology Review, MIT's alumni newsletter, put out its annual list of the most interesting innovators under 35 today.

Who's on the list from New England?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Facebook faces the music

Today's the day, in US District Court in Boston, for a hearing in the legal dispute between ConnectU, a social networking site with 70,000 users, and Facebook, a Palo Alto company with about 31 million users. Both sites were founded at Harvard, by undergrads. The issue in dispute is whether Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stole ideas from ConnectU's founders, for whom he was writing software code, and then created Facebook.

Valleywag has a chronology of the charges and the legal wrangling, and the Cape Cod Times has an AP story.

The social networking site is experiencing hyper-growth ever since it opened up registration to anyone -- not just high school or college students. Zuckerberg moved Facebook from Boston to Silicon Valley in June 2004. This lawsuit was initially filed in September of that year.

Update: Judge seemed unimpressed by ConnectU's argument, according to, and case won't see much more action until the fall.

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