Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Boston's Biggest Trade Associations Flunk the Student Test

Let me be clear: I really hate students.

They don't really add anything to our local economy, except for sometimes when they start companies upon graduation (like Microsoft, Akamai, Facebook, iRobot, MicroCHIPs, Harmonix Music Systems, Brontes Technologies, etc. etc.)

They also don't really help local companies by joining them... with all their youthful energy and fresh ideas.

That is why I agree with all of the major trade associations that it is not a good idea to get students involved, or make it easy for them to participate in events.

What would be the benefit? It's not like students would ever start a company that might pay the annual membership fees to belong to one of these associations, or work for a company that might join.

OK, enough sarcasm for one post.

To me, the biggest way to make Boston more competitive and innovative right now is to do a better job connecting students with our innovation economy. Which is why it pains me that our trade associations and networking groups make it so hard for students to get involved.

Here's my assessment of how our local organizations are doing on this front. The most informal groups (those that don't tend to charge membership fees) rank high. Oddly, the groups that charge the most for annual membership fees also seem not to care much about developing new members for the future. I'd say that bodes poorly for their long-term health.

How'd I grade these groups? I looked at the remaining 2008 events on their Web sites and evaluated how easy/affordable it would be for an undergrad or grad student to attend, and whether they offered memberships to students. I plan to turn this report card into a Globe column soon, and I plan to talk to some of these organizations about why they are so impenetrable to students... it will be interesting to see if any of them change their stance at all between now and then.

    A+. Mobile Monday Boston organizes panels and networking events at least once a month, which cost nothing to attend. An October meeting focused specifically on bringing together student groups from local schools with successful mobile entrepreneurs. The goal? "...[E]xpose local students to the professional opportunities available in Boston's mobile industry."

    A+. Web Innovators Group organizes monthly demo nights at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge. They're free to attend, and while drinks are served, there's no problem for under-21-types to get in.

    A+. OpenCoffee Club Boston: An informal gathering of entrepreneurs every Wednesday morning in Cambridge. Free to everyone.

    A. TIE Boston: Student memberships cost $25, and that brings down the rate to attend most events to $10 or $20. Some events are free for members. Non-member rates for students are posted for all events, and tend to run only a bit more than that. Going to the annual TieCON East conference, though, is a bit pricey even for student members: $175. What TIE (The IndUS Entrepreneurs) does better than most associations is make it obvious that students are welcome to be part of the group... and not just Indian students!

    A. Harvard Business School students organize several events throughout the year... including the Cyberposium in November. The cost to attend as a student is $20 to $30.

    A. MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge. Student membership costs $20 and offers free admission to some events, $10 to $35 admission to many others.

    A. Xconomy has just begun offering a limited number of student passes to their events, at $35. The next one up is focused on Energy Innovation.

    A-. The biggest event at Babson College is the Babson Forum on Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Cheap for Babson students ($35), but $45 for other students.

    A-. MIT holds an annual conference on venture capital in December, along with other events throughout the year. The VC conference is $55 for students outside the MIT community, and $40 for MIT-ers.

    A-. Search Engine Marketing New England offers a $95 annual student membership, which provides free admission to all of the group's meetings.

    B+ The Renewable Energy Business Network organizes free schmooze-fests... but they're at bars, so unfriendly to the under-21 crowd.

    B+. Boston Post Mortem puts on a monthly event for folks in the vidgame industry. It's free, but held at a bar... (Update: Darius Kazemi of Post Mortem mentions that anyone over 18 can get into the pub where the event is held. But the group's Web site should let people know that.)

    B. Biotech Tuesday: Students aren't eligible to join the networking group, but can attend its cocktail parties for $17.

    B-. The Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange (MITX) has a $25/year student membership. That's great, but the typical event costs between $35 and $50 for members. The annual MITX Awards ceremony, coming up later this month, is $95.

    C. The Mass Biotech Council is holding a career fair in November. It's free, and open to anyone with two years of life sciences experience or at least a two-year degree in a life sciences-related field. In December, the council holds its annual investor's conference, which has a $300 rate for academically-affiliated attendees. Three other November events are open only to member companies and their employees. Universities can become a member of the council for $2500 in annual dues. I called the office, and found that students at those universities can attend member events for free, but that policy isn't outlined on the Web site.

    D. Mass Technology Leadership Council has no memberships available for students, and all of its November events cost $80 for non-members to attend. I happen to know that one of the council's monthly events, Tech Tuesday, is free for students to attend, but I couldn't find any clear info on that event's registration page that explained that. Also, it's held in a bar, which rules out most undergrads from attending.

    D. The Mass Network Communications Council has two events in November. They cost $65 and $80 for non-members. Universities and colleges can apply to become members for $1000, which presumably would enable students and faculty to attend events at the member rate ($45 and $50 for the November events)... which is still a bit high for an undergrad or grad student. There's also no list on the Web site of which universities, if any, are members. I called up the head of the council to ask what the scoop was, and he said that they often allow a few interested students to attend events for free. It's a great policy, but shouldn't it be explained somewhere on the Web site?

    D. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce charges $90 or more for non-members to attend its events. While many universities (Harvard, MIT, BU) are members, it is not clear whether students at those schools could take advantage of member rates (which still average $50). I called them up and found out that students can take advantage of those member rates if they go to a school that's a Chamber member, but it shouldn't take a phone call.

    D. The Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council has a membership category for academic institutions. If you call them up, you learn that students at those institutions can take advantage of the member rate (but that isn't explained on the Web site.) Students who don't go to those member schools would pay the non-member rate of $85 to $250 to participate in council events.

    D. New England Clean Energy Council offers no student memberships. Universities pay $500. The council's November event, a "green tie gala," costs $330 for individual non-members to attend.

I'm not going to give a grade to the events I'm involved with locally. It's very hard for students to go to the Nantucket Conference without paying the pricey registration fee, although there have been a few editions where we've invited high-schoolers to participate. We usually set aside a small number (somewhere between 2 and 4) of passes to Future Forward to current students. And at the Convergence Forum in June, we sometimes set aside a few "scholarship" passes, usually for grad students and post-docs working on an entrepreneurial venture. I'm also trying to weave a few students into a breakfast series for entrepreneurs that I'm organizing.

If you feel that it's important to pave the way for students to get involved with our innovation economy here in New England, and you're a member of any of these groups that don't score so well, would you help agitate for change?

Often, it's only a case of making it more obvious on the organization's Web sites that students are welcome, and explaining how they can participate.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Una Ryan's Biotech Co. to Merge with NJ Company

Avant Immunotherapeutics, the Needham vaccine developer run by Una Ryan, a former chair of the Mass Biotech Council, is merging with a New Jersey company called Celldex Therapeutics. From CNN Money:

    Following completion of the transaction, Avant shareholders will own 42% of the combined company and Celldex shareholders will own the remaining 58% on a fully diluted basis.

    Avant, which plans to effect a reverse stock split as part of the deal in order to maintain its Nasdaq listing, expects the transaction to close in the first quarter of fiscal 2008.

    The combined company is in the process of developing a number of products, including vaccines for cholera and Salmonella typhi, the cause of typhoid fever, as well as a brain cancer immunotherapy. It will also have a commercialized product, Rotarix, an oral vaccine developed in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline. (NYSE:GSK)

Here's the official press release and Webcast about the deal. Ryan remains CEO. Sounds like Celldex's vaccines will now be manufactured at Avant's facility in Fall River, MA.

In August, Avant received a delisting notice from Nasdaq, when its market value fell below $50 million.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The inquisition begins: Coughlin under the microscope

Frank Phillips of the Globe reports today that the State Ethics Commission "has launched a formal investigation to determine whether the new president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, Robert K. Coughlin, violated conflict-of-interest laws when he entered job talks with the industry association while continuing to work as Governor Deval Patrick's economic development undersecretary, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation."

His story says that the Mass Biotech Council received subpoenas last week asking for e-mail and phone records. But the worst punishment the Ethics Commission can dole out is a $2,000 fine, if Coughlin is found guilty of having violated the state's conflict-of-interest law in interviewing for his current job.

So far, this hire has been a complete disaster for Mass Biotech...in part because it totally hamstrings (at least for now) Coughlin's ability to work the media and elected officials on the Council's behalf. At best, they've been paying him for a month to learn more about how the Council and the biotech industry operate, and organize his desk blotter.

Earlier blog posts on the issue are here.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bob Coughlin in the bunker

My columnizing idol, Steve Bailey, has a great piece in the Globe this morning about the hiring process at the Mass Biotech Council. A snippet:

    [Bob] Coughlin started his new job last week, and should be celebrating and out glad-handing after landing one of the juiciest plums in the local lobbying business - a position that paid the last guy, former House Speaker Tom Finneran, a reported $500,000 a year. Instead, Coughlin is now, by necessity, deep in the bunker at the biotech council's offices in Cambridge as the state Ethics Commission investigates how the Patrick administration's point man to the biotech industry came to be its top lobbyist.

Is there a way to recover from this situation? It'll be interesting to see Coughlin and Mass Bio's plan play out...

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

From the Globe: 'Biotech council's direction dismays some members'

Todd Wallack's piece this morning is worth a read if you work in life sciences. The opening:

    As the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's new leader faces ethics questions, some members say they have become disenchanted with the trade group, including its increasing focus on lobbying, a high staff turnover rate, and the low number of top executives serving on its board.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Coughlin Incident: New Mass Biotech Chief Off to a Rocky Start

The new head of the Massachusetts Biotech Council, Robert Coughlin, is already in some pretty warm water, facing an ethics complaint filed by Republicans because he may not have notified the governor soon enough that he was talking to the Council about taking the gig.

Coughlin apparently met with the Mass Biotech Council's search committee on June 11th, according to the Globe, but didn't disclose to Gov. Patrick that he was in discussions until July 24th, when he recused himself from overseeing life sciences issues. The Council announced his appointment, somewhat abruptly, on August 13th, four days after the other candidate for the job, State Senator Jack Hart, dropped out of contention. Coughlin was on vacation in the wilds of Colorado and couldn't give the Globe an interview on the day of his announcement -- a strange stumble during what you'd expect would be a well-planned PR event.

Here are the stories:

In that last piece, columnist Joan Vennochi writes:

    ...All it would have taken was for Coughlin to disclose his discussions at the outset. Under state law, that disclosure is supposed to trigger a review that would either reassign his state duties to another employee, or determine that reassignment wasn't necessary.
    Now, the public has the right to wonder if Coughlin's job talks influenced his policy negotiations on the state's behalf.
    And the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has the right to wonder how much the controversy influences their access to the Patrick administration.

Coughlin's first day on the job is the Tuesday after Labor Day.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Mass Biotech Council Picks Another Pol

The Mass Biotech Council has picked former Massachusetts State Rep Robert Coughlin as its new president. Coughlin has been serving as undersecretary of business development in the Deval Patrick administration.

Here's a quick roundup on Coughlin:

Coughlin starts in October. No word whether Mass Biotech is paying him Tom Finneran's old salary, which was $416,000.

(Photo of Coughlin courtesy of Mass Biotech Council.)

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