Monday, January 26, 2009

Silver Lining, Boston's Cloud Computing User Group

A few folks have recently called my attention to Silver Lining, a relatively-new cloud computing interest group that holds monthly meetings. (January marked their fourth meeting.)

Mass TLC is also devoting its annual meeting on February 25th to the topic of cloud computing.

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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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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Panel Video: Tech @ The Movies

Here's some video taken at an event in Cambridge, MA last month called "Tech @ The Movies." It focused on the role that Massachusetts companies are playing (and have played in the past) in the technological evolution of the movie industry. Organized by MassTLC and hosted by UK Trade & Investment; thanks to Dan Bricklin for shooting it. Description and cast of characters below.

Massachusetts companies have played a pivotal role in the evolution of Hollywood. Movies might still be in black-and-white -- and we might never have had "The Wizard of Oz" -- if not for Technicolor, founded by Massachusetts entrepreneurs. And Avid Technology won an Oscar in the 1990s for introducing computers to the movie editing process. You'll hear from a panel of technology innovators who're changing the way movies get made in the 21st century -- helping directors create special effects or helping movie fans buy their favorite pics in digital form. Journalist Scott Kirsner will introduce the panel with a short, illustrated overview of his new book Inventing the Movies, which tells the heretofore untold technological history of Hollywood -- including the stories of Avid and Technicolor.


    - Jim Flynn, Founder & CEO, EZTakes and iArthouse

    - Jeff Kleiser, CEO, Synthespian Studios; Visual Effects Artist on "Fantastic Four," "X-Men: The Last Stand," and "Tron"

    - Patrick McLean, Senior Product Manager, Avid Technology

    - Katherine Hays, CEO, GenArts

    - Dave Waller, Founder, Brickyard VFX

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Notes from Today's Innovation Unconference

Today, the MassTLC took a giant step toward reinventing itself...reframing the value proposition of a trade association...and reinvigorating the culture of innovation in Massachusetts. It happened at a new event that the MassTLC team and trustee Bill Warner put together called the Innovation Unconference. (Bill is the founder of Avid Technology and Wildfire, and a mentor to lots of local entrepreneurs.)

Why was this such a big deal? The event offered a pretty close to perfect "trade"... Seasoned entrepreneurs and investors were invited to come and share their insights about building successful companies, and newer entrepreneurs were invited to share the challenges they're dealing with. The former group got to hear about (and ideally assist) a new generation of companies, and the latter group got some guidance and powerful new connections.

And it was hugely important to the culture -- the entire focus of the day was creating a new wave of important, successful, innovative companies here.

Some notes from the event are below. The one thing that'd be nice to see at next year's edition is more execs from the more established companies here -- I'm thinking EMC, Raytheon, Akamai, Nuance, PTC, Progress Software, Evergreen Solar, etc.

Bill W. kicked things off by opining that bad times are the best times to start a company. He said he started Avid in September 1987, a month before the stock market crash of that year. "This is a time of great opportunity," he said. "This is not a pep talk. This is reality." One quip: In bad times, people do the things their spouses wouldn't let them do in good times, Bill said.

Then, the entire group converged on a few stacks of paper, and wrote their ideas for sessions in magic marker. The ideas were announced on a mike, and then posted on the wall in various time slots. Everyone went to the sessions they thought looked most interesting.

I got recruited to a session that Tim Rowe of Cambridge Innovation Center proposed on fostering more innovation in Massachusetts. Tim began by noting that we're still the #2 region in the US, as far as venture funding of tech, but other regions are growing faster while we're remaining stagnant. I drew a picture of a magnet and suggested that Silicon Valley is a giant magnet for people who want to do inventive stuff in tech. We're a magnet for people who want to get a great education. How do we get more of those people to stick around?

My suggestion was that we need to do a better job of exposing students to entrepreneurs -- with talks on campus, and visits to local companies. We need them to mix and mingle with VCs. We need to support their start-up ideas and helped them get plugged in to the innovation economy.

Recruiter Jeff Leopold said we have a dearth of experienced executives here.

I think Phil Weilerstein said that people here "behave like New Englanders. It's hard to get past their reticence." Someone suggested that we need more hot tubs to foster the free exchange of ideas. Someone else suggested personality transplants.

Someone observed that it's a plus and a minus that in Silicon Valley, you always run into people who work in tech.

I suggested that one of the advantages in Massachusetts & New England is the heterogeneousness - the mix of software, Internet, biotech, med devices, robotics, cleantech, etc. What if we redefined the terms of what we're doing... that we're the world's hub of innovation, the R&D capital, the idea accelerator...not simply a nifty little cluster of tech, or biotech, or cleantech.

Tim spent the last section asking people for specific ideas. What could we do to improve the competitiveness of the region?

Lee Hower from Point Judith Capital said that he knows some senior-level execs in the Valley who are from this region, but are nervous about coming back to New England: are there consumer Internet companies to work for; if I start one, can I hire the right people to join it; if my start-up doesn’t succeed, are there other places that I could land?

Bill McLaughlin of Lois Paul and Partners asked, How do you get biotech and tech together in an integrated way – like perhaps having a MeetUp or an event in Boston.

Jean Hammond of Golden Seeds said we may need to import investors who aren’t afraid of consumer investments.

We should highlight the networking groups that exist, and perhaps consolidate some of them to give them more influence and power, said Laura (?)

Lee Hower said we need big, stand-alone tech companies that are started here, and built here, and become big public companies. We need to encourage big thinking across the ecosystem – investors, entrepreneurs, and young people.

Margaret Olson from Plum said we should be "more rah rah about what we’ve got."

Alex Benik from Battery Ventures said we should focus more on students. He also said that there is a culture of the entrepreneur as celebrity in Silicon Valley, which is a good thing.

Michael Greeley from Flybridge suggested that we ought to create micro-ecosystems around star entrepreneurs, connecting them with VC firms and encouraging them to form lots of companies with up and coming researchers and entrepreneurs. He mentioned Bob Metcalfe at Polaris, Bill Warner, or Boston Scientific co-founder John Abele as examples. Flybridge, he said, has a relationship with Michae Cima and Bob Langer of MIT, and has funded several start-ups out of their labs.

Someone asked, why wouldn’t multi-million-dollar school endowment funds do some seed-stage investing... in promising start-ups founded by their alums?

Joyce Plotkin from MassTLC said that "public-private partnership doesn’t exist in this state." The Boston Foundation has said that we "lack the colabroative gene," and that's a problem. Branding and marketing are something we could do better.

After Tim's session wrapped, I offered a session on working with bloggers and media, with co-conspirators Bill McLaughlin, Patrick Rafter, Adam Zand, and Doug Banks. I didn't take notes... but will look for some folks who blogger or Twittered it and link to them later. I'll also try to post the few slides that I showed.

During lunch I met with two groups of entrepreneurs working on killer stuff, and we talked about how to move their ideas forward and generate buzz. Mostly, I think they enjoyed hearing from one another and swapping ideas.

My favorite session of the afternoon was led by Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, former columnist and publisher at InfoWorld, and now a partner at Polaris. His session, simply, was about selling.

"Engineers have no respect for salesmen," Bob said. "Selling is every bit as complicated as designing ASICs."

Bob laid out the four phases that many companies go through with regard to selling.

First is the waiting phase: we’ve built a better mousetrap, so let's wait until someone discovers our product.

The next phase is arguing: you go out of the office and argue with people, trying to convince them that they should buy your product. It's much better than waiting, and you do sell more. But you’ll often win the argument and still not get the order, Bob said.

Next is the "suffer fools gladly" phase: the prospects are idiots, but you just bite your lip when they say something stupid. This strategy works, but most salespeople get stuck there. They disrespect their customers, and that leads to failures, like overpromising and underdelivering.

The fourth (and I presume most-evolved) phase is listening: you have respect for the customers, since they know more about what they need than you do. You ask them questions. You try to address their needs.

Bob offered some other great advice and jokes.

Some insight about approaching venture capitalists that he heard when he was an entrepreneur: "If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money."

Novice salespeople are afraid of the "no"….but when people say no, you can ask them why and then work on those reasons.

Bob then offered a secret to selling that he said none of us had heard elsewhere.

How do you establish credibility? By keeping little promises. People you're selling to always wonder, will the product work like he says? Will I get the benefits? One way to do that is a pattern of keeping promises.

If you say, I’ll be there at 5:00, don’t come late, or you’ve begun to teach them that you don’t keep promises. If you say you’re going to finish on time, you finish on time. (Bob promised he'd finish his presentation by his allotted time, and he did - with time to spare.) If you say, I’ll send you my brochure tomorrow, that's a little promise, so keep it. Eventually, you say, my products will work, and they'll make your life wonderful, and people believe you.

I found this funny: Don't allow people to eat or sit down in your trade show both, Bob advised. The space is too expensive for people to do things other than connect with prospective customers.

Some other thoughts on the conference...

The mix of people was great -- and there was a nice sense of urgency from it being a one-day event... I might not see these folks for a while. And the venue was perfect for schmoozing and also offered lots of different-sized rooms for the sessions; the event was held at the Sun Microsystems campus in Burlington. Moderator Kaliya Hamlin did a killer job of explaining the concept of an unconference to everybody there. (I'd been to one or two before, but had never tried to run a session...)

If you were at the event and have comments... or want to include a link to other blog entries, twitter streams, videos, etc., please do so below in the comments.

Update: Here's some coverage of the event from Friday morning's Boston Globe.

[ Disclosure: I was peripherally involved in the planning of the event, in that I listened to Bill Warner talk about it once or twice and offered some feedback that he immediately disregarded. ;) ]

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Entrepreneurs: Need Some Expert Advice for Your Start-Up?

Bill Warner, founder of Avid Technology, called this morning with some disappointing news.

Bill asked me to be an "expert" at next month's Innovation UnConference, being organized by MassTLC. He told me that I would be the smartest expert there by far, offering entrepreneurs sage advice about how to work with the media. That was flattering.

But now, Bill has lined up a lot of much smarter people to consult with the entrepreneurs who attend the event. People like Howard Anderson, George Hatsopoulos, Rich Miner from Google, VisiCalc co-founder Dan Bricklin, Vanu Bose, 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe, Russ Wilcox from E Ink, Reed Sturtevant from Microsoft, and James Geshwiler from CommonAngels.

I'm humbled. Looks like it'll be a cool event.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Filling Out Your Fall Calendar: Events Worth Knowing About

Here are a couple events for September, October, and November that I think will be worth going to. I'm planning to be at each of them in some capacity (reporter, moderator, organizer, etc.)

9.23-9.25: Emerging Technologies Conference @ MIT
Werner Vogels from Amazon, Rich Miner from Google, and Craig Mundie from Microsoft top the list of interesting speakers (according to me, at least)

9.25: Tech @ The Movies
This is the first entertainment industry panel that Mass TLC has organized, focusing on the role Massachusetts tech companies are playing in the movie industry. I'm moderating a panel, and giving a short talk about the historical contributions our state has made to the movies, based on my new book Inventing the Movies.

10.2: Mass TLC's Innovation UnConference
Mass TLC is reinventing its big fall event this year (previously known as the investor conference), trying to make it more valuable for entrepreneurs.

10.21 New England Mobile Summit
Part of the Mobile Internet World 2008 trade show, organized by the Yankee Group.

10.30 Ideas Boston
A chance to meet big thinkers like IBM's Martin Wattenberg, Daniel Schrag from Harvard, and John Maeda, the new president of RISD.

11.12 Innovation in Hollywood: Past, Present & Future
I'm giving an illustrated book talk about Inventing the Movies at the Museum of Science... chock full of movie clips, photos, and trivia.

11.15 HBS Cyberposium
Last year's speaker roster included Walt Mossberg, Ray Kurzweil, and Curt Schilling.

11.19 Future Forward 08
A gathering of entrepreneurs, investors, and CIOs/CTOs to explore new directions in technology. Audience limited in size; invite only.

12.6 MIT Venture Capital Conference
No Web site up yet for this year's event... but last year's included Google exec Chris Sacca and VMWare CEO Diane Greene.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Kiva Systems, and the Region's Robotics Cluster

Yesterday's Boston Globe column focused on the warehouse automation solution developed by a start-up called Kiva Systems. It's being used by companies like Staples, Walgreens, and, and it relies on beefy orange robots -- about the site of ottomans -- to move around racks of merchandise. Interestingly, Kiva's founder came east to start the company, after working at Apple and WebVan in Silicon Valley.

Here's the video I shot at Kiva's 'demonstration warehouse' last week:

In doing the story, I discovered that the region's most significant robotics industry networking group seems to be the robotics cluster that the Mass Technology Leadership Council has created. While the MassTLC doesn't have a comprehensive list of all the robotics companies in the state, they have produced a
snazzy brochure (PDF) touting the benefits of being headquartered here.

Aside from Kiva, here's the list of the ten New England robotics companies I heard mentioned most often during my research (ranked in no particular order):

    - iRobot: publicly-traded maker of bots for pool cleaning and bomb disposal. Co-founded by MIT prof Rodney Brooks, and Colin Angle and Helen Greiner, his former students.

    - Foster-Miller: Waltham developer of robots for reconnaissance and hazmat disposal.

    - Boston Dynamics: maker of walking, animal-like robots for the military. Founded by MIT "Leg Lab" legend Marc Raibert.

    - Bluefin Robotics: Cambridge, Mass. designer of robots that aren't afraid to get wet.

    - Hydroid: another manufacturer of underwater bots, in Pocasset, Mass.

    - North End Technologies: stealthy NH robotics company funded by Castile Ventures. Founded by iRobot alums.

    - Q Robotics: another quiet Mass. company founded by Paul Sandin and Joe Jones, creators of iRobot's Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.

    - Smart Robots: Dalton, Mass. maker of mobile robotic platforms for education and application development.

    - MobileRobots, formerly ActivMedia Robotics: NH company focused on "research and university robots."

    - Black i Robotics: Tyngsboro, Mass. maker of rugged six-wheeled robots.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Focusing on the 21-year olds

This quote has been driving me batty all day, from a Globe story Rob Weisman wrote about MIT’s MBA field trips out to Silicon Valley:

    “Yes, I wish we could have more anchor companies," said Joyce Plotkin, president of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, a trade group for software and other tech businesses. "I think our culture does not value entrepreneurs the way the West Coast does. Historically, most of our companies are in the business-to-business market, and that's a tougher sell. To someone who's 21 years old, it looks more exciting to work at consumer- oriented companies."

I don’t think that Plotkin really believes that the culture here somehow values entrepreneurs less than the West Coast does. Yes, you do get a higher voltage of entrepreneurial energy on the West Coast, and successful entrepreneurs are deified out there… but I believe entrepreneurs are valued here.

Rather, the part of the quote that is bugging me is about the hypothetical 21-year old.

We do have a lot of 21-year olds graduating from college every June, and we don’t do a good enough job of plugging them into the regional innovation economy.

It’s not because we don’t have consumer-oriented companies (many of them start-ups) to work for. What about Harmonix, creator of “Guitar Hero,” or Bose, or iRobot, or Conduit Labs, or Nuance, one of the leaders of the speech recognition industry?

The problem is that we – and I include Plotkin’s group, the Mass. Technology Leadership Council, in this – don’t offer enough opportunities for:

    1. Colleges students to schmooze with local entrepreneurs and VCs, and visit tech and biotech company’s local HQs.

    2. Smaller tech companies to engage in on-campus recruiting.

In the same way that Valley companies like VMWare and Google welcome visiting MIT MBA students, are our hometown biggies, from EMC to Genzyme to Akamai, opening the doors to grad students and undergrads from local universities?

I've been saying it a lot at events - and I'll say it here for the record - "culture," another term Plotkin uses, is nothing but the way a group of individuals acts. If we want to change the culture here, and make it totally clear to recent grads that there are some pretty interesting opportunities in town for them, that's easy to do...

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mass TLC Awards

I'm still getting used to calling the Massachusetts Software Council by its new(ish) name, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council.

On Thursday, they announced the winners of their 2007 Technology Leadership Awards at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Full list is below.

That other technology association, the Massachusetts High Tech Council, is marking its 30th anniversary on Tuesday with a dinner at - where else? - the Newton Marriott. The keynote speaker is Dean Kamen -- a New Hampshire entrepreneur and inventor who at least lived in Massachusetts for a few years, while attending WPI.


Mass TLC 2007 Awards


Enterprise Applications
Open Pages

Reva Systems


Innovation (co-winners)

User/Implementer (co-winners)
Barrett Distribution Centers
Jordan’s Furniture


CEO of the Year
Doug Levin, Black Duck Software

CIO of the Year
John Halamka, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical

CTO of the Year
Kenneth Kuenzel, Covergence

CXO of the Year
Tom Murphy, Bit9

Emerging Executive of the Year
Keith Kocho, Extend Media

Mover and Shaker of the Year (co-winners)
David Weinberger, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School
Linda Plano, Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC)

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