Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Brainstorming: How Do We Better Communicate New England's Innovative Mojo?

We had a great 2.5 hour brainstorming session last night at the offices of Flybridge Capital Partners in the Back Bay, focused on this question: how do we better communicate New England's innovative, creative, entrepreneurial spirit to the rest of the world?

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're scrappy.

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

KMC Partners

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

Forrester Research

Boston World Partnerships

Entrepreneur (formerly

Mass. Innovation & Technology Exchange

NH Technology Council

Scott Lyon

Long River Ventures / Venture Well

Brand Networks

HIL Forum

Flybridge Capital Partners

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Looking for a Designer

Know a graphic designer who'd like to work on a small, high-profile, community-oriented pro bono project, geared to turbo-charging innovation in New England? Send 'em my way.

This will involve a smidge of logo and Web design. (This is a project that needs to happen in the next two weeks, so if it's after May 15th, don't send 'em my way.) Comment here or drop me an e-mail (sk - at - scottkirsner dot com).

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Brainstorming About Better Branding, with the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative

I went to a trustees' meeting of the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative early this morning, at the invitation of executive director Bob Krim. There were some really great people in the room, like Janice Bourque (who used to run the Mass Biotech Council and is now at Comerica Bank), Globe columnist and author Ellen Goodman, and Bink Garrison of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. It was held at the Boston Convention and Expo Center, and Jim Rooney, who runs the joint, was in attendance, too.

The goal of the meeting was to do a bit of brainstorming about how Boston (and Massachusetts, and New England) can better spread the message about the innovative stuff that happens here, across all realms: technology, culture, finance, law, life sciences, etc.

(Greg Bialecki, the secretary of housing and economic development for Massachusetts, was supposed to open the meeting, but he was a last-minute no-show. Too bad.)

I gave a short talk in which I tried to address these issues:

    - Let's not think about branding. That sounds expensive, and like it should involve an ad agency that we hire to create a logo. Instead, let's think about how we *communicate* the message of what great, innovative work we do here... and that we welcome all kinds of people to be part of it.

    - Let's try to think about New England as a whole, rather than just about Boston... or Portsmouth, NH... or Burlington, VT. When compared to California, our entire region is still pretty small.

    - My "big picture" one-liner about what we do here is that "we bring breakthroughs out of the lab and into the marketplace."

    - Our communications initiatives should be free or cheap... distributed and not centrally coordinated... digital... and take advantage of lots of groups and individuals doing different things that they feel are important.

    - This stuff is important to do even in a downturn. Massachusetts and New England have a history of rebirth. (Just visit any old mill building that's now home to start-up companies.) We'll be back, and the US economy will be back. Even when the future seems bleak, people here are working on incredible new ideas.

    - We talk to ourselves too much, with economic impact studies and reports and press releases and trade association meetings. We don't talk enough to people who aren't already part of the Boston business world, or people who are just passing through (like students!)

    - That said, the two groups I think we should spend the most time communicating with are companies outside of the region that might want to have an R&D headquarters or US headquarters here (like Novartis or Microsoft in Cambridge), and the students who come here to get an education. How do we persuade the smartest students to stick around, start companies, and join fast-growing ventures or long-established entities here?

    - What are some of the free things we ought to think about as part of this communications campaign? I suggested YouTube profiles of New England entrepreneurs, perhaps produced by TV journalism students locally... Live Webcasts with the Nobel laureates and MacArthur "genius grant" winners in our region...a wiki that woud list all of the New England VC firms and angel investors, and their areas of focus...a Google calendar page with all of the important local conferences... and a page of talking points for executives to use when they talk about our region, including data points about innovation here, some of the history (telephone invented here, first e-mail sent here, first anesthetic tested here, first venture capital fund established here, etc.), and enough background about today's important companies so they could effectively "tell the story" about the area, not just their particular company.

Then we started brainstorming. My notes aren't comprehensive, but...

Bink said that Boston is "the garden." Ellen Goodman says that we are "the crossroads of the next big idea"... "where the next big idea incubates, becomes reality." Jacquie Kay said that we're all about collaboration. Someone (my notes don't say whom) suggested we are "the intellectual mountaintop for resources for the future." Sounds pretty Olympian!

Carlos Martinez-Vela from the John Adams Innovation Institute said that what is great about Boston is that it's not just tech. We have the Boston Symphony and Newbury Street... culture and style.

People seemed to like my idea about creating a one-page list of "talking points" for CEOs, so they could become informal ambassadors for the region as they travel around the globe.

I mentioned the success that One in 3 Boston, a campaign to encourage young professionals to stay in Boston, has had with its Facebook group. I suggested we ought to have one or more Facebook groups for people who care about innovation in the region. Perhaps one for the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative, in fact...

Bink suggested that the TED Conference disseminates new ideas really well through the short videos of presentations given there. I noted that Ideas Boston is a local event similar to TED, but that the videos don't seem to be readily available. Maybe there's some way someone can help with getting all of those up on YouTube? (Disclosure: I've been an informal advisor to Ideas Boston.)

Janice Bourque had a phenomenal idea about creating a focus group of college and grad school super-stars. She suggested we find all of the people who've won important awards and competitions recently (such as the MIT $100K business plan competition, for instance) and get them together in a room. Ask them: How do they want to be communicated with? What are the tools that they use? What do they know about the business community and culture here? What don't they know?

Janey Bishoff, who helped organize the meeting, put up some thought-provoking quotes around the room. One was, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

I agree.

How will we gauge our success? What if you typed "innovation" into Google and some site related to this campaign of ours, or a New England company or academic institution, showed up? What if, when you asked someone on an airplane about their perceptions of New England, the word innovation was part of their reply (rather than just Red Sox, lobster, and Paul Revere)?

Here's an earlier blog post on this topic, with more than 30 comments on it. Feel free to add your ideas here... or there...

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