Boston, that most understated of cities. For the entire three decades I’ve lived here, I’ve felt the deep-rooted sense among most residents that other cities are “better” in technology, arts, innovation, and on an on. The populous of Silicon Valley, for example, doesn’t fret about needing to catch up with Boston in Technology. Nor do New Yorkers aspire to surpass Boston in the Arts or Financial Services.
Yet, there’s something extraordinary here. No city I’ve encountered is so strong in so many areas – technology, biotech, health, government, and of course … education. It’s education that serves as the nuclear reactor powering the city’s ability to adapt and transform over and over again, as it’s done for the past 388 years.
Five years ago, Rodney Brooks was looking to found a new robotics company, one that he believed could revolutionise the role of robots in our lives. And he knew there was only one place in the world to do it … Boston, meanwhile, has become more famous for being the place where young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Drew Houston (Dropbox) started their companies, before deciding to move to California to make them bigger. Even the well-known start-up accelerator YCombinator started in Boston, before picking up and moving west to become a pillar of Silicon Valley culture.
The breadth of the city’s innovation can be attributed in large part to Greater Boston’s eight research universities, including Harvard and MIT. Together, they bring in $1.5bn (£1bn) annually in research grants and contracts, a significant amount of which translates into innovative technologies and ideas that eventually fuel the creation of start-ups. “Concentration of universities is a big contributor to that entrepreneurial environment,” says Gordon Jones, managing director of Harvard’s Innovation Lab. “The size of the city relative to the concentration of universities makes it very palpable.”
While the universities have always been seen as a key source of new technologies, today their role in producing student entrepreneurs is equally important. Spurred in part by a fear of missing out on the next Zuckerberg, venture capitalists are actively courting students and their dorm-room start-ups. General Catalyst, one of the younger of Boston’s premier VC firms, has gone so far as to formalise this effort by creating Rough Draft Ventures, a mini-VC fund backed by the firm but run by students.
New York’s advantage is its size, as well as its status as a global leader in both finance and culture. As Destin put it: “[Boston’s] main weakness lies in the fact that it is not a great aspirational city or region, in the way that New York, London or the Bay Area can be. Young people come to study at its great institutions then leave. If Boston became aspirational in terms of culture and lifestyle it could take the next step up,” he says […]