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Boston Is an Innovation Hotbed and Doesn't Care Whether You Know It

Greater Boston doesn’t always get to take a bow, but its engineers built much of the modern tech world -- and its scientists are saving lives.

James Temple for Re/code

The historic Athenaeum Press Building is a squat, brick structure that dominates a block on the eastern edge of Cambridge, Mass., adorned with a statue of its namesake Greek goddess staring across the Charles River into Boston.

On a July morning that dropped enough rain to trigger flash-flood warnings, Alexis Borisy sat on a black club chair in the cavernous lobby, wearing the fedora he is rarely seen without and a polar bear patch on the knee of his jeans (which, it turns out, has less to do with global warming than with the fact his kids really like polar bears).

Borisy, 42, is a chemist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist, one the region’s busiest, as a partner at Third Rock Ventures. But that Wednesday, as he began speaking proudly of his portfolio, he sounded more like an urban planner, bragging not about up rounds or exits, but commercial density.

He lists off his companies in the building, including Sage, Zafgen, Constellation and Blueprint Medicines, which is applying the increasingly powerful tools of genomics to develop novel cancer treatments. Then his finger scans south to west, as he points beyond the building toward Bluebird Bio, Editas and Foundation Medicine, which is using genomics to improve cancer diagnosis.

This goes on for several more paragraphs and blocks, ranging into wider circles around Kendall Square, the neighborhood surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and down the road from Harvard University. The district boasts the highest concentration of tech and life sciences companies in the world, at least hundreds of businesses packed into what locals like to call “the most innovative square mile on the planet.”

galileogalilei-boston-series-1965

Walk west from the Athenaeum and you’ll pass construction cranes covering the few remaining flat plots in town and at least one of several offices of the Broad Institute, the genetics research powerhouse founded by MIT and Harvard. Trace the arch as Binney Street becomes Galileo Galilei Way — the most unapologetically nerdy street name in America — and you’ll spot the corporate banners of some of the biggest biotechs in town: Amgen, Biogen and Novartis.

Main Street takes you past MIT’s Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the local outposts of tech giants like Google and Microsoft, and busy weekday lunch spots such as Catalyst and Legal Sea Foods, where venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and scientists meet over the burgers, lobster rolls or the catch of the day. A block south puts you at the prestigious MIT Media Lab, and a few steps north gets you to One Broadway, where the Cambridge Innovation Center houses hundreds of entrepreneurs.

And this is just one bustling corner of booming Greater Boston.

The serious stuff

From a national business perspective, the region is often overshadowed by New York, Los Angeles and particularly of late the San Francisco Bay Area, where the media glare shines on Silicon Valley’s young entrepreneurs developing ever more variations on the social network and smartphone app.

But a convincing argument can be made that this is a poorer reflection on the media than on Boston. The region doesn’t always get to take a bow, but its engineers built and support much of the modern tech world, while the main industry in town is engaged in the hard work of saving lives.

Focusing on the serious stuff is, in many ways, the defining feature of Greater Boston’s role in American innovation.

“It’s a city trying to understand the world around us and trying to make a difference,” Borisy said. “There is a bias in the culture here to do things that matter.”

boston-cityscapebleed-1995

This story is the first in a Re/code series that will take a close look at the researchers, companies and culture of Greater Boston, exploring the past, present and future of innovation in the region.

There’s an attitude here that takes pride in heads-down hard work, laying the foundations that others build on top of and generally leaving the boasting to others. You can’t walk down the sidewalk without bumping into preeminent scientists, but locals say the list of top-notch salespeople is a short one.

“The New England culture and mindset is you shouldn’t brag about things,” said Abby Fichtner, hacker in residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab.

But it’s not exactly humility, as I came to realize after a few visits, so much as a deep-rooted sense that Greater Boston’s stature should be self-evident.

Parachute into town from San Francisco asking enough dumb questions and Bostonians will eventually feel compelled to set you straight.

They will, for example, draw pointed comparisons between their boom and the expansion under way in Silicon Valley.

Sure, it’s “sexy and glamorous and fun” to work for consumer tech startups, said Robert Coughlin, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a nearly 30-year-old trade group, during an interview in his office at Technology Square on Main Street.

“That’s all good; we all love entertainment,” he added. “But if you’re an ambitious, talented IT grad and want to have a meaningful impact on society and your fellow humankind, you’d want to work in the life sciences.”

They will also point out that earlier generations of engineers there developed the machines, systems and software that would give rise to the PC revolution. They’ll note the region was the birthplace of business software, early Internet companies and firms that built the backbones of services you use all the time, including Nuance’s natural language processing in Apple’s Siri, the ITA airline data integrated into Google search or the Android mobile operating system.

They’ll add that Greater Boston with its 4.6 million people has the second-highest tech employment after Silicon Valley, boasting Internet infrastructure giants like Akamai, defense behemoths like Raytheon Corp., a litany of gaming companies, and still more robotics businesses than Google owns.

They’ll point out that Massachusetts as a whole employs more people in biotech research and development than any other state, including California, despite being less than one-fifth the size. It also lands more funding from the National Institutes of Health than anywhere else — more than double that of the runner-up, Texas.

Finally, they’ll remind you that each year they lure and train many of the world’s brightest minds to the leafy quads of Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University and a long list of other top schools. And that world-class researchers at those institutions are engaged in pioneering work, like Cynthia Breazeal, who is developing social robots equipped to help humans in homes, schools and hospitals; David Keith, who is exploring how technology can be wielded as a shield against the growing threat of climate change; and George Church, who has done as much as anyone to reinvent the genomics toolbox — and is now working to bring the woolly mammoth back to life.

 The MIT Great Dome
The MIT Great Dome
James Temple for Re/code

Underpinning the world

Saying that Greater Boston is where the hard work of innovation gets done won’t accommodate every oddly-shaped example, like any narrative box into which you try to dump decades of history. Plenty of frivolous apps were created in the area, too — and lots of foundational tech work and breakthrough life sciences research occurred elsewhere.

But it’s a useful enough device for the region’s boosters or fair-minded observers, because it tidily explains the city’s successes and rationalizes its failures.

As the sun set on a warm evening that same week in July, I sat down with Dan Bricklin in the living room of his two-story home, in a tree-lined neighborhood that arranges itself around a little lake 30 minutes outside of Boston.

Bricklin, 63, invented the digital spreadsheet as a graduate student at Harvard Business School in the fall of 1978, hacking together a rough prototype over a weekend on a borrowed Apple II. The idea would eventually help plant personal computers on nearly every desk in corporate America. Depending on your age, you might not remember his product, VisiCalc, and you might not recall the fast-follower that supplanted it, Lotus 1-2-3. But you almost certainly know and have used Microsoft Excel, the successor that remains the dominant spreadsheet to this day.

Greater Boston gave birth to the technology, but ultimately lost the business war to the west coast, in what has become an uncomfortably familiar pattern, one much muttered over at Chamber of Conference breakfasts.

It stretches back to the minicomputer boom and forward to the very recent past, when bright young minds founded Facebook, Dropbox and TaskRabbit, but heeded the call to “go west” when it came time to build the businesses.

For Bricklin, none of that should or can negate the role that Boston plays.

“What’s MIT’s mascot? The beaver, who does his best work at night,” Bricklin said toward the end of a conversation about the region’s high-tech glory days, wearing a silver version of the same beard he sports in photos from the late 1970s. “You don’t see what they do, it’s not as visible.”

“But we build the things that underpin the world. It’s not as sexy as the stuff that’s on top, but it’s the important things underneath.”

Bob Frankston, who co-founded Software Arts with Bricklin and remains a friend and neighbor decades later, stopped by that night and made a similar point — with a sharper edge.

He said Silicon Valley may be the dominant economic engine right now, but he worries that something critical is missing. People want to get rich building tech companies but have lost interest in building tech.

“One of the things that concerns me is we’ve lost the spirit of exploration to monetization,” said Frankston, who is down to a few wisps of gray hair along the edges of his round face. “We have to make every idea be valuable in its own right, and we lose the ability to create the enabling technologies.”

“I worry there’s a destructive aspect,” he said. “I worry we just have sort of a land grab.”

Spirit of exploration

The implication here is that Boston holds stronger on this score, even if it comes at the cost of some Forbes magazine covers.

A lot has changed in the region since the founders of Facebook, Dropbox and TaskRabbit left town. Scores of new incubators have emerged, including the Harvard Innovation Lab and MassChallenge, and venture capital funds have swelled. Some say these were, in part, deliberate efforts to provide greater support for local consumer tech entrepreneurs; others believe it was mostly the natural growth that accompanies any expanding economy.

That includes Tim Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, who disputes the suggestion that there needs to be any special effort to foster or retain consumer tech in Boston. Instead, he argues that playing to the region’s core strengths — solving hard tech problems and seeking cures for diseases — serves it better in the long term and serves the world better.

 Tim Rowe, CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center
Tim Rowe, CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center
James Temple for Re/code

During an interview last month in a small conference room in One Broadway, he acknowledged that Greater Boston’s chosen focus and relative indifference to marketing may come at a business price. But it’s one he’s willing to pay.

“It makes us maybe less rich than we’d otherwise be,” Rowe said. “But you know what? That’s not what we’re here for.”

“It’s not like we’re hurting,” he said. “Anyone who thinks that we’re hurting, shame on them. We’re doing well, but just probably have fewer Lamborghinis.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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