Over the years Boston has been given some pretty grand nicknames. Back in the 19th century it was called ‘The Hub’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes; later, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan referred to the capital of Massachusetts as ‘the shining city on a hill’.
But while Wendell’s depiction of Boston as ‘the hub of the solar system’ may raise some eyebrows, the city has undoubtedly proven its value as a center of innovation. In fact, a 2019 survey by KPMG ranked Boston in the top 10 cities in the world to become the “leading technology innovation hub outside of Silicon Valley over the next four years”.
While often overlooked in favor of larger tech hubs such as New York or San Francisco, Boston has long been cultivating its own strong sci-tech ecosystem. In particular, the city has emerged as a global leader in biotech, with the Greater Boston area estimated to be home to at least 1000 biotech enterprises, from early-stage startups to billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies.
In 2018 Boston beat New York in terms of overall start-up investments. In recent years, the city has churned out a number of unicorns, including online auto marketplace CarGurus, which went public in 2017, and online prescription service PillPack, which was acquired for $1 billion.
I, alongside Jim Lanctot and Ray Li, recently had the chance to visit Boston and put together a guide for individuals in tech that are interested in the city.
The city of Boston is home to three primary startup clusters: The Seaport District, South Station, and the affluent Back Bay/ South End area.
Notable coworking organizations include eco-friendly Workbar, which features a smart-lighting system, pollution and water management, and a smart heating system that reacts to the number of people using the space at any time. There’s also The Wing, a recently-opened female-focused coworking space; Cambridge Innovation Center, which works closely with organizations like ImpactHub and VentureCafe; The Yard, a distraction-free and wellness-first hub; and Venture Lane, an organization exclusively for startups that have already raised seed funding.
MassChallenge, founded by John Harthorne, has been running an accelerator program since 2008 and has incubated more than 1000 startups who have gone on to raise more than $2.5Bn in funding. Since 2015 the hub has also been home to the [email protected] lab allowing participants to develop hardware prototypes on-site.
The Founders Institute just closed applications for its fall program, Techstars is currently accepting applications for their new batch beginning in January, and other notable non-vertical agnostic programs include TiE Boston – Scale Up, Bolt, and LearnLaunch.
Other programs include the Cleantech Open Accelerator and North Shore InnoVentures, a non-profit technology business incubator focusing on biotech and cleantech projects. Add to that group FinTech Sandbox, a program offering access to data, development tools, and a curated network of test-customers to early-stage fintech companies entirely free of charge.
With so many high-level educational facilities in the region, it is unsurprising that local universities are pumping resources into curating the next generation of tech talent. University-backed programs include the MIT Delta v Accelerator, MIT Global Startup Labs, Harvard Innovation Labs, Mentor Smart (MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, Northeastern University Startup Incubator, Start at Shea (run by the Boston College), and UMASS Boston Venture Development Center, coordinated by the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
MIT Enterprise Forum Cambridge (MITEF), led by Katja Wald, is part of a global organization with local chapters that are affiliated with MIT. The organization is open to all members of the ecosystem.
While affiliating yourself with a respected accelerator or startup organization is a great way to facilitate connections, more often than not meeting the right people will mean putting yourself out there.
To get a glimpse of some builder communities, check out Bostinno, Code for Boston, and Built in Boston, all of which offer regular startup news, as well as listing events and meetups of all sizes around the city. Startup Digest also pulls together interesting tech and developer listings from Eventbrite and Meetup.com too.
For newcomers who want to get the lay of the land, Boston New Technology is one of the longest-running groups, with upwards of 25,000 members. The group lists general networking events plus more industry-specific events run by partners in the fintech, IoT and Biotech spaces, among others.
Tech in Motion Boston has more of a general networking focus, and aims to bring entrepreneurs from different verticals together to build and cooperate together. For startups creating tools related to education, the Boston EdTech Meetup brings together experts, institutions, and investors, all with the shared aim of improving technology in academia, K-12 education, higher education, and corporate training.
For life sciences, check out Boston Biotech, BostonBiotechnology or Agile Biotech. It is worth noting that founders often post job vacancies and partnership requests on these event forums too. The MGH & BWH Center for Clinical Data Science also works closely with hospitals that often have research spin-out startup opportunities. Female entrepreneurs looking for support should check out We BOS, and also keep an eye on events at The Wing.
A study by The App Association analyzed government and private sector data to map where software developers were based in the USA and identified as many as 40,000 active software developers who call Boston home. There are a number of developer meetups across the city, from Learn to Code Thinkful Boston – for more entry-level developers hoping to learn about development and machine learning – to Code for Boston, a ‘Civic tech’ meetup that brings together coders, designers and data scientists around the challenge of solving real-world issues. There’s also Girl Develop It (GDI), a meetup focused on improving diversity in the tech world by offering mentorship and support for female coders.
Additionally, there’s a number of niche meetups such as BosOps, Boston’s dev-ops community, Docker Boston, Greater Boston UseR Group , Boston Red Hat User Group, and Boston Virtual Reality, to name a few.
And it’s not only the Boston Marathon, St Patrick’s Day celebrations or Red Sox games that draw large international crowds to the city. September features Startup Boston Week, with more than 70 events held throughout the city over 5 days, all aiming to showcase startups and innovation within the city to outside investors and talent.
Every year 20,000 plus marketers, salespeople, and customer success professionals flock to the INBOUND conference. This year, the event featured high profile speakers like Michelle Obama and Gary Vaynerchuk. In October, the Digital Transformation Conference returns to the city for the third time, bringing together leaders spearheading digital initiatives in their organizations to offer insights into their digital transformations.
In March, the CIO Forum and the Boston Tech Summit bring together thousands of C-suite leaders from the IT industry. For startups interested in cyber-security, the Boston Conference on Cyber Security is hosted by Boston College and the FBI. Innovation Outreach: Boston takes place in October and bring together experts to discuss the challenges and real business value of big data, analytics and artificial intelligence. Innovation Outreach is a member group consisting of innovators from Fortune 500 companies such as Delta, 3M, BMW, Starbucks, Microsoft and Pfizer.
The Boston region is home to around 60 colleges and universities, including Harvard University and MIT in Cambridge. There’s also Tufts University in Somerville, and Boston University, Boston College, U-Mass Boston, Northeastern, Emerson, Wentworth, Berklee, Wheelock, Simmons, and Suffolk, based within the city itself.
With so many notable technical colleges in the region, it is unsurprising that Boston made the top 10 markets in the U.S. and Canada for technology talent, according to CBRE’s annual “Scoring Tech Talent” report. The report highlighted that the Boston region has a particularly strong flow of deep tech talent, and Natan Linder, CEO of Tulip, argues that the heavy engineering focus on universities in the area creates a steady flow of engineers ready to tackle hardware and IoT projects too.
In an attempt to keep ahold of the world class technical talent coming out of local institutions, Microsoft recently launched the Microsoft AI Development Acceleration Program at its New England Research and Development Center in Cambridge, just a stone’s throw from MIT. The program offers graduates the opportunity to collaborate with developers to solve real world problems. Out of the same hub Microsoft runs the Microsoft Garage Internship Program for students wanting experience working at high-growth companies.
However, despite the heavy flow of talent into the city, hiring remains a challenge due to the high levels of competition. Recent studies estimate that in 2017, there were over 100,000 tech occupation job postings in Massachusetts, but only around 22,000 post-secondary graduates from STEM fields leaving Massachusetts colleges and universities.
A number of local initiatives have been launched locally to try and improve diversity in tech and access to employment in high-growth industries to Bostonians from all walks of life. Apprenti, in partnership with the One8 Foundation and the Massachusetts EOLWD, has launched its Registered Apprenticeship program to connect employers in Boston and the rest of the state with engaged young people in search of employment in the tech sphere.
Smarter In The City is the first high-tech accelerator in the Roxbury neighborhood. The accelerator aims to diversify access to funding for early-stage innovation projects in the city, and to offer more opportunities for ethnic minority or low-income demographics to get their projects off the ground.
CodeSquad is a Boston nonprofit that runs a boot camp to train full-stack web development to adults who are returning to work or come from low-income communities, and ResilientCoders offers working space, support and a boot camp program for aspiring developers from underserved communities in Boston.
Over the past five years, Boston has made a concerted effort to make the city more friendly to startups. This has included launching a number of grants and tax rebates for early-stage startups in the city, especially those working within the fields of life sciences or cleantech.
Earlier this year, the Innovation Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, launched a Tech Talent Diversity Initiative that provides grants to businesses and organizations which offer internships or entry-level employment opportunities to individuals from underrepresented or diverse demographics. The city has also been using tax reductions as a means of attracting large tech employers to the city in order to improve employment in high growth industries.
With some of the most respected educational institutions in the world on its doorstep, Boston offers a lot of potential for startups looking to hire in-demand tech talent, especially in the biotech and deeptech fields. However, due to the amount of competition out there, startups will need to throw themselves into local events, and to interact as much as possible with university accelerators and entrepreneurship programs to recruit the experts they need.
The city is home to an active and engaged local community of founders, which are brought together by events and programs run by forward-thinking organizations and accelerators such a s Mass challenge. There are plenty of funding options locally, and a number of large local exits will likely attract more attention to the region. However, for Boston to really be a contender, the powers that be in the city will have to go a few steps further than tax cuts, and really start putting resources behind the local startup ecosystem.