The Future of MA High Tech

The Future of MA High Tech Conference (download video here or check out the #MATechHub tweet stream), or MA Tech Hub for short, was held December 7th at the offices of Communispace in Watertown.  (For those of you who have never been there, their conference space/lunchroom is decorated like Fenway park, complete with Green Monster in the back).

Communispace CEO Diane Hessan kicked off the festivities by noting that her company has hired 40 new employees this year, showing that the tech industry has been quicker to recover from the economic downturn than other sectors.  
She was followed by Donna Cupelo, New England Regional President of Verizon, who echoed Diane’s assessment, and noted that tech growth can fuel growth overall, or as she put it, “Innovation has an agnostic impact.” (An interesting turn of phrase; I would have said “a rising tide lifts all boats”, but that’s just me).

Jack Wilson, President of UMass, discussed the Government/Business/Academe collaboration that brought about this conference, while taking the opportunity to show off his new Droid.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick delivered the keynote address, noting that the staff at Communispace had provided him with a new avatar for his Twitter account (not Denzel Washington, as he had hoped, but ex-SNL cast member Tim Meadows).  His speech focused on the importance of the tech industry in Massachusetts, noting that it is made up of 10,000 firms employing 178,000 people, and makes up 18% of the state’s GDP.

During a brief Q & A after the speech, one of the audience noted that Apple marks its products with a “Designed in California” label, and suggested that Massachusetts firms do likewise.  The Governor agreed, citing Harmonix’s “Rock Band” as an example, but noting that New Englanders tend to be more reticent about such things, saying “We don’t like to brag” (Red Sox and Pats fans, fee free to disagree with the Guv).  When another questioner asked Patrick to sum up his view of the MA tech industry in one word, he responded, “I’ll give you three: We invent things.”

Professor Michael Goodman from UMass Dartmouth followed Patrick with his summary of the report prepared by the UMass Donahue Institute Economic & Policy Research (you can download your own copy here ).  Some highlights of the study:

  • The IT industry is second only to healthcare in the number of jobs provided, far above financial services and post-secondary education.
  • Those surveyed in the report ranked California and Massachusetts first and second, respectively, as representing the regions of the world presenting the best opportunities for innovation and growth, with India, China, and Israel rounding out the top five.
  • Of those who preferred Massachusetts as a location for IT business, respondents cited access to cultural amenities, access to world-class research partners, presence of world-class business networks and colleagues, presence of strong school systems, availability of skilled workers, and ease of commute (!) as factors.
  • One of the biggest challenges facing MA tech firms vs. California is that access to venture capital and funding is perceived to be a major obstacle in Massachusetts.  A number of focus group participants believe that venture funding on the East Coast is much more “risk averse” and the Commonwealth’s history as a leader in enterprise software and other more traditional products makes funding riskier new endeavors even more difficult.

Following Professor Goodman’s presentation, there was a roundtable discussion with Gregory Bialecki of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, Colin Angle from iRobot, Dave Balter of BzzAgent, John Halamka from Beth Israel and Harvard Medical School, Rich Miner from Google, and Jeff Nick from EMC.

The discussion began by noting some of the major changes in everyday life in the past 10 years due to IT (in 1999, there were no smart phones, YouTube, or social media).  Boston’s legacy as a center for higher education was cited as both a benefit and a drawback; Balter said that marketing degree programs have not kept up to date with advances in IT, and he prefers that employee candidates show their skills in “connectivity, not creativity,” and “if he hires one more person who can’t convert PowerPoint to a PDF, he’ll kill himself.”

Angle said that the state needs to create more incentives for the students who come to Boston to study to stay here after they finish their education.  Miner’s recommendation was more “anchor companies”, like Wang and DEC of years past, to attract entrepreneurs.  During the Q & A, after the roundtable, Boston Globe reporter Scott Kirsner stirred the pot by raising the issue of non-competes; would eliminating them spur innovation in the state?

Jeff Nick’s response was that there are good and bad non-competes, and cited numerous companies started by ex-EMC employees, though when pressed by Kirsner, he declined (or refused?) to name any, and bristled at the suggestion that these companies were started by “disgruntled” former employees.  Miner countered by saying “Any non-compete is a bad non-compete,” though this is a moot point for Google, as non-competes are not enforceable in California.

One suggestion from Balter: rebranding the term “IT”, as he feels it is outdated (Innovation Technology?  Business Technology?)

A final thought: driving home from the event, a radio commercial from Foxwoods Resort & Casino asked musicians to submit their entries to a contest to remake John Pizzarelli’s ubiquitous “The Wonder Of It All” jingle.  Could MA tech firms do something similar, jointly sponsoring a local songwriter to come up with a “MA Tech Inside” jingle for all the Roombas, Bose headphones, and Boston Scientific stents?

Some other posts, stories, etc.:


Scott Kirsner

Nat Hefferman, Mass Innovation Nights MIN-ion

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