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The Boston Tech Line

on Fri, 06/28/2013 - 20:11

I've recently been struck by the the office locations at which I've found Boston area startups taking root. And a pattern emerged for me: the center of gravity is along the MBTA Red Line.  And there are so many companies it now significantly outweighs the historically-named "128 Corridor."

This shift in the Boston tech scene is so significant that I think we (the Boston tech community) should name this new corridor, and start using the name to bring attention to it. The mere act of doing so can accelerate the reality of it. Having this as part of our dialog can open opportunities across the board - not merely for office space, but for company cross-pollenation, capital, municipal cooperation, and general partying. I'm inviting your help to name it, and make it so.

Here's how things have changed.

Before.

During the 1960's to 80's, Boston was known for its 128 Corridor. Wang, Data General, Wellfleet Communications, Xylogics, and others were strung out all along the highway from the Mass Pike to Beverly. Notably, there wasn't really a concentration in any one geographic spot - the distance between companies could be miles.

A few startups did try to anchor themselves in Cambridge. Cayman Systems, NetGenesis, and others staked tents near MIT to attract graduates. Forrester Research tried to pull analysts from Harvard. Very few ventured across the river into Boston.

The demographics have shifted

Today, the Boston tech scene is dramatically different: The number of startups in the city now outnumbers the suburbs by an order of magnitude, and nearly all are founded by young(er) teams. Though many factors have influenced this, I think there are three main reasons:

  1. The Lean Startup. This book has had undeniable impact across technology startups. It taught tech company founders how to improve their odds of success by using much smaller amounts of money to determine the key winning elements of a company before going to find buckets of venture money.
  2. Angel / seed capital. The Lean Startup approach plays to the advantage of angel investors. Whiile Institutional venture firms must make a comparatively smaller number of very large investments, angels, on the other hand, can invest in a large number of these early-stage experiments, increasing the startup count substantially.
  3. Younger founders. Founders often must go without salary during the experimenting phase. 20-something founders are more willing to eat ramen for a few months, when older founders must pay the bills for family & children. Plus, angels seem more willing to back younger founders, either because they see in the founders the youthful adventurer they remember being themselves, or a willingness to experiment with the younger founders because there is less money at risk.

And so has the locale

This demographic shift has meant an explosion of companies in the city, since the above characteristics are the polar opposite of those that drove the 128 Corridor. During the early part of this explosion, there has been a significant draw for startups to locate in the area right around Kendall Square. This was also driven in no small part by the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), which provided tech-centric co-working space. Everybody wanted that address.

At the same time, Microsoft, Google, Facebook & others wanted to open up shop there, too. Adding to the pressure, a biotech boom happened in Cambridge at the same time, with Biogen, and numerous other behemoths building monster buildings.

That same draw has driven the price of space in Cambridge through the roof, squeezing out "lean" startups.

And this is what I've noticed: They've all gone to locations within a 5-8 minute walk - 2 or 3 blocks - from a MBTA Red Line station, and the distance from Kendall Square Red Line is growing steadily - forming a new...:

Boston Tech Line

It now extends from Central Square to the Broadway Red Line stops.  Examples abound:

  • WorkBar (update: is building) has built a co-working space in Central Square.
  • A map made by Kinvey (with Boston Tech Line added by me, and shown at the top of this blog post) shows the companies near the Park Street, Downtown Crossing (where PayPal has it's east-coast incubator), and South Station stops - encompassing the Financial district (with great building & competitive rents), the Leather district, and even the Ladder District on the edge of Chinatown, where Terrible Labs has a great office. (I wonder if Chinatown will be the next area ripe for a tech company invasion?)
  • It catches the Melcher St. / Summer St. area with Bocoup, Greentown Labs, Digital Lumens, and others a few minutes walk from South Station.
  • HAILO - the taxi app company - has now forged into the Broadway T-stop area of western South Boston (another area I think that is ripe for growth).

Suddenly, it's almost no longer hip to be in Kendall Square. If you move your startup there now, you're probably spending too much money on rent.

I look forward to seeing this named, and expanded

We, the Boston tech scene, now have an amazing stretch of both Boston & Cambridge that we need to name, own, and build an entire ecosystem around. Let's make a habit of meeting at some more Voltage-style coffee shops - but do it downtown. I want to know where the next after-work watering hole will be (similar to Meadhall) so we can share ideas, people, and resources. And I hope the Mayors of the two respective cities along the Red Line can join together and just bring more companies here regardless of the side of the river.

And we can stop comparing the "128 Corridor" with Silicon Valley. SV is always going to be bigger.  BUT, the Boston Tech Line is better, because we can all take the subway from office to office in 10 minutes or less. OR (better), bike between them.

Let's name, this, and own it.

Ok?

(Afternotes)

The emphasis on the beltway around Boston (vs. in Boston) in the 1960's to mid-2000's created a natural culture of isolation in companies, and the collaboration and sharing more commonplace in Silicon Valley didn't emerge in Boston, because of:

  • Distance. Companies had to attract employees from a broad area, all of whom had to drive to work;
  • Low density. There were few restaurants / bars where you could randomly run into other tech people & let serendipity, recruiting, evangelism, collaboration, or cross-pollenation take place;
  • Capital requirements. The companies that got started were funded in the then-normal model of raising millions in venture capital, and building a big product - often a big hardware box that took several years of development with no revenue;
  • Limited social contact. Employee populations tended to be people had moved to the suburbs to raise familes, and so went home after work to be with children. The younger employees that might have socialized after work simply couldn't, or didn't want to buy a car & drive to the suburbs. And when they returned to town, they might be the only one in their social circle that worked in a tech startup.

See the book Regional Advantage, by AnnaLee Saxanein, Dean of the School of Information at UC Berkeley, for a thoughtful examination of the impact of such cultural differences.

However, the Boston Tech Line has the opportunity to totally eliminate those issues.  I - for one- am happy to have seen this difference disapper.

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