14 May 2016


The second week of the US-Australia City Exchange on Innovation Ecosystems, presented by the Future Cities Collaborative, an initiative of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, took the delegation to the East Coast. Our first stop was Boston. With Massachusetts attracting the second largest market for venture capital investment in the United States, there is a vast and active innovation ecosystem in the Greater Boston area. 

On our first day in Boston, we were hosted by the Venture Café Foundation whose mission is to build and connect innovation communities locally, nationally, and internationally; expand the definition of innovation and entrepreneurship; and build a more inclusive innovation economy. The Venture Café Foundation enhances and accelerates the innovation process by providing spaces, programs, and mentoring to those participating in Boston’s innovation economy. It was an amibitious goal to get a sense of the innovation ecosystem in the Greater Boston area in one day, but the Venture Café Foundation were excellent in pulling together five diverse elements of the ecosystem.

District Hall, Boston Seaport Innovation District

The day began in the Boston Seaport Innovation District, an initiative to transform 1,000 acres of the South Boston waterfront into an urban environment that fosters innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship. The Innovation District contains the largest tract of underdeveloped land in the city of Boston, and is a masterplanned effort to revitalise the waterfront, provide jobs and economic growth, deliver new housing, and ultimately, foster a new site for the innovation ecosystem in Boston to take root.

We started with a panel discussion at District Hall located in the heart of the Boston Seaport Innovation District. District Hall is a civic facility run by the Venturé Cafe Foundation to provide the innovation ecosystem a physical space where all its elements can interact. Here, we heard from Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the Chief Information Officer at the City of Boston; Rory Cuddyer, Startup Manager at the City of Boston; Nigel Jacob, the co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics at the City of Boston; and Nicole Fichera, the General Manager of the Venture Café Foundation.

Panel Discussion at District Hall: Kevin Wiant, Venture Café Foundation; Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO, City of Boston; Nicole Fichera, Venture Café Foundation; Rory Cuddyer, Start Up Manager, City of Boston; and Nigel Jacob, Co-Chair Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics.

The panel discussion was illuminating. All participants shared their views on what is driving the current economic boom in Boston. It was clear that there is a lot of development energy in Boston and that everyone is focused on creating a new innovation economy, building on the existing strengths of the innovation ecosystem. The discussion ranged widely, examining the roles of various players (city government, non-profits, private sector, universities) in facilitating an innovation ecosystem and the importance of both the hard infrastructure of places (Class A offices, cheap spaces, co-working spaces, incubators, accelerators, parks, housing and retail) and the soft infrastructure (meet-ups of entrepreneurs, events at startups, and networks of mentors). The discussion also turned to the importance of having a civic vision to unite people behind a cause such as an innovation ecosystem.

From District Hall, we travelled to a world-leading example of a start-up accelerator, MassChallenge. Housed in an old warehouse in the docklands area, its objectives are to promote innovation, collaboration and commercialization; address the seed-stage investment gap to empower novice entrepreneurs; and provide entrepreneurs with educational opportunities. MassChallenge receives submissions from budding entrepreneurs around the world who seek admission into their four-month program, which provides a co-working space, mentors, and opportunities to grow and expand their business.

Home to MassChallenge in Boston 

The program culminates in a pitch competition with the winning team receiving a cash prize to inject into their business. The 835 alumni of MassChallenge have generated 6503 jobs, and have raised $524M in capital. 73% of the businesses that participate in the program are still in business. The MassChallenge model of a non-profit accelerator that supports the growth of new businesses has been expanded to other cities around the world with similar success stories. It is a foundational part of the economic development delivered by the innovation ecosystem in Greater Boston that follows when a range of new businesses are given assistance and a platform to turn their ideas into reality.

Co-Founders of Lumii, Matt Hirsch and Tom Baran, prize winners of the 2015 MassChallenge Cohort

From MassChallenge, we travelled through to the Roxbury Innovation Centre. Located in a traditionally poorer part of Boston that has largely been overlooked by the economic boom, the Roxbury Innovation Centre is a mix of a community centre and an innovation hub. The Roxbury Innovation Centre is run by the Venture Café Foundation as a non-profit, which focuses on local economic development and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. Here the discussion was focused on how to ensure all citizens in every community rise with the economic boom brought about by the innovation ecosystem.

Alessandra Brown is Program Manager at Roxbury Innovation Center.

The Roxbury Innovation Centre, located in the same building as the Boston Public Schools Administration, is very focused on equipping local residents with the skills necessary to participate in the innovation economy. It was a great example of an innovation centre acting as a 21st century community centre.

Next on our tour of the Greater Boston innovation ecosystem was a short stop at the Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC Cambridge). Located adjacent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Kendall Square, CIC Cambridge is the largest co-working space in the world, and is focused on providing support to start-ups. With a number of locations across the United States, CIC Cambridge offers several different subscriptions to startups and other companies who have outgrown their garages, lounge rooms, or the incubators that launched them, and provides a model whereby these companies can enter flexible leases on flexible spaces. They can be located close to places they want to be, without the price prohibiting their participation. Whilst co-working spaces aren’t new, CIC’s model has proven to be economically successful and replicable. It is leading the way towards coworking spaces becoming the new office norm.

CIC Cambridge co-working space

Lastly, Kevin Wiant from Venture Café Foundation organised a dinner for our delegation with players from across the Greater Boston area’s innovation ecosystem. CIC Cambridge, MassChallenge, the City of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Microsoft were all represented. Each stakeholder talked about what the key elements of innovation were to them. It was shown how these elements are held in a balance to create the thriving innovation ecosystem we witnessed that day.

Our second day in Boston took a macro view of the innovation ecosystem, and focused on exploring how its supply and demand sides has been seeded in Boston. Pratap Talwar from Thompson Design Group and MIT lead the day. In the morning he focused on exploring the opportunities and challenges of a redevelopment authority-lead model for economic development. This included uncovering the various planning and regulatory frameworks in the city that had given rise to the current land-use planning and real estate realities.

Pratap took the delegation through the history of the Boston Redevelopment Agency and explained how planning on a citywide scale had been conducted to date, and why the eventual outcomes had been delivered. 

Pratap Talwar explaining the " Big Dig" in City of Cambridge

The afternoon was spent at MIT looking at the supply side of the innovation ecosystem. We met with Joe Chung and Jeet Singh from Redstar Ventures who explained to us the realities of starting, owning, floating, and selling a successful startup. They further explained the ecosystem from the entrepreneur’s point of view. The switch in perspective provoked questions and challenged viewpoints whilst reconfirming others. It was a chance to test our assumptions against two entrepreneurs who have been active in the innovation ecosystem for 30 years.

Jeet Singh and Joe Chung, Co- Founders of RedStar

In addition to the talented entrepreneurs supplying the innovation ecosystem, the startups need somewhere to be based. This real estate management perspective was delivered by Michael Owu from MIT’s Investment Management Company (MITIMCo). The company supports MIT through the returns generated from investing in the Institute’s financial resources. The returns earned on MIT’s investments support a wide array of academic and research activities, and also maintains and improves the quality of the innovation environment in Cambridge MA, and Greater Boston. They create direct economic support for the Institute and ensure it has an appropriate amount of flexible space to accommodate its evolving long-term needs. Although MITIMCo is university-operated, their approach to strategically investing their assets towards desired outcomes can be used by any large land holder towards any strategic outcome. 

MIT Stata Center

We concluded the day with a rare visit to MIT Media Lab, where we had an insider’s tour of the City Science Lab amongst other glimpses into the future.

Our two days in Boston were educational and inspirational. The vision and narrative created by all stakeholders, from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, City of Boston and Roxbury community, to the universities such as MIT and non-profits such as Venture Café Foundation has created an environment where the hard infrastructure is supported by the soft infrastructure (or the “squishy stuff” as Nicole from Venture Café Foundation called it). This means that universities, co-working spaces, accelerator/incubator spaces and community spaces are brought together with community groups, meetups, networking nights, favourable regulatory environments, and a wealth of generous expertise from those that have gone before.

What links the favourable assets that make innovation possible in Boston and the economic benefits produced by its innovation ecosystem is the ethos of all the people involved. 

Thank you to all of our Boston partners for generously hosting our delegation, especially Kevin Wiant from Venture Café Foundation and Pratap Talwar from MIT for assisting in curating the agenda.



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