Five years ago, Rodney Brooks was looking to found a new robotics company, one that he believed could revolutionise the role of robots in our lives. And he knew there was only one place in the world to do it.
A former professor of robotics at MIT and co-founder of the highly successful Massachusetts-based company iRobot, Brooks had spent enough time in Boston to recognise its dominance in his field. “There is nowhere else in the world with such a concentration of academic robotics programs,” says Brooks, whose latest company is Rethink Robotics. “There also is nowhere else in the world with such a concentration of existing entrepreneurial robotics companies. Silicon Valley does not come close. New York does not come close. Pittsburgh does not come close. Nowhere in Europe comes close. Nowhere in Japan comes close.”
Boston has always made the shortlist of US cities that excel in technology and entrepreneurship. But in recent years, the common perception is that the city has fallen behind. Silicon Valley has long since surpassed it in size, and New York City is becoming a hotbed of start-up activity. Even newer tech hubs such as Los Angeles and Boulder, Colorado, are seen by some as having more momentum.
Boston, meanwhile, has become more famous for being the place where young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Drew Houston (Dropbox) started their companies, before deciding to move to California to make them bigger. Even the well-known start-up accelerator YCombinator started in Boston, before picking up and moving west to become a pillar of Silicon Valley culture.
But that view of Boston, though common in the tech press, misses both the lasting strength of the city’s innovation scene, and its recent evolution toward urbanisation, collaboration, and risk-taking. Boston is a place with a history of expertise in science, healthcare, robotics, big data, and software. And for entrepreneurs like Brooks, it offers a tech scene unlike any other.
‘Deep and mature’
In the 1970s and 80s, Boston became a computing industry hub, home to leading companies like Digital Equipment, Wang, and Data General. But the tech cluster that grew outside the city around the Route 128 highway famously missed the start of the PC revolution. And so by the 1990s, Silicon Valley had left Boston firmly in its dust.
Yet, the ingredients that had propelled Boston’s strength in technology remained: world-class research universities, a highly educated population, and a high concentration of venture capital. (Boston can also claim the creation of the first formal venture capital firm, American Research and Development, which was founded in 1946.)
Fred Destin of Atlas Venture describes the city’s innovation ecosystem as being deep and mature. “It's probably the only true ‘generalist’ ecosystem outside of the Bay Area,” he says. A report last year by the Startup Genome, an initiative to catalogue start-up statistics globally, seems to agree. Though the report notes that Boston now trails New York in the size of its ecosystem, it highlights the former’s diversity, concluding that “the Boston start-up ecosystem has the same healthy mix of start-ups…as [Silicon Valley].”
The breadth of the city’s innovation can be attributed in large part to Greater Boston’s eight research universities, including Harvard and MIT. Together, they bring in $1.5bn (£1bn) annually in research grants and contracts, a significant amount of which translates into innovative technologies and ideas that eventually fuel the creation of start-ups. “Concentration of universities is a big contributor to that entrepreneurial environment,” says Gordon Jones, managing director of Harvard’s Innovation Lab. “The size of the city relative to the concentration of universities makes it very palpable.”