Hackers, hipsters and hustlers: Decoding the Boston tech party

10 Sep 2018

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Image: John Kennedy

The links between Boston and Ireland are only getting stronger through tech, writes John Kennedy.

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the US tech scene often resembled a two-horse race between California’s Silicon Valley and Route 128, Boston’s tech corridor.

No one can dispute that Silicon Valley emerged the winner in terms of hype, the sheer concentration of tech start-ups and wealth generated, but no one said that Boston left the fight either.

‘Our philosophy is that we don’t create start-ups, we create entrepreneurs’

Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area may get the headlines, but the role that Boston plays has been fundamental.

For much of the region’s history, its hallmark has been serious business and data software plays, but let’s not forget that the city is also home to the highly esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University and other venerable educational institutions.

And do not forget that Facebook – for right or wrong, still one of the most transformative tech firms in the world today – was born in a dorm room at Harvard just 14 years ago when Mark Zuckerberg was a student.

It would be fair to say that Boston’s impact on the global tech economy is understated, but foundational.

Tech’s comeback city

And something is changing. Boston is making a comeback.

The city and region is already noted for the sheer concentration of life sciences and biotech companies. And, while Silicon Valley is big for web and social networking apps, the Boston region is making a name for itself in artificial intelligence (AI), software as a service (SaaS), robotics, digital healthcare, fintech and the internet of things, to name a few.

Both Facebook and Google have offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a few stops on the Red Line from Boston’s city centre.

Walking around Kendall Square in Cambridge, it is easy to see why Trinity College in Dublin wants to emulate what has happened in Boston through its plans for a €1bn campus.

The key word here is talent.

Economic impact

MIT sculpture in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Iconic MIT sculpture in Cambridge. Image: John Kennedy

The economic impact of MIT on the district is evident, through the sprawl of the institute’s campus with multiple buildings as well as the sheer volume of life sciences and venture capital companies – not to mention hotels and restaurants and other supporting infrastructure – that have sprung up around MIT.

“MIT is not so much big as it is long,” joked Greg Wymer, marketing and communications manager at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “We go from the train tracks to the river. Kendall Square wouldn’t exist without MIT. The intersection of Main Street and Vassar Street is the biggest hub of life science in the world. Boston is also doing well in other markets like fintech, AI, robotics, and the city is being viewed as a central location for these [deep tech] activities.”

One of the most notable start-ups to emerge from the MIT Hacking Medicine hackathon is PillPack. Its founders, MIT students TJ Parker and Elliot Cohen, recently sold Pill Pack to Amazon for just shy of $1bn. Who says hackathons don’t work?

The Center for MIT Entrepreneurship is a veritable hub of start-up activity and boasts more than 1,000 visitors a day on average, holds more than 60 entrepreneurship courses and provides 54,324 free cups of coffee a year.

“Our philosophy is that we don’t create start-ups, we create entrepreneurs,” Wymer said.

“The first step is, if you don’t know who your main customer is, everything else doesn’t really matter. The companies coming out of here are focused on who the customer is. They spend time talking to potential customers, then they focus on building the product or service that addresses that primary need, then they make sure that what they are developing is providing for the pain point of the customer.

“Entrepreneurship is part of the life’s blood of MIT and what is taught here. Our motto in Latin is Mens et Manus or ‘Mind and Hand’ and we teach you not only knowledge, but how to implement that knowledge.”

As Wymer shows me around, we go from a typical start-up office space to one of 30 makerspaces at MIT, complete with 3D printers and festooned with an array of tools and technologies that would make a rocket scientist’s mouth water.

“Biology and science classes don’t have an entrepreneurial focus per se, but they have an entrepreneurial aspect. Courses are project-based; you are not sitting in a classroom but working over the course of a semester.

“Getting an education at MIT is like getting a drink of water out of a fire hose – it takes a certain student to be successful.” The hallmark, he explains, isn’t just the actual coursework, it’s the extracurricular activities students take on, from art to athletics.

“We get the full range of entrepreneurs here – the hipster, the hacker and the hustler – and we want all three.”

While Boston is making a comeback, just like San Francisco and Dublin, the incredible growth is also creating tensions for natives of the city. “The thing about Boston is, it has an incredibly well-educated population because the universities here are world-class; we have the best medical facilities, healthcare and life sciences. You also have a very youthful workforce because the students graduate here but also stay because of the opportunities.

“The challenge you have is that it is becoming harder to live,” Wymer said, pointing to strains on the local transport infrastructure, the need to upgrade the ageing subway system, and the inevitable rise in home prices and rent. “Boston has made the shortlist for Amazon’s HQ2, but there are a lot of towns that are anti-HQ2 because they fear it would exacerbate the problems.”

Whatever fears locals have about growing pains, the velocity of Boston’s comeback is attractive. “Boston’s start-up community is about as vibrant as it has ever been and it helps having large companies here.”

A hotspot for start-up activity

Man standing on a stage pointing to a presentation.

Brian Halligan, co-founder and CEO, HubSpot. Image: HubSpot

One of those large companies is HubSpot and the reason I am in Boston: to attend the company’s annual Inbound shindig alongside 24,000 other people.

“Actually, Brian Halligan, the co-founder of HubSpot, teaches classes here,” said Wymer. Not only that, but Halligan and his co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, met while they were studying for an MBA at MIT.

Halligan takes up the story. “We were at a cocktail party at the Marriott for the students and I got talking to this woman who peppered me with questions. I assumed she was a student. It turns out it was Dharmesh’s wife and she was vetting people he might not want to talk to. ‘You won’t like him,’ she told him. ‘You have nothing in common.’”

Halfway through their course, they collaborated on a project together and HubSpot was born 12 years ago. It is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has revenues of more than $375m a year and the Cambridge-headquartered company includes a workforce of more than 500 people in Dublin.

“We both agreed that marketing was broken and decided to fix it,” said Halligan.

Halligan said that Boston may be home for HubSpot but it is missing a few things that has made San Francisco supreme for tech.

“The scene in Boston is good, but not great. I grew up here and for a long time in the last century, Boston and Silicon Valley were neck and neck. We lapped many times. But then we missed the PC revolution, we missed the consumer revolution, we missed a bunch of revolutions and I’m not sure why.

“But, that said, we decided to anchor our company in Boston and we’d like to build the city back up.

“It’s definitely a mindset. Boston was founded by puritans and is quite conservative. It’s not a bad thing, but it is different. California was built by gold-miners and risk-takers. The culture in Boston is good, but different. HubSpot is different, too – it is more like a Californian tech company but based in Boston, a west-coast-style company on the east coast.”

Nevertheless, HubSpot represents the rising tide of Bostonian tech firms that see Ireland as crucial for talent.

“The talent in Dublin is terrific,” Halligan said, but warned of the rising prices in the capital. “Ireland is getting close to Silicon Valley in terms of recruiting; it is getting very competitive. In terms of office space, prices in Boston are fine but we are competing with all of the Silicon Valley companies in Ireland. I have to say I do like what Trinity is doing with the Innovation Quarter. I also think Ireland has a chance to be Europe’s Silicon Valley.”

Cultural connections

On Boston’s St James Avenue, I meet with Gary Dempsey, vice-president of technology, consumer and business services with IDA Ireland.

“Boston is very vibrant in terms of FDI for Ireland,” said Dempsey. “From an emerging business perspective, a lot of companies here are looking at Ireland for the overarching reason of talent. Talent is a global struggle but Ireland is winning, particularly in relation to multilingual staff.”

Companies from Boston and its surrounding areas that have set up home in Ireland include not only HubSpot but players such as TripAdvisor, which has around 70 people in Dublin, and Wayfair, which has more than 380 people in Galway. Other players include Analog Devices, which has 1,100 people in Limerick; Boulder Media, which has 380 people in Dublin; as well as LogMeIn, Cognex, MathWorks, SmartBear and CarGurus to name a few.

“There is a great affinity for Irish people and Boston, and a strong connection between Boston and the various Irish cities,” said Dempsey.

It is also a two-way street as Irish tech firms see Boston as the go-to location for entry to the US. Irish-born companies with homes in and around Boston include Globoforce, which has 600 people in nearby Framingham, and start-ups such as HealthBeacon and Teamwork are establishing overseas offices in Boston.

As tech cities go, Boston has prestige and an educational prowess that few other locations can match, especially in terms of life sciences.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, it packs a punch and, in terms of tech, the city’s entrepreneurial revival is irresistible.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years