Boston was a top-20 city in my first ever global ranking of smart cities last year. After spending last week with a range of stakeholders in the innovation arena and experiencing the city’s infrastructure for the first time in over a decade, I left thinking that I need to fine-tune my ranking system. Boston should have been in the top 10.
Some context: I’m developing an accelerator program for impact ventures in Argentina for the University of San Andres. The purpose of this trip was to discuss potential collaborations and to gain insight into the myriad of programs within and outside of MIT in the Boston area that are focused on supporting, incubating, and accelerating startups.
Outside of Silicon Valley, I am not sure there is a better innovation ecosystem in the world. For starters, some of the most important innovative institutions of higher learning in the world—MIT and Harvard—are only miles apart. There are also a dozen or so other important universities in the region, including Babson College—arguably the best entrepreneurship school in the world.
While in Boston, I had the pleasure of meeting with a number of people, including John Harthorne, the founder of MassChallenge; Tim Rowe, the founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center; and the managers of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab and MIT Venture Monitoring Service.
What I enjoyed most about these meetings was exploring the range of business models and approaches to supporting innovation within and outside of the university context. MassChallenge, for example, has a unique spin on the accelerator model. Perhaps the largest single accelerator in the world, MassChallenge leverages a nonprofit model and takes no equity stakes in the 100-plus startups it supports each round. They are also unique in that they are not focused on only information and communication technologies (ICTs) but also life sciences, clean tech, and others.
MIT’s Legatum Center is also a fascinating model. Founded in 2007 with the goal of engaging talented MIT students who want to make for-profit startups that have a high impact in developing countries, the Legatum Center has already supported 100 new social ventures across the developing world. It seems to have a much higher success rate than most entrepreneurship support programs, although it has an inherent advantage in that it starts with a pool of applicants that have already been accepted to MIT. A rigorous selection process is added on top of that to choose each year’s crop of fellows.
Since its founding, Legatum has sponsored around 100 MIT fellows that are developing a range of innovative impact ventures, from Javier Lozano’s diabetes clinics in Mexico (these use unique algorithms to more cost-effectively diagnose diabetes) to Connie Lu’s GrubCycle waste management project in Kenya, which aims to support local entrepreneurs by enabling them to convert organic waste into animal feed for sale at 29 cents per kilo in the local market.
I have written numerous times on Co.Exist that, at least in my opinion, smart cities are much more than sensors and real-time data. One of the under-explored components of smart cities is how they enable and attract smart citizens to innovate solutions that improve the quality of life locally and around the globe, all while growing the local and regional economy.
All of the aforementioned startup support programs are indeed succeeding in facilitating the next wave of startups and are attracting entrepreneurs from across the world. While Boston also has many other smart characteristics—including quality transit and renewable energy leadership—it truly stands out as a global leader in fostering innovation within and outside of its worldclass universities.