Boston’s Startup Scene is Starting To Be Seen

Nearly three years ago, tech journalist Scott Kirsner wrote a blistering indictment of the Boston startup scene, titled “Can the Bay State Still Make the Big Time?” Suffice to say, he wasn’t optimistic.

Kirsner expressed particular concern with Boston’s inability to produce “pillar companies” that “influence entire industries, attract talented people to Massachusetts and help retain recent college grads.” He basically was yearning for the next Boston Scientific or Staples, but an IT version that could compete with the Cisco’s and Google’s of Silicon Valley.

I agreed with Kirsner’s diagnosis, but had a slightly different take on some of its underlying causes. For example, I wasn’t sure that Boston’s robust universities couldn’t serve as adequate pillars. Moreover, Kirsner worried that Boston-area VCs were investing more in “products” than “companies” — a malady that was hardly a local phenomenon (and is even less so today).

Instead, I fretted about the lack of a local startup culture. Not just the timidity of many Route 128 investors, but the literal lack of forums/events where area entrepreneurs and investors could congregate (other than obligatory Christmas parties). Each new day was greeted with photos from some party in Silicon Valley the night before, while Boston entrepreneurs were lucky to run into someone at a bus stop on their way home.

It was depressing. It also might be history.

Last Friday, I participated in something called Quest for Innovation. It was a fundraiser/scavenger hunt through the streets of downtown Boston, managed by a Highland Capital Partners portfolio company called SCAVNGR (they’ve got a mobile platform that sends clues, accepts/rejects answers, provides hints, etc.). There were hunreds of participants, including entrepreneurs, investors and related third parties (my teammates, for example, were with executive search firm Polachi & Co.).

What was particularly striking was how many of the other scavengers I recognized. A few by name, but many more by face. These were many of the same people I recently saw at the TechStars Boston event. Or at a REBN networking night for cleantechies. Or at WebInno. Or at any one of a dozen other regular gatherings that have spring up over the past two years (like last month’s UnConference, which I sadly missed).

It may be difficult for someone in Silicon Valley to understand, but this just wouldn’t have happened in 2002. Or 2005. Or 2007. Not just the sold-out scavenger hunt, but the hum of mass recognition and camaraderie. 

I can’t cguaranty that Boston’s newly-vitalized startup scene will lead to the types of pillars that Kirsner craves, but I’m pretty sure that they’re impossible to build without it. There is now reason to be optimistic…

Below is some video shot by Bill Warner (founder of Avid Technology and Wildfire Communications), shortly before the scavenger hunt began. Bill is one of those guys who everyone knows, and seems to know everyone: