This interview was initially conducted by the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in participation with Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
2020 and the on going pandemic have created significant challenges to say the least. We talked to Cait Brumme, Managing Dirctor atMassChallenge, on how the innovation ecosystem of Boston and Cambridge responded to these challenges and where its future is going. Prior to MassChallenge, Cait Brumme led the Impact Collaboratory at the Harvard Business School, a multi-faceted effort to develop world class academic leadership on the topic of “Investing in the 21st Century” including sustainable, ESG and impact investing. Cait holds an MBA with high distinction from Harvard Business School, where she was a Baker Scholar, and a B.A.
What is the current state of the innovation ecosystem in Boston/Cambridge?
In Boston, we have been fortunate that the innovation economy has been resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strengths of Boston in life sciences and biotech have been at the forefront of the pandemic response. Innovation that developed for years in Boston has come to fruition. For example, years of research into mRNA vaccines helped lead to the Moderna vaccine. We see tailwinds from COVID-19 in the area of enterprise technology, where Boston has a long history. Now more than ever, companies are focused on digitial transformation. Companies are not only thinking about applications and add-on’s for their teams but are really re-thinking systems to make teams stronger, more efficient, and more connected. Massachusetts is becoming a global leader in digital health, another area where the pandemic has accelerated innovation. These are just a few key examples behind why Boston has weathered the current environment well.
How has COVID impacted the innovation ecosystem in Boston/Cambridge?
I talked about many of the positive impacts of the pandemic. Many of the challenges posed by COVID have required innovation to overcome. Fortunately, the key areas of innovation which have been needed are in areas where Masscahusetts is strong like life sciences, enterprise technology, robotics, and digital health. The pandemic has created huge tailwinds to accelerate the pace of adoption of a lot of technogies, which previously were moving slowly.
At MassChallenge, we work mostly with startups. We saw a pause in the spring of 2020, which impacted the ability of startups to access capital and partners. However, now we are seeing that folks have normalized and there is a huge amount of investment and development activity.
On the negative side, Boston is a connected and vibrant ecosystem, which is so hard to replicate virtually. There are many ecosystem partners, MassChallenge included, who are doing their best to keep us all together through this period. Still I think there has been a big impact on the way that innovation can be exchanged, fostered, and championed in Boston.
What is the role of MassChallenge in supporting innovation in Boston/Cambridge?
MassChallenge is a global 501c3 nonprofit organization driven by the mission to equip bold entrepreneurs to disrupt the status quo. Over the course of our ten year history, we have intentionally taken an ecosystem-driven approach. We aim to not only help startups accelerate their businesses through our accelerator program but also help ecosystems accelerate by creating connective tissue to bring everyone together. In Boston, we run three accelerator programs, which support 160 startups per year. We see our role as helping to attract startups to Boston, as well as strengthen them and help them connect to key players like investors, talent, and corporates. Alongside that, we see our role as working at the intersection of public and private to help strengthen the local innovation ecosystem. Such activities might include launching new programs which are aligned with the Commonwealth of Masschusetts’s objectives, creating events that bring people together around key areas, or advising on policy to provide an entrepreneurial view point.
Where do you see the innovation ecosystem in Boston/Cambridge trending in the next 5 years?
I am optimistic that it will continue to be vibrant and growing. Boston benefits from having strengths in categories, which require people to be physically together. Think about scientists at a lab or two engineers tinkering over a robot. They have to be together to do that work. At a broader level, I believe that clusters benefit startups and corporates. While I see the benefits of having decentralized teams, I think that people will continue to want a footprint where there are clusters of activities that allow them to cross-pollinate and collaborate more effectively. Boston has a number of compelling clusters, which are well established, as well as new emerging areas. Of course, Boston is anchored by sectors like life sciences and enterprise technology. Now we are also seeing Massachusetts emerge as a leader in robotics, AI, machine learning, digital health, and fintech. Bluetech is another area of innovaton which is regionally unique. MassChallenge will be launching a mobility program this year. So I believe that we will see a robust, diverse, rich ecosystem continue to grow here in Massachusetts.
What opportunities and challenges are there for foreign startups to get involved in the Boston/Cambridge innovation ecosystem?
In terms of opportunities, many of us have learned how to balance physical and virtual, which will give non-local startups the opportunitity to participate even after COVID. For example,
MassChallenge will likely not return to running physical only accelerator programs. Also we will hold more events that are virtual in addition to in-person. So there will be more opportunities for startups to connect from a distance. I think that there will be opportunities like this – not only at Massachusetts – but I think that many of our peers are also exploring ways to maintain a hybrid approach moving forward.
The challenges are super practical. First, it is harder to network remotely. That is why it is important to get involved in an organization which can help you connect. CIC is a fabulous partner actively helping people connect across the ecosystem. MassChallenge also works with foreign startups and corporates as a facilitator to connect locally. The second challenge is really practical and that is the timezone. I think we are all becoming wiser about what it means to operate truly globally, so hopefully the time difference will become less of a barrier.