Innovation Expert: Why I Came To School In Boston And Never Left

Innovation Expert: Why I Came To School In Boston And Never Left

Matt Weiss, Managing Director at IDEO coLAB, discusses what makes Boston an innovation hub

  • 27 july 2016

As someone who proudly calls Boston home, I’ll start with a confession. Over the past decade, I’ve seriously considered moving west more than a few times. As a guy doing software development, then startup stuff, then online product management, then design, I’m far from alone in that temptation. We have 100-plus schools and some of the best universities in the world, and as the Boston Globe reported about a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Massachusetts retains the lowest percentage of graduating students in the nation. But with each new gig, and despite my love for the opposite coast, I decided to stay put. As it turns out, my latest career adventure is digging those Boston roots even deeper, and I don’t think I’m alone in this case either. Boston is transforming, and I have a hunch that we’ll see a lot more students sticking around for great opportunities here rather than searching for them elsewhere.

Back in March of 2015, on one of those oddly warm Boston mornings that tease the coming of spring, I found myself back on MIT’s campus where I’d been in grad school a decade ago, this time headed to the MIT Bitcoin Expo. New to the Bitcoin world, I was excited to hear from software developers, startup entrepreneurs, and world famous academics. And oddly enough in a lineup of tech- and business-centered talks, I found myself on the agenda with my IDEO colleague and longtime friend, Joe Gerber, giving a talk called “Trust and its Evolution.”

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What we didn’t know then was that this was a formative moment for a new IDEO business we would eventually launch called the coLAB. We were starting an experiment that day. As human-centered designers, we were interested in applying our craft to emerging technologies. Our hope was that we could help make sense of what problems these young technologies could solve, and to help create that future faster. About three months later, we launched our Bits + Blocks research area, an ongoing collaboration with Fidelity, Nasdaq, Liberty Mutual, and Citi, to test this notion on Bitcoin and blockchains. Our team was bi-coastal, but we launched it in Boston.

Scan the Boston and Cambridge area and I think it becomes clear why. In the Seaport, you’ll find a host of ed-tech, health-tech, bio-tech, and everything-else-tech startups incubating at MassChallenge. Head across the river to Cambridge and you’ll be surrounded by world-renowned and emerging scientists and technologists at the MIT Media Lab, Draper Labs, and the Whitehead Institute. Walk to Allston, and you’ll see emerging startups and their bold entrepreneurs building their ventures at the Harvard i-lab. Head south of the city to Providence and you’ll encounter top designers teaching and training at RISD. The greater Boston area is home to the world’s best in science, technology, business, and design—all wildly important ingredients in what we’re doing at the coLAB.

It’s not that you can’t find world-class talent elsewhere—of course you can. But I’d wager to say that our concentration is unparalleled. And it appears we’re not alone in believing this: the list of companies that house major R&D facilities in the Boston area keeps growing: Microsoft, Fidelity, IBM, nearly all the major U.S. pharma players, and soon GE.

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Starting this new venture wasn’t just about Bitcoin for us. Boston is the birthplace of countless technologies that have changed the world: cryptography, spreadsheets, email, radar, e-ink, and the list goes on. And what’s more is the staggering amount of technical innovation happening around Boston today. From recent personal encounters, I’ve been inspired by startups like Vaxess using silk technologies to stabilize vaccines and create new biomaterials; Transatomic Power working to make nuclear power safe and less wasteful; and Poly looking to bring nature into the classroom using computerized plant-growing technologies as a teaching tool.

Adding to our interest in Bitcoin, we spun up a collaboration with Target and the MIT Media Lab this year with our Food + Future research group. With a focus on new technologies that can increase understanding, access, and trust in the food industry, we set up shop in Kendall Square as a home base for academic and corporate fellows, relevant startups, and like-minded organizations to work together and solve important challenges in our food system.

But most importantly to what we’re doing, as our name coLAB implies, there’s a burgeoning spirit of collaboration in Boston, which may be a bit unexpected. As a born-and-raised New Englander, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that, to the outside world, we don’t always have the warmest reputation as collaborators. But all the signals I’m getting from students, our coLAB Member companies, advisors, and visitors lead me to believe that our future here is a radically collaborative one. What the MIT Media Lab has been pioneering with its collection of corporate members since the 80s, others are amplifying with bold collaborative spirit. And though we may not see it clearly yet, I believe this is being catalyzed by—and necessary for—the technologies being developed right here in our backyard.

As part of the evolution of the open-source movement over the past decade, we’re witnessing a whole new class of emerging technologies that require collaborative exploration and venturing. Consider artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchains, and synthetic biology to start. These are platform-level technology areas that won’t just spark a single new company; they’ll spark an entirely new era for companies or new industries. But none of this will happen without startups, incumbents, regulators, and others working together to design them, develop them, and bring them to the world.

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Since we started the coLAB a little over a year ago, things have been changing quickly. But our motto has remained consistent: we’re trying to do together what no single organization can do alone. It’s this spirit of collaborating to create the future that I’m inspired to see echoing throughout Boston.

When I’m chatting with our coLAB Fellows who are mostly still in school or recently graduated from Harvard, MIT, RISD, and other amazing institutions in the area, I hear a consistent message: they want to learn by working on important challenges, and they want to dive into fuzzy, unknown parts of the future to help figure it out. We’ll certainly broaden our coLAB community past Boston—we already have with a summer program happening right now in San Francisco. But I believe we’re planted in the most fertile ground right here in the northeast. While Boston has always easily attracted students to our schools, I can feel our magnetism strengthening for recent grads, forward-thinking companies, and gutsy entrepreneurs who want to keep pushing ahead.

Matt Weiss is Managing Director at IDEO coLAB, a collaborative network that utilizes human centered design to strengthen and accelerate research and development surrounding emerging technologies. Matt’s career is anchored in the Boston area with degrees from MIT Sloan and Tufts University, and positions with IDEO, Fidelity and several Boston-based start-ups. Outside of the office, you’ll find Matt on his bike, behind a camera, trying local beers or brewing his own.

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