22 April 2008

Business: Stopping the Western Migration

Tonight, as part of an ongoing mission to strengthen New England businesses, journalist Scott Kirsner assembled a group of entrepreneurs, students, venture capitalists, and folks from business schools and other organizations at a cozy Cambridge restaurant. Why? We picked each other's brains & explored:

  • How do we stop the "brain drain" of students and entrepreneurs from New England schools and businesses to the west coast?
  • What's causing this?
  • What programs are good at connecting students to start-ups, VCs, and internships?
  • ...and are there ideas for new ways to reach students?
  • Why are start-ups moving west? I mean, there's "early stage venture capital" here, right?
  • Did you notice that New England firms still rely on noncompete agreements, whereas they are out of favor in the Valley?
The 14 of us chatted about these issues for a couple of hours. Sure, the BHAG of duplicating MIT's many successes as a wellspring of entrepreneurship at other schools is a many-year project. But we honed in on a few themes. I'll keep people's names out of it:

  • A BC sophomore noted several things: (1) internships are a very powerful magnet for students, and (2) BC has a successful class that takes students on a tour of 10?-30? companies - from start-up to blue chip - in Silicon Valley, after each student spent the semester doing a deep-dive on each, so as not to waste the CEO's time with naive questions.
  • Folks from nearby business schools and their career services offices expressed a desire to provide their students with excellent job opportunities, but (1) didn't want to spam local companies, and (2) didn't know how to get assurance that a given job was of high quality. (We told them not to worry about (1). Companies appreciate being reminded by universities about the availability of a fresh labor pool! For instance, the University of Rochester's optics program pings me a few times a year. That's helpful.)
  • There's more to business than high-tech and biotech, but perhaps we should focus on our strengths.
  • Some commented on how palpable the excitement of entrepreneurship is in the Valley, as opposed to here. I'm not sure I agree -- I feel like the cafes along Mass Ave are the birthplace of many a business plan. But it's a common viewpoint.
  • I expressed the view that many Boston entrepreneurs complain that early stage venture capital really is hard to come by. The venture capitalist across the table from me pointed out several funds that are "early stage," e.g. Bain, Polaris, etc. I'm sure we could have argued that for many hours. At the end of the day, the VCs feel they are truly early-stage, and entrepreneurs feel otherwise. There is a gap between Y Combinator, angels, and Series A.
  • Lots of love for Y Combinator.
  • Smart companies are finding employees - and vice versa - on LinkedIn.
  • Some schools have network "nodes" - some folks at MIT come to mind - who know all of the entrepreneurs, the local success stories, and the professors pushing the envelope. How about if universities or corporations do a little guerrilla marketing & discover these empassioned nodes & give them some money to hold social events?
  • The existing technology mixers need more publicity so they can reach critical mass. (E.g. Tech Tuesdays, OpenCoffee...) By the way, here is Don Dodge's compilation of Boston startup events.
  • I framed the mission as an engineering problem: what is the most effective way to connect opportunities (internships, course credit, jobs for equity, business plan competitions, money to "nodes") to students through each of the available channels (class announcements, assisgnments, "nodes", advertising in student newspapers or table tents, or sneaky methods like TellMe's 2000-era recruiting method of descending upon the software labs at midnight with a stack of 10 pizzas)?
  • Some schools are effectively walled-in -- Harvard undergrads are unlikely to stray far from campus to take advantage of, say, MIT's community.
  • Unanimously decided: Scott should begin an East coast version of Valleywag.
I am certainly forgetting 50% of people's contributions, but perhaps they'll blog about it, too. I think Scott is doing a real and sincere service to the community with this. Perhaps the key entrepreneurial events will reach critical mass. Perhaps one or two particularly passionate undergrads and B-school students will take the lead & become the official "Chief Entrepreneurial Evangelists" to the outside world. Perhaps more early-stage sources of capital will emerge.

Scott's blog, by the way, is here: Innovation Economy.

[edit: 23 Apr 08]


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