As The Valley Burns Up, Boston Readies Its Next Act

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Gillmor Gang: Good Vibrations II

You wouldn’t think that you could fix the bicycle. It’s just two wheels, a seat, and a set of pedals, plus or minus some fancy materials and high-quality tuning. But for the engineers and designers at Cambridge-based Superpedestrian, that base is just the start for what they hope will be the next generation of urban transit.

Reinventing the bike may be good business, but it is also a parable for the change that has come over Boston the last few years. If San Francisco today is the land of sundry apps and fights over parking spaces, then Boston is the city poised to answer “how do we solve what really matters?”

For Superpedestrian, it is making the commute simpler and greener. Its product, the Copenhagen Wheel, is an integrated motor and mobile app that actively assists a cyclist with acceleration and maintaining speed. Unlike traditional electric bikes, the technology is designed to adapt to the user’s style of cycling without any direct intervention. Installation is a breeze as well, and it can be added on nearly any bike in just a couple of minutes.

Despite the European inspiration for the name, the company’s founding is a quintessential Boston story. The founder, Assaf Biderman, invented the wheel while at the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, which develops technologies for the real-time city. Now, the company is based just a few minutes from MIT in a quiet part of Cambridge, with a growing staff ready to see the product go into full production shortly.

But what’s interesting about reinventing the bicycle is that Superpedestrian isn’t the only Boston-based company I met in the last month trying to improve bicycles for commuting. Another is Fortified Bicycles, which is developing a new set of anti-theft bike lights that can be easily recharged using micro-USB.

Tivan Amour, the founder of the company, has a particular passion for the area of bike lights. “I started the company because a friend got hit by a car because his light was stolen,” he tells me. “Our goal is to get everyone on bikes and without fear. Safety and nuisance is the problem.” If Superpedestrian is solving the nuisance of physically riding a bike, then Fortified wants to be the one solving its safety. If these problems are solved, “We think we can get more people on the road.”

Reinvention is certainly ingrained into Boston’s fabric. This region of the United States was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, and a century later, Boston and the corridor along Route 128 became the capital of America’s technology enterprise. Companies like Digital Equipment Corporation, BBN Technologies, and Raytheon were world-leaders in computing, networking, and electronics.

As everyone now knows, the internet took off in the 1990s, and then ecommerce, social, big data, mobile, and cloud startups grew in quick succession over the past two decades. Many expected Silicon Valley to disappear in the early 1990s due to competition from Austin as well as Asia, but it managed to place itself at the center of this new transformation of the economy. Entrepreneurship shifted decisively to the West, and today Boston is regularly ranked third on many measures of internet startups, behind Silicon Valley and New York City.

But as the Valley begins to overheat (or is completely engulfed in flames, depending on your perspective), there are many here in Boston who believe that the region’s best times remain in its future, and that there is an opportunity to reinvent the city around deep, engineered technologies. The highway office parks that were once the epitome of the region’s past have now been replaced with open floor plan spaces in the heart of Boston as well as the burgeoning new South Boston Innovation District. Good news has also helped the city. Just this week, a local startup, Wayfair, went public, and is now a $3 billion company.

Far more important are the people that are now engaging with the ecosystem. I spent an afternoon at TechStars Boston, which has begun its own reinvention this year with a whole new staff led by Semyon Dukach, a prolific angel investor and serial entrepreneur who also played on the MIT blackjack team popularized in the movie 21. The former directors of the program, Katie Rae and Reed Sturtevant, left earlier this year to begin their own venture firm, Project 11.

Dukach loved the idea of being an angel, since it matches his philosophy of how to build great companies. “Do lots of stuff in parallel, look for opportunities to have disproportionate impact, and focus on people you can help rather than thinking as much about returns.” Through his work in angel investing, “I became very active, and found myself spending more time at TechStars … and investing in a lot of TechStars companies.” That proximity and engagement is ultimately what convinced him to join the accelerator and become its managing director.

There were some immediate learnings for the entrepreneur – like how to be an employee. “It’s only the second time I have been an employee since delivering pizzas many years ago,” Dukach told me with a laugh. “Otherwise, I was always the CEO,” and due to his focus on revenue growth, “never had boards to report to.” Now, he reports to the wider TechStars organization, although each of the chapters has significant autonomy to experiment.

Part of energizing the Boston ecosystem is encouraging the community to zero in on its core strengths as it tries to navigate the rise of the New York City and Los Angeles startup ecosystems as well as the San Francisco boom. It’s perhaps not surprising then that TechStars’ current batch only has one pure mobile app company: Spitfire, a company that I profiled a few months ago back when it was located in, of course, San Francisco.

Instead, the accelerator has looked to support a diversity of different types of startups. “Almost half of the companies are hardware. Almost half are international. Half have had traction and funding. We’re also trying to get more gender diversity as well,” Dukach says. His ultimate goal is to bring together founders that can help one another and create a community that lasts past the rapid 13-week program.

One area that the accelerator has attempted to address is the overwhelming abundance of resources for startup CEOs, and the complete lack of resources for other senior managers of startups – an issue that I have passionately argued about for some time. TechStars recently introduced a CTO meetup with this current class to assist those on the technical side of startups to improve their skills.

Flo Motlik, who is a cofounder of Codeship and a TechStars alum, was just one of several CTOs present at the series. “What we have seen is that the role changes a lot from a very technical role of coding all day to managing people,” he says, and yet few people really help engineers manage that transition. One of the sessions he helped design was around “what do investors and CEOs expect from the CTO during fundraising?”

For all of the strengths building in the region, there remain significant headwinds that can complicate Boston’s hope to reclaim the mantle of innovation. Venture capitalists here continue to be “conservative” as one TechStars founder put it to me. Another founder unrelated to the program and who recently raised capital said that he had never even considered raising locally, instead choosing to fly to San Francisco for partner meetings until he got term sheets.

While investment is one challenge, it’s retaining people that is perhaps hardest. Boston has an enviable array of universities, but its graduates have a tendency to strike out for New York or California. Also troubling is Massachusetts’ enforcement of no-compete clauses in employment contracts, preventing the kind of frenetic labor environment that is at the heart of an entrepreneurial region. That issue is a top priority for the governor, but the legislature failed to follow through on reforms this year.

These policy debates, though, shouldn’t diminish the great work taking place here in Boston today. With large successes and a wide landscape of internet and services startups underway, the investors and policymakers will come around and do their part. In a few years, you might just be able to easily and safely bike from one partner meeting to another – while avoiding Sand Hill traffic entirely.