The Boston Tech 30
He’s disrupting the prescription-drug industry with a new way to get meds.
Parker’s public battle with an industry giant, Express Scripts, earned him national attention earlier this year. But the young first-time entrepreneur would rather talk about how his startup became a threat to the status quo in the first place. Namely, through good design. Parker says his online pharmacy, PillPack, has grown so much because it’s “intelligently using design and technology” to simplify the complicated prescription system in the U.S. The startup’s “PillPacks” are individualized packets containing all of the medications a person needs each day, which the company ships directly to users. Now some local tech insiders are viewing Parker as the “Steve Jobs of the Boston startup community,” according to Kinvey CEO Sravish Sridhar. Parker is “solving a big problem, doing it in a unique manner, delivering a beautiful solution, and building a large community of vocal believers to join him in his journey,” Sridhar says.
The arrival of the Techstars program was one of the pivotal moments in the region’s startup renaissance—at least once Rae was put in charge. In 2011, she and collaborator Reed Sturtevant took over the mildly successful accelerator program and, in their first year, produced one of the top-funded classes of startups in Techstars history. Since then the program has turned first-time entrepreneurs, such as PillPack’s TJ Parker, into serious forces in the tech industry. As Rae—who now does startup investing at Project 11 Ventures—puts it: the “hope and enthusiasm that Techstars stirred up in this core community spilled out across the broader ecosystem.”
It’s probably no accident that the biggest shift in the way sports fans immerse themselves in fantasy-league play came, in part, out of sports-obsessed Boston. DraftKings—one of the two heavyweights, along with FanDuel, in offering daily fantasy-sports contests—went from a tiny startup to a company valued in the billions (and facing legal challenges around the U.S.) in just a few years. That’s a narrative you hear more about on the West Coast or in New York, and Jason Robins says DraftKings did have plenty of chances to leave Boston in the startup’s early days. “I watched many of my fellow entrepreneurs succumb to the lure of Silicon Valley,” Robins says. “But I am happy to say that we have built something larger than any of them, right here in Boston.”
Sabet knew about your favorite app before it was cool. As one of the earliest investors in Twitter, Tumblr, Runkeeper, and Foursquare, the Boston venture capitalist isn’t boasting when he says he’s proud to have had “the chance the work with the world’s best founders.” Sabet is rare, says Runkeeper cofounder Jason Jacobs, in that he “has the confidence to trust his intuition as it relates to products, markets, and people—even if it doesn’t yet show up in the data.” Saber is rare for another reason, too: The VC firm he cofounded is one of the few that started in Boston and expanded west rather than the other way around; while maintaining a headquarters on Newbury Street, Spark Capital also now has offices in New York City and San Francisco.
Over the past decade the impossible happened: Marketing became hip. Or at least “inbound marketing,” pioneered by HubSpot founders Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan, did. The company’s software is “based on a more empathetic, human-friendly approach to doing business,” Shah says, ultimately enabling companies to sell stuff online in a way that’s less annoying to customers. The idea proved to be a powerful one, and it turned HubSpot into a tech institution. Some of the interesting approaches Shah took inside the company have broadened his influence, such as his widely circulated HubSpot Culture Code, along with the management’s support for employees who leave to launch their own startups. So many HubSpotters have done so, in fact, that local tech insiders have a name for the group: the HubSpot Mafia.
Shah may think he’s running a home-goods website, but to the tech world inside and outside of Boston, what he’s really doing is disproving some deeply held beliefs. For one: Amazon will demolish all competitors in e-commerce. Not true, say Shah and his Wayfair cofounder Steve Conine, who’ve built an e-commerce company that’s resisted Amazon for more than a decade and is now publicly traded and worth billions. Another common belief: Boston, the city that lost Facebook, is no place for consumer technology. On the contrary, “Boston has all the skills to be a leader in consumer technology,” Shah says. With a team of 5,000, Wayfair is aiming to “help build a reputation in consumer tech” for Boston—while working to remain a success story for the region in the process.
When Stata launched Boston Seed Capital in 2010, it was the first VC fund in Boston focused solely on seed investing—that is, cutting small checks to startups when they’re just getting going. While there are at least nine funds in the city that follow this model, Boston Seed has remained one of the most active, with investments in some 40 startups so far. Among them are companies that have gone on to nationwide growth, such as DraftKings and Runkeeper. Stata “is a go-to investor for any early-stage tech companies in the Boston area,” says entrepreneur and investor Phil Beauregard. “She’s the glue that holds together so many of us in the Boston ecosystem.”
Stonebraker doesn’t even try to downplay his feelings about having won the so-called Nobel Prize of computing, the A.M. Turing Award, in 2014: “I would by lying if I said that hadn’t been my lifetime goal.” More precisely, his goal over a more-than-40-year career was to pioneer new ways for data to be stored and analyzed—which he did, laying the groundwork for today’s “big data” explosion. But while his roots are in academia and he continues to work out of MIT, Stonebraker made a mark with his prowess in database technology, chiefly through a series of successful startups, including the Boston-area firm Vertica Systems. The citation for Stonebraker’s Turing Award notes that he’s the only winner in the award’s history who’s founded so many companies. Now 72, Stonebraker remains active with his latest big-data startup, Tamr, and has no plans to retire.
He’s protecting our online lives with his Boston-based cybersecurity company.
Hundreds of companies think they have a solution to the daily onslaught of data breaches. And yet Thomas is one of the few entrepreneurs who’s figured out how to turn one of these solutions into a major commercial success. Under Thomas’s leadership as CEO, the cybersecurity company Rapid7 went public in 2015, a feat only the smallest fraction of businesses are strong enough to pull off. (It was the only IPO of a Boston-based tech company last year and one of just a handful in the security realm overall in 2015.) In the wider world, Thomas’s seat on the Digital Economy Board of Advisors extends his influence to the federal-government level. He also finds time to keep an eye on what new startups are up to by doing angel investing on the side. “The more exposure I have to other innovative technologies,” Thomas says, “the more creatively I’m able to think about what we’re doing.”
C. A. Webb
For Webb, community is everything in the high-tech game. Case in point: The Bay State has long allowed employers to impose non-compete clauses that restrict tech employees from moving on to new opportunities. Though the fast-moving industry has chafed at such clauses, their enforceability was never front and center for lawmakers. That is, until Webb, as head of the New England Venture Capital Association, spearheaded turning it into a community issue in 2014. The campaign has fallen short of changing the law despite a string of attempts since then, but its prominence on Beacon Hill has shown “our collective efficacy and power,” Webb says. Now a partner at the new Boston VC firm Underscore, which she founded with venture capitalist Michael Skok, Webb says she’s taking her community-building work even further. At Underscore, Webb is devising an education initiative that aims to create “a truly diverse, deep, and dynamic community of entrepreneurs.”
Thumbnails: Courtesy photos; by Kent Earle (Cirino); Bill O’Donnell (English); Betsy Weber/Flickr (Goodman)