The Once and Future Hub

Fourteen reasons Boston is poised to lead America's economic comeback. (Whenever it comes.)

11. Because the biotech ecosystem provides a model for the emerging field of green technology, a.k.a. cleantech.

“There is some crossover in the underlying technologies,” Elton says, noting that biotech touches on certain aspects of energy generation and storage. That leg up could prove quite useful, because as big a boon as biotech has been for the local economy, it’s nothing compared with what cleantech could do. “We talk about how many billions in the tech world,” says Tim Rowe, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center. “In the energy world they talk about how many trillions.”

Obama seems to be thinking this way, too: His environmental plan calls for investing $150 billion in private cleantech enterprises over the next decade. The $500 billion economic stimulus proposal he unveiled last month reportedly includes the first $50 billion of the sum. Essentially, he’s answering the fall of Wall Street by pushing the rise of alternative energy. That means the same kind of federal money that has powered the growth of Boston’s biotechs could also spark our budding green sector.

Investors, taking notice, are pumping their own cash into cleantech. Nick d’Arbeloff, head of the New England Clean Energy Council, says that as recently as 2007 “there might have been one or two venture firms that even mentioned energy on their websites.” Now there are at least a dozen local firms with a dedicated energy practice.

12. Because while Boston doesn’t yet have a fully formed cleantech ecosystem, neither does anyone else.

So, as Curt Schilling so famously asked in 2004, why not us?

Kenneth Morse, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, is certainly on board. “MIT probably has as many people working on alternative energy today as we had working on the Manhattan Project,” he says. Statewide, there are about 60 fully funded cleantech firms up and running. They include GreatPoint Energy, the world leader in the conversion of coal to natural gas. It burst out of the gates with a heady $100 million in startup funds and is now building a $30 million plant in Somerset, due to open in the next few months. There’s also Evergreen Solar, which opened a solar panel manufacturing facility in Devens last summer, doubling its plant workforce to 700. Another notable new player, Wilbraham-based Flo-design, has developed jet engine-inspired wind turbines that are three times more efficient than the standard propeller getup. After winning the 2008 MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship prize and the MIT Enterprise Forum’s Ignite Clean Energy competition, both run by Morse’s Entrepreneurship Center, Flodesign received $200,000 cash, PR services from Boston firm Bell Pottinger USA, legal services from Mintz Levin, and a year of free office space from either Cummings Properties or UMass Dartmouth. Take note, friends: This is an emerging ecosystem at work.

13. Because Tim Rowe’s Cambridge  Innovation Center is wet-nursing even more cleantech concerns.

Established in 1999, the CIC, which operates out of a hulking slab of concrete in Kendall Square, today houses 170 startups of all varieties, many of them filtering out of the neighboring universities. Five years ago, none were in the energy industry; today more than 20 are.

That number should rise, given the long-established tradition of young strivers going back to school for another degree when the economy tanks. The CIC last saw this in 2003. Back then, roughly two graduate-school years after the dot-com bubble burst, Web 2.0 ideas poured out of the universities, and the CIC doubled in size—and then doubled again in 2004. And then again in 2005. Four years later, Rowe is anticipating the next boom, its ideas unlike any other’s and fueled—quite literally—by Obama’s proposed $150 billion.

“The president-elect understands that driving the industrial sector of America toward the development of a green-energy economy can have a tremendous positive impact on our over-all economic health,” says d’Arbeloff. Again, Obama’s plan is right now nothing more than that—a plan—but he is hardly alone in his thinking on this issue. “Green” used to be a word for hippies and do-gooders; these days, it’s for anyone interested in smart business.

14. Because the current state of the local economy is like a mosaic.

Stare intently from close up and you’ll go cross-eyed. But step back to take in the long view and it all comes together beautifully. Our new army of green entrepreneurs and opportunistic venture capitalists can together create a new, cleantech ecosystem, leading Boston to a place at the center of a burgeoning industry, one that ultimately could be the most important on the planet. We could be the hub of the universe in the way Oliver Wendell Holmes never imagined. All we need is a few campaign-trail promises to come through.

See, what’s to worry about?