Boston, the Innovation City

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (WINTHROP, BELL); LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (GILLETTE). PHOTOGRAPH BY AP IMAGES (WANG). GEORGES F. DORIOT, CA 1960. HBS ARCHIVES PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION: FACULTY AND STAFF. BAKER LIBRARY. HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL (OLVWORK640146)

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (WINTHROP, BELL); LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (GILLETTE). PHOTOGRAPH BY AP IMAGES (WANG). GEORGES F. DORIOT, CA 1960. HBS ARCHIVES PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION: FACULTY AND STAFF. BAKER LIBRARY. HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL (OLVWORK640146)

Boston as one of the country’s greatest innovation hubs? We generally think of this as a fairly recent development. But Bob Krim, director of the Entrepreneur Innovation Center at Framingham State University, takes a longer view: He points out that Boston has been one of the two or three most innovative city-states in the world. “We still don’t have a historic sense of our own breakthroughs,” he says, “which date back to the birth of the city and the nation.” Krim has spent decades cataloging dozens of innovations that began right here, and trying to figure out the secret sauce that’s made Boston such a transformative place. Here, a few lessons.

We have a long history of social entrepreneurship.

The Massachusetts Bay Company’s John Winthrop, the ideological champion who rousted the Puritans out of England, was a pretty smart CEO type. He spent a lot of time investigating why previous efforts in the new world—Jamestown, Roanoke—had failed. From his research, he devised a smart plan: Carpenters, and their wives, should go on the first ships, and immediately begin the work of building the shining city on a hill.

We are a city of bumpers and connectors.

We’ve got a high “bump rate”—the term economists use to describe the tendency for smart people from different worlds to connect with one another and come up with something new. When King Gillette came up with the idea for a safety razor over on Gainsborough Street, Boston supplied a built-in network: The people who could source the pieces he needed—such as the know-how to make steel blades—were just blocks away.

We invest in big ideas.

Boston entrepreneurs have long had extraordinary access to local funding for their ideas. Famously, the very idea of venture capital was invented here in the 1940s by Georges Doriot and his American Research and Development Corporation—and we’re still among the top three cities in the country for venture capital.

We’re a city of early adopters.

It means that when our best and brightest make something new, there’s often local demand for the product. As soon as Alexander Graham Bell came up with the idea for the telephone, the president of State Street Bank became a customer. He wanted a telephone line from his home in Somerville to the State Street offices in downtown Boston so he could talk with his staff during the day.

Our innovation knows no boundaries.

Massachusetts opened the country’s first patent office in 1790, and new arrivals contribute to those at a high rate—about one in five patents is held by an immigrant. In a survey of Boston’s 60 most important innovations—breakthroughs that had changed the world—Krim found that one-third of the teams included people of color, women, or immigrants, even if their names had been buried by historians. They included An Wang (pictured), who developed the first office computers in the 1970s; Simmons College grad Louise Giblin, an industrial chemist who helped develop the baby formula that became Similac; and Lewis Latimer, who helped Bell write the patent for the telephone and went on to help Thomas Edison perfect the light bulb.