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Inside an innovation ecosystem

History, proximity and serendipity make Kendall Square fertile ground for the next big idea.
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

On Monday, on the edge of the MIT campus, representatives of MIT and Pfizer Inc., along with elected officials, participated in a groundbreaking ceremony around what will become a 180,000-square-foot research hub for Pfizer’s Neuroscience Research Unit and its Cardiovascular, Metabolic, and Endocrine Diseases Research Unit. After the ceremony, which included remarks from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Cambridge Mayor David Maher and MIT President Susan Hockfield, participants walked down the block for a reception at the atrium of the MIT’s McGovern and Picower institutes.

The festivities celebrated not just this new injection of talent and jobs into Kendall Square, but also the innovation ecosystem that the Cambridge neighborhood has created. All the stages of innovation — from an idea germinating in a classroom to a product being pushed into the marketplace — can be found in Kendall Square: According to the Kendall Square Association, a nonprofit focused on improving and promoting the local community, the area contains the world’s densest square mile of technology and biotechnology research.

“There are places all over the world where great research happens,” says Geoff Mamlet, managing director of the Cambridge Innovation Center, an enterprise that provides office space and resources for startup companies, half of which have MIT connections. “What this area does uniquely and well is commercialization: taking an idea [and] figuring out how to put it together with all the things needed to drive it out into the world.”

Mamlet says that Kendall Square’s physical layout helps drive innovation: Large and small biotech companies abut MIT research labs, affording convenient opportunities for collaboration. A recent wave of retail stores and restaurants has increased the possibility for serendipitous partnerships.

“I really think of Kendall Square as being the seedbed … for the entire Massachusetts innovation ecosystem,” Mamlet says. Indeed, a 2009 report by researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management found that Kendall Square-based life-sciences companies accounted for two-thirds of all research and development expenditures by Massachusetts biotech firms.

Breaking ground

Today, Kendall Square is a dynamic ecosystem, rich in resources to support innovation. But to truly understand what makes this ecosystem work, Mamlet suggests looking back at its history.

The area’s commercial roots trace to the 1940s and ’50s. During this period, the American Research and Development Corporation, an early venture capital firm, set up shop in the area as a partnership between Georges Doriot, considered the “father of venture capitalism,” and Karl Compton, then president of MIT. In the late 1950s, the firm made what is seen today as the first major success in venture capitalism, investing in Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a computer company started by two MIT engineers who were looking to commercialize a new idea: interactive computing.

DEC laid the groundwork for other companies to build in Kendall Square; eventually, the area was nicknamed “AI Alley” for the number of software firms exploring artificial intelligence. However, despite an influx of industry, Kendall Square remained relatively lackluster as an innovation destination.

“You had a commercial environment that was virtually moribund,” says Travis McCready, executive director of the Kendall Square Association. “There wasn’t a lot of sex appeal to the address, to working and being anywhere near Kendall Square, except for the fact that MIT was here.”

A big turning point came in the late 1970s, when Boston Properties and MIT bought up land that was originally razed in the 1960s for a planned NASA facility. The space agency reconsidered — moving its Manned Spacecraft Center to Houston — and much of the 43 acres of land had lain vacant for years.

The purchase set in motion an urban renewal plan that would eventually break ground on research centers including the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Broad Institute.

Around the same time, the city of Cambridge was in the midst of an intense debate over DNA research. Genetics was uncharted territory, and the city held lengthy deliberations over whether and how to host such research.

Ultimately, in 1976, Cambridge became the first city in the world to establish a local ordinance regulating research with recombinant DNA. The ordinance set clear guidelines for genetic research, which opened the city’s doors to biotechnology, providing agreement between city officials and scientists on how to practice genetic research. Biotech companies could move to Cambridge knowing that, as long as they followed these rules, their work had municipal support.

“The results … are extraordinary,” McCready says. “Now companies like Pfizer are moving in, and just 35 years ago, people were freaking out about DNA research.”

Breathing life into sciences

While Cambridge cemented its stance on recombinant DNA, MIT was expanding many of its academic departments to incorporate the life sciences.

Martin Schmidt, MIT associate provost and a professor of electrical engineering, says certain departments have had long histories in the life sciences arena. For example, his own department, electrical engineering and computer science, conducted early research on speech and hearing. Likewise, the mechanical engineering department worked on the mechanics of prosthetics.  

In the last 20 years, Schmidt says, the Institute has made a concerted effort to branch into life sciences: expanding existing departments, creating a new bioengineering department and erecting biomedical facilities.

“So you have this timeline over 15 or 20 years of the Institute repositioning into this space,” Schmidt says. “Now, probably not surprisingly, we’ve got all these big companies wanting to come here, because they see that as a talent and idea engine.”

In fact, Cambridge talent was likely what inspired Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis to locate in Kendall Square in 2002, Schmidt says.

“They found that when they posted jobs for PhD scientists, they got many more resumes for the position when it was in Cambridge, compared to when the position was in Basel,” Schmidt says. “Knowing the importance of that human capital to the success of their enterprise, it was sort of a no-brainer.”

Bernhardt Trout, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, has had a particularly fruitful relationship with Novartis. Trout remembers meeting with representatives from the company soon after it headquartered its Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Kendall Square. Conversations continued through the years, and in 2006, Novartis and Trout began discussing continuous manufacturing — ways to increase efficiency in prescription-drug manufacturing. The relationship quickly blossomed, and in 2007, the two parties formed the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing, of which Trout is executive director. Looking back, he says, having Novartis as a neighbor helped lay the foundation for the center.

“Even in the days of the Internet and Skype, there’s no substitute for being in proximity and being involved directly in new technologies,” Trout says.

Tomorrow: Tech hub attracts players large and small to support innovation.

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