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Fostering an innovation ecosystem

MIT President L. Rafael Reif and others discuss ways to support Kendall Square’s burgeoning innovation culture.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif
MIT President L. Rafael Reif
Photo: Keith Spiro

As Kendall Square gains altitude as a tech and biotech epicenter, its neighbors — including MIT — are finding educational and entrepreneurial opportunities there.

The Kendall Square Association’s (KSA) annual meeting on Wednesday — which included a keynote presentation by MIT President L. Rafael Reif — focused on ways MIT and others can foster, and benefit from, Kendall’s rising innovation ecosystem.

Topics included the growth of Kendall Square infrastructure (mostly in the form of buildings for biotech firms) and initiatives to promote entrepreneurship in the district — such as MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative and the shared-lab facility known as LabCentral.

“What you see is probably the most dynamic, exciting innovation cluster the globe has to offer,” Reif said in his keynote address. “There’s a lot of good that needs to be done, and needs to be done well. And [helping Kendall expand] is one great example of how we can solve significant problems in the world.”

The KSA is a nonprofit, with 132 member companies and organizations, dedicated to improving infrastructure, retail and pedestrian access in Kendall Square. The group’s annual meeting was held in the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square.

Building an entrepreneurial community

In his introductory remarks, KSA president Tim Rowe, also the founder and CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), lauded Kendall as an innovation cluster that attracts scientists dedicated to curing disease, alleviating hunger and developing clean energy.

“Making energy that doesn’t destroy the planet, getting food to people who need it — these kinds of inventions might be the silver bullet that will make the world that our children live in better than the world that we live in,” Rowe said. “And a substantial percentage of that work is happening in Kendall Square.”

Reif said that some of these “pioneering innovations” are developed at MIT, but moving them into the marketplace can be challenging. He added that an increased MIT presence in Kendall, which is an aim of MIT’s Kendall Square Initiative, could help.

The initiative seeks to rezone 26 acres of MIT property at the eastern end of campus. The proposal aims to transform four parking lots into a vibrant mixed-use district with housing, lab and office space, and retail and open space. MIT will also preserve several areas for future academic development.

“This is part of our dream,” Reif said. “The goal is to continue to enable Kendall Square to be a vibrant destination for retail, restaurants, for entertainment — to be truly a unique district where people live and play. By having the ecosystem we have here, we can expose our students to that ecosystem — a living laboratory to watch brilliant entrepreneurs at work, moving innovations from the lab into the marketplace.”

Another proposal to help biotech entrepreneurs — some of whom may be MIT students — thrive in Kendall Square came from Johannes Fruehauf, founding director of Cambridge Biolabs. His forthcoming LabCentral, a shared-lab facility that will be located in an MIT-owned building at 700 Main St., will rent out resources and space to biotech entrepreneurs — a model similar to the CIC, which leases office space with infrastructure for tech startups.

“The goal is to overall significantly reduce the cost of starting a new venture, to help channel the flow of innovation, especially from local universities,” Fruehauf said, “and around that build an entrepreneurial community of biotech folks.”

LabCentral is supported by a major grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and by the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research.

Education beyond the classroom

Discussions also focused on how Kendall Square serves as a hub for education and an incubator for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis expressed concern with the state of STEM education in the United States: While a growing number of jobs are in STEM fields, many Americans are not qualified to fill the positions. But with the robust biotech and tech industries of Kendall Square, STEM education and the infrastructure to support a STEM workforce are becoming a higher priority. “The future lives here in Cambridge, in Kendall Square, particularly,” Davis said.

Part of Reif’s talk focused on edX, the nonprofit online-learning enterprise founded last year by MIT and Harvard University. Reif said edX and MITx represent a new revolution in learning.

“The education of the future will happen not only in the walls of an institution, and students should be exposed to a variety of exciting environments, including what happens inside the classroom and around the institution,” Reif said.

Kendall Square, Reif said, also promotes global awareness, with its diverse culture and growing population of multinational corporations. “Global awareness in the future could mean the global marketplace,” he said. “Kendall Square is a microcosm of that kind of environment.”

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