Can Boston Mayoral Candidates Drive Innovation, Retain Startup Talent?

November 2, 2013

By: Erin
Last week, BostInno and New England Venture Capital Association hosted Boston mayoral hopefuls Marty Walsh and John Connolly at District Hall, the new “center of innovation” in Boston's Seaport. Fielding questions from the audience via Twitter, Stephen Kraus of Bessemer Venture Partners and Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners moderated the discussions, which focused on the candidates' plans to support the ever-growing tech and innovation scene in Boston.
It was clear that both candidates need to familiarize themselves with startup and entrepreneurial leaders, research which programs are working in the city and which are not, and create actionable plans to attract and retain talent here. I'm not implying that the candidates learn to code, but they need to get in the trenches with organizations like The Startup Institute, which requires students to devote their entire lives to startup education for eight weeks, or with .406 Ventures, whose outstanding fellowship program recruits highly educated students from across the country and brings them to Boston. These organizations are creating an environment for Boston's next Mark Zuckerberg. Our next mayor needs to not only ensure that these programs are equipped with the resources they need to be successful, but also that we as a city are prepared to support the needs of our local startups and entrepreneurs.
Unfortunately, Walsh and Connolly spoke in generalities, failing to highlight many policy-specific objectives when it came to technology or innovation, but they agreed that to attract and retain startup talent, Boston must appeal to the young, late-night working demographic. Both candidates said they would minimize the red tape that makes it hard for bars, restaurants and entertainment venues to get licenses, while also ensuring that transportation is available all hours of the night. Boston is absolutely lacking in this area and is losing smart, young and talented folks every day to cities like San Francisco and New York. The leaders in Boston's startup and innovation communities need to start demanding this change and hold the candidates accountable for what they promised during the discussion.
Both candidates also stressed the importance of creating affordable housing and working spaces for entrepreneurs and startups across the city. Boston ranks high on the list of most expensive U.S. cities in which to live and work, as do NYC and San Francisco. However, those cities have the advantage of abundant co-working spaces. Boston is also trying to improve housing costs by developing “micro-housing units,” but neither candidate is a supporter of these initiatives, which entrepreneurs are demanding.
Walsh said he wants to bring events similar to SXSW to Boston. He is considering appointing a position such as chief digital officer or chief innovation officer to work on economic development and innovation in the city. However, when asked about his “big idea” for innovation in Boston (similar to Mayor Bloomberg's Roosevelt Island development), he didn't have one. He also struggled to answer the question about his leadership style and the business leaders he admires. Walsh noted that he spent $250,000 to “connect with young voters” through social media, but he had no response to the question of whether the investment is generating votes. In closing remarks, Walsh said that innovation is the manufacturing of the 21st century and Boston must lead the way.
Connolly stressed his ability to take on the entrenched culture in City Hall – and he said that starts by updating the values, customer service and technology in the city. He wants business owners and residents to feel like they are walking into an Apple Store when they walk into City Hall – filled with high-speed Internet and tablets. He wants to bring innovation centers, incubators and work spaces to neighborhoods like Dorchester, Allston, Roxbury and Mattapan, but he was unable to give specifics about how to start this movement. It's no surprise, but Connolly's platform is focused on education – specifically the Boston Public Schools and closing the achievement gap. He noted that he wants City Hall to partner with local entrepreneurs, companies and innovation leaders to infuse real-world working situations into the public schools to educate and encourage students to stay in Boston. In closing remarks, Connolly said the next mayor of Boston must be a champion of innovation, and he plans to be that guy.
What do you think it will take to grow innovation in Boston?

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