What can you say about the culture of the cluster, and the way relationships work within it?
The Boston Life Sciences ecosystem is complex, bringing together different disciplines and actors, including academic institutions, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, investors and business service industries. But note that any cluster is people-first: Companies succeed and fail because of the people. The technology counts, but the people are the main thing. People interact with their local environment first, and companies start off as very local organizations. Investors are not just hands-on at first, but hands-in. The closeness associated with being there in person is important, and is part of the cluster’s culture.
You mention that close proximity is important. What role is played by universities and the anchor institutions? How do they engage with the cluster? And do they collaborate with each other?
Harvard and MIT have close relationships with the industry and are pretty good at it. Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where I am based, is very important. We have team members from many disciplines, and they are working in interdisciplinary project teams, which is not always easy but so vital. Often, academic groups work on their own instead of across disciplines. It is difficult to step out of that and work across disciplines. One motivator for change is funding, and those funding the research are asking for closer collaboration between disciplines to reach better results.
When it comes to building and maintaining relationships within the cluster, be it with investors, other businesses, or anchor institutions, could digital play a role when direct contact is not possible?
Certainly, a lot of communication nowadays is done using e-mail, phone calls, and video conferences. Digital communication tools are everywhere. Even text messages are used more and more. This is all very useful. But it can also lead to miscommunication. After all, some people are better at writing e-mails than others. For example, in a second financing round, many people seek investors from wider afield—away from that local network, and not necessarily from Boston or even the United States. Here, communication becomes more challenging. A US-based CEO or investor will use his or her US style of communication, but this may rub up the wrong way people of other cultures. In some smaller countries, such as Switzerland, there is often more international interaction and therefore sensitivity to cultural nuance. In any case, such differences are especially amplified when communication is not done face to face. To operate globally using digital tools, new skills are required. Digital tools allow for interaction with people farther afield, but can also result in miscommunication.
With your international experience, could you say how clusters connect to each other, and what digital is doing to enable these connections?
Clusters can seek exchange and connection to share expertise and resources, which is a great thing. You can only absorb the best ideas from other clusters by experiencing their different cultures—which means immersing oneself in that environment. In European clusters, there is much more government involvement, whereas in the United States the private sector plays a larger role. Federal governments have realized the importance connecting with other large
clusters across borders. For example, the German government is now launching an initiative to support the interaction between German and US-based clusters.
So given the importance that you ascribe to culture, it would seem physical proximity is vital. We hear about the rising rent prices in the area though, and the fact that businesses are being driven to the suburbs. Is the cluster becoming congested?
People want to be in the cluster, in the center of the action. People did move out of Cambridge four or five years ago, but many returned soon after. People are willing to pay the high costs because this is where it all happens. Many of the younger scientists who live here don’t even have a car—they’re not interested in moving away. They are the talent of the cluster and want to be based within it. There was a very large relatively new office building just outside Boston, which now lies empty. The cluster is like a pressure cooker with everything so close together. It is a challenge for smaller clusters to reach this sort of critical mass.
Thank you for your time, Frank—you’ve given us a lot to think about
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