Boston’s brand as tech destination is muddled

State, industry, academia need to get on same AI page

WHEN WE CHOSE BOSTON as the US beachhead for our international software company, we knew we’d get a critical benefit: close proximity to innovators and other highly skilled professionals. Boston’s relatively easy access to Europe, where we do much of our business, also helped with our decision.

But we also knew what we wouldn’t be getting, and our experience in Boston sheds light on the challenges the region faces as it looks to land the likes of Amazon and other tech firms. For it’s not only high costs and average or below average transportation that discourage companies’ relocation and expansion. There’s also a lack of less tangible yet important infrastructure — including a meaningful partnership between government, the academic community, and the tech sector. The Boston area has all the pieces, but its inability to put them together serves to squander some of the potential of the Boston tech scene.

Instead, Boston’s brand as a tech destination is muddled – unlike Silicon Valley with its customer-facing tech giants and free-spirited venture capitalists. Boston allows itself to be perceived as bland and fragmented in terms of tech. But when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear that Boston is world class in a critical area: data management and all of its offshoots, including cybersecurity, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

As AI continues to radically change our lives — with still greater changes just around the corner — no region can make a more valid claim than Boston as being at the center of AI innovation. But the building blocks of this success, the hundreds of data-related companies in the area and the universities and their institutes, including MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, lack a cohesive force to build on their strength.

Here’s an opportunity for the state to step in. Policy leaders could play the critical role of bringing together the best minds in the field to explore the needs of the AI industry. Although the state has several entities, including the Mass Tech Collaborative, that engage with the tech scene, there is no dedicated focus on any one sector. A concentrated effort in organizing around and promoting AI, which is clearly the future of the next generation of tech, promises to pay dividends.

Simon Taylor, CEO of HYCU, a Boston software company.

There is successful Massachusetts precedent for putting a stake in the ground for a single sector. When former governor Deval Patrick announced a 10-year, $1 billion life sciences initiative in 2008, it not only provided practical value on the ground floor of innovation in the state but also broader and powerful worldwide symbolism. It cemented the Boston region’s reputation as a go-to destination for any firm, large or small, that wants to be where the action is.

Similarly, Massachusetts should make another investment in the future through an AI initiative. And perhaps it could be relatively modest, one that creates incubator space, cultivates research, provides training, and offers incentives for companies to hire and retain jobs within the state.

While marshaling our disparate resources could make a big impact, Massachusetts also could benefit from improving its inside game. For every potential Amazon, there are hundreds of smaller firms, like ours, that arrive and find themselves unattended to. When we think about opening up a call center, where should it be – Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, Illinois? I don’t blame officials for pursuing the tech whales of the country, but we smaller fish are job creators, too.

Meet the Author

We’re glad we’re here, and what we see is a vibrant economic region that could be even stronger if it connected the dots between academia, enterprise, and government. Given Massachusetts’ natural advantages, targeted state-led initiatives promise to pay significant dividends.

Simon Taylor is the CEO of HYCU, a Boston-based software company.