What Role Will Startups Play in Boston's Economic Landscape?

Boston’s new startup manager will connect with the city’s startup scene to promote economic growth and incentivize local entrepreneurs, working to ultimately get innovation out to the neighborhoods.

by / April 2, 2015
The city of Boston, rendered above, has enlisted the help of Rory Cuddyer to be its new startup manager to coordinate an initiative to bring startups to Boston. Flickr/Bahman Farzad

Boston’s Startup Manager Rory Cuddyer is on a mission. His assignment? To decipher the city’s startup scene so policy makers can revitalize the community with entrepreneurship.

Cuddyer has been unofficially dubbed by local media as a “startup czar.” That title, however, is a bit of a misnomer, as his position is less about authority and more about enabling and empowering entrepreneurship.

As a former policy researcher, city advisor and committee field organizer for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Cuddyer is funneling his talents into a major engagement campaign called StartHub to elicit startup growth, market the city as entrepreneur-friendly, and retain Boston’s top tech graduates from the city’s high profile universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern and Harvard.

The mayor also has invested major ambitions into cultivating Boston’s startup and tech communities. In 2014, Walsh opened the Roxbury Innovation Center, a place for entrepreneurial networking, startup work space and education. And in January, along with Cuddyer’s position, Walsh announced  the creation of an Office of Analytics — for data-based insights — as well as a partnership with SAP, a multinational software company that plans to connect local high school and college students with high-tech jobs.

As Boston prepares to launch an official site for the StartHub initiative, Cuddyer said he is still gathering feedback, and will plan events and recommend policies to assist entrepreneurs. Cuddyer spoke to Government Technology to highlight his current progress and upcoming plans.

Government Technology:  What have you been up to since you started?

Startup Manager Rory Cuddyer: Over the past three weeks, it’s been a lot of one-on-one meeting with people involved in the startup community here, and really just beginning a dialogue with them to identify what their needs are, what their concerns are, to brainstorm about potential solutions that we can help to put in place. It’s really going to be about a huge collaborative effort. As a city, we can’t pretend we know their needs and understand their concerns and what they think is good for them. We need to hear it directly from the startups themselves. And even going beyond individual startups, there are a lot of people involved, so it requires having a 30,000 foot view of the ecosystem.

GT: What role does Boston see startups playing in its economic landscape?

Cuddyer: We really understand that they’re going to be an incredibly important part of our economy. The startup scene here over the past five years has just boomed. At first it was over in the Seaport District, and then it started to spread into the financial district and South Station area. Now we think the city can play a huge part in getting innovation out to the neighborhoods. Last year the mayor announced that 3,500 square feet of the Bruce C. Bolling building over in Dudley Square in Roxbury will be dedicated to the Roxbury Innovation Center, and that will be operated by Venture Cafe who runs District Hall, [a supporting civic innovation center in Boston]. We think there is incredible opportunity to bridge the gap between Boston’s residents — who might not know a whole lot about the innovation economy — and get them resources, get them access to mentors, get them in workshops on how to write a business plan. We’re going to use this as an opportunity to get businesses popping up in neighborhoods. It really is an economic development driver for us, we think.

GT: As the single point of contact for entrepreneurs, what type of conversations and resources are you providing startups? Are hackathons, workshops, training sessions and procurement help coming?

Cuddyer: Right now we’re focused just on having the conversations to get a baseline as to what they’re thinking, and then after two months or three of having conversations, we’re really going to start driving events and policies based on what we’ve heard. So we want to have a  good amount of conversations to understand what their needs are. There is definitely not a lack of resources in Boston. It’s just that some people might not know they exist. As a city, I believe we’re in a unique position to use our existing relationships and expertise to convene startups in a way that isn’t being done right now. That’s the first thing we’re going to do. Then we’ll be having events as part of a startup program — those will be networking events mostly —  just to bring startups from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and the other surrounding towns together to just see what will happen with that interaction.

GT: What’s are the biggest demands voiced by Boston startups?

Cuddyer: The three things that come up time after time is that first, space is pretty tight in Boston, and startups usually aren’t ready to enter into a large long-term lease. So just access to space that can be utilized for six to 12 months can take them up to the next level.

Second, essentially how can we as a city start to change the culture, how do we activate city spaces in ways they’re not currently being activated, how do we utilize that activation just to get excitement about what the city. For example, startups often work late, and they need to have places to go to get themselves a bite to eat; they need to have a place to go to hang out with friends, whether it’s an outdoor patio, a place for dinner or just somewhere to grab a beer. So if we can change the overall culture of the city, I think that is going to be a huge thing — that might not equate with startups — but I think it is a huge part of the ecosystem.

And then the third part is that Boston just needs to market itself a lot better. Boston has a unique brand of innovation, but we really don’t sell that, and the excitement that’s in the Boston community isn’t translating to excitement outside the region. So if we can really brand Boston’s innovation as unique and different than the innovation that’s happening out in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and New York, then we think that’s really going to put us in a unique position to attract  — and keep — companies here, companies that are growing at a fast pace as well, as to keep graduating college seniors and graduate students.

GT: Based on your experience so far, what advice would you give cities attempting to cultivate startup activity in their own communities?

Cuddyer: I would just say to them that is should be a collaboration. You can’t pretend you know their interests and needs more than them. It’s important to really foster those relationships and really work with them to make sure that what they need is actually getting done. Cities can put as many policies in place as they want, but if the startup community doesn’t see those as something worthwhile or meaningful, then those policies are going to go to waste. So work with startups to make sure the policies you’re putting in place really are the right fit for fostering the local ecosystem.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.