“Everybody wanna be fly but don’t know where their wings at.” -Lil Wayne, Watch My Shoes
I’m on the 6th floor of 21 Drydock Avenue in Boston’s seaport, the newly re-branded “Innovation District,” and I’m looking out the window at a literal mountain of snow, which is just about eye level with my 6-story vantage. The massive excavators and dump trucks looks small next to it as they futilely pile load after load against the side of the mound, most of it rolling off and settling back down at the bottom. All over Boston were executing about the same pointless maneuver; wandering around with full shovels wondering where it’s all going to go.
I’m here in this frozen hell-scape to check out Mass Challenge, the biggest start-up accelerator in the world. Last semester when I was interviewing entrepreneurs, back when I was thinking about setting up some kind of accelerator for Mass Art, I was out in this neck of the woods talking to one of the co-founders of Freight Farms, one of Mass Challenge’s successful alumni start-ups. He is also a Mass Art alum, and set me up with my contact at Mass Challenge, another Mass Art alum (At the time of this interview, the idea of doing a blog about my road to entrepreneurship hadn’t come up, so I didn’t ask for her permission to publish anything, so I’ll call her Audrey). Alumni upon alumni. There’s a heavy collegiate vibe to all of this.Unfortunately, my and Audrey’s schedules never quite lined up last semester, and my project moved on from the egalitarian and slightly unrealistic Mass Art Incubator to the more personal journey I’m currently on.
And it’s a good thing, because after a few minutes of talking with Audrey, it became quite clear that as far as being a resource to start-ups, Mass Challenge is basically crushing it.
This is What Crushing it Looks Like
So what does Mass Challenge do? They’re an accelerator or an incubator (the terms are kind of interchangeable), which means that companies in the “idea phase” apply to work with them, and if they get in, Mass Challenge provides resources, mentors, connections and work space for a “season,” at the end of which prizes are given out to the best and brightest (1.5 million dollar awards). The crazy thing that I didn’t realize is that they’re a non-profit.
See, most businesses like this have an “equity model,” meaning they take a little slice of every company they work with in exchange for their services and funding. If the companies do well, the incubator makes money. It makes sense, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?
Evidently, wrong. Mass Challenge doesn’t take a cut, and though they do offer some pay-to-play services like co-working space in the off season, most of the awards they give out come from from donors. Big companies like Verizon, Pfizer, etc., and private donors like the former-investment-banker founders, who want to support entrepreneurship (for PR, access to cutting edge ideas, because it’s cool, etc.).And, because organizations like this are an enormous boon to the economy, creating new businesses, industries and jobs (MC has created over 4,000 jobs and raised 700 million dollars since it was founded in 2009), they gets some help from the local government. Mayor Menino, as part of the effort to turn the Seaport District into the Innovation District, worked out a deal to subsidize their rent for a period of time. To hear Audrey tell it, Boston is extremely interested in fueling innovation, probably trying to make up for living in the shadow of the Younger Coast’s tech industry for so long. Hey, we’ll take it.
The Mass Challenge office is a spacious open floor plan with “rocks,” (free standing rooms within the room that contain work-spaces, phone booths, lockers and so on) at random intervals, painted in bright shades of dry-erase-friendly paint for brainstorming. There’s an event room for guest speakers and press conferences, a kitchen and cafe (with catering and refreshments provided by donors) and soon a manufacturing space to cater to their hardware start-ups. The Mass Challenge staff are in a slightly enclosed space, but the whole thing speaks to accessibility, openness and transparency.
The main room houses a row of tables that operates as a co-working space in the off season, competitively priced thanks to an arrangement with the city, reduced rent for 5 years in exchange for their continued existence and consequent contribution to society.
Everything is Awesome
The cynic in me is trying to find something wrong, and coming up seriously short.
It just doesn’t seem possible. Everybody is friendly as hell, and I almost can’t believe how accommodating they’ve been to me, Mass Art connections notwithstanding.
The thing is, I want to find something wrong with them, because the existence of this place means that a lot of the premise of my opportunity, that entrepreneurs lack resources in the early stages, well this place is kind of the answer to that. The only thing I can think of that they’re not already actively doing for entrepreneurs is helping littler ideas (like, say, mine). They focus on ideas that make a big impact, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but maybe there’s room somewhere in this world for something like Mass Challenge, for people with smaller, or maybe less scale-able or craft-focused goals. I don’t know. The slices of entrepreneurship pie that Mass Challenge doesn’t already have a fork in are definitely on the slim side. I’m feeling more and more like my choice to make a personal exploration of entrepreneurship is about the only thing I could really bring to the table.
When we finish up our chat in the lounge, Audrey invites me to stick around if I want, enjoy the free WiFi, get inspired by the palpable spirit of innovation hanging in the air. She also invites me to check out some events in the coming season and hands me a Key Dates card. We say our goodbyes and I wander into the co-working space to take some notes.
It’s the off-season right now and apart from a handful of people working at laptops, there’s plenty of space, so I grab a desk and start scribbling away, while outside, heavy equipment operators pile snow, and the sun begins to set orange and magenta behind Boston Harbor. Planes take off and land, and the snow keeps rolling down hill, and I again I get the feeling of being right on the edge of something big and humming with forward momentum, the prelude of an optimistic future that I am both desperate — and maybe destined, if I’m lucky — to be a part of.
Until next time, hustle hard.