Founder, Cambridge Innovation Center
You can give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day or you can teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime. There's another thing you can do. You can invent a better fishing rod and then a billion might eat for a lifetime. That is called innovation.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Kendall Square has been front and center in international news the past few days and not exactly with the type of story we think of when we drive through the brain power of MIT. That is why we are so very glad to have this interview with Tim Rowe to share with you. We sat down with Tim before last week's sadness and heard about how he and others have spent the past decade "building and not destroying" as President Obama urged America to do last Thursday. Our hearts are with all of Boston and our minds are firmly planted with those moving us forward.
Overlooking the Charles River and the MIT campus in Kendall Square, Cambridge Innovation Center is the area's largest and most popular flexible office space facility for small and growing companies. CIC tenants, many starting out with just one or a few people, have raised over $150M in venture capital. Tim Rowe and Andrew Olmsted founded the Center which began in 1999, and today Tim and Geoff Mamlet manage what is now home to over 450 start-ups with Tim’s innovation centers expanding into Boston and according to the Boston Globe, even more US cities.
What are you trying to change?
We all grew up thinking about how to help the world. The problems humanity faces globally, even in the year 2013, are just jaw dropping and you don’t always see them when you're sitting here in Cambridge.
In my first job out of college, I worked in a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people and there isn't enough space in a given boat for the whole family so part of the family ends up in one boat and part of the family in another and then the boats get separated and the kids end up in a place like Hong Kong without their parents and then they end up in some detention center. Then in Bangladesh we are dealing with water purity problems that just make your skin crawl. I think we all know we have a world, which is getting a lot of things wrong, and really the only hope we have to fix that is trying a new or a different approach and that's innovation. That's the better fishing rod.
Sitting here in Cambridge, very comfortable, we have an incredible opportunity - we have some of the brightest people in the world. We have more money chasing innovation than probably anywhere else on the planet. Statistically Massachusetts has more venture capital invested per person than any other place in the world. It's about 30% more than California per person.
Why is that?
California is a bigger state and it's very spread out but it's very concentrated here in Cambridge and Boston. So, not only is it more per person in the whole state but it's all concentrated in one place.
Has it been this way for a long time?
Probably for the last forty or fifty years. We have this tremendous opportunity here in Greater Boston. We have the best resources for innovation, bar none. We have more money when scaled to the people; we have two of the world's top universities. We have more NIH funding than any other state.
We have some of the world's finest people who come here to study and, as a result, we're connected to every part of the world. Every kid who is good at science or technology in the world considers MIT as a possible place that they would go. They somehow get scholarships and so forth and so this is a United Nations of innovation and with that comes a significant obligation.
If you are the person who can see farthest or you have the strongest muscles, certain jobs fall to you that wouldn't fall to anybody else. You’re fortunate to have that opportunity and I believe that our community has a special purpose and obligation as a result of all these riches.
If you look back over the history of the innovation that came out of this area, probably the three biggest inventions in the last five hundred or a thousand years would be the computer, the telephone and the Internet and they were invented within a mile of here.
Why did you personally decide to grow this innovation base?
My wife Amy and I graduated from MIT along with other friends and we were kicking around doing corporate jobs and then we decided we wanted to do startups. When the moment came to quit our jobs and begin startups in Cambridge and it just seemed to me that there was probably a place you could go. I looked around and there wasn't a building or place to gather and I thought, 'That's weird.' Back then we had to actually lease an office for years - typically a five year commitment - and you had to give a personal guarantee meaning that if you couldn't pay rent, you would have to and in fact my personal guarantee wasn't good enough. They made my dad personally guarantee it as well and that's a lot of obligation, right? It made no sense because startups expect to fail. That's the startup world. You try a lot of different things and some things work and some things don't.
Statistics suggest that four out of five startups fail or something like that. Everyone who understands the startup world says, 'and that's totally okay. That's as it should be. If you only do things that are sure things then you're not taking very much risk and you're not going do anything all that interesting.
When Zuckerberg started Facebook, he wasn't like, 'oh, yeah, this is definitely going to be a global corporation.' Come on. Right? So, if you know that the risk is very high and that's part of the system and acceptable, then how do we help people take those risks?
How do I rent a space at the Cambridge Innovation Center?
Rents here are month to month. It's thirty-day obligations. Startups can make a thirty-day commitment. They can handle that but we also offer the emotional support. When you're off on your own, sometimes you think you're crazy. I mean, you're starting this business, you're excited by this but you don't know if it's going to work and there are probably days when you look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Why what am I doing?'
Oh yes. Yup.
Exactly. So, imagine you're in an environment where every day everybody you see around you is also taking a big risk like this, also trying to do something crazy and big and world changing in their own way and a lot of them are facing the same challenges you are. A lot of them need to get the word out about their product and you're talking about social media and they're doing that too plus there are people who spent the last three years figuring out exactly how to do that. Conversations that start with, 'Let me take a look at your online marketing strategy. Have you thought about this or this?' happen naturally in any community. You share the things that interest you and concern you with your community and you learn and so it's natural to imagine that a community of entrepreneurs would do the same thing. It turns out that when you effectively live together with other entrepreneurs - you spend more waking hours working on your business than sleeping hours at home.
I have an entrepreneur who started as an employee of another company as a coder and when they moved out she said, 'I'm sorry. I'm quitting. I can't leave.” Now she’s started her own company here. It was very important to her to be in this community.
How's her company doing?
A little bit of revenue. A real product and a lot of potential. If you walk around our offices you'll see iPads on the walls next to conference rooms. It’s an automated way to reserve the rooms. We built this for ourselves and people had constantly been asking us if they could buy he software. I put out an email to a bunch of our clients saying we’d like to turn this into a business and asked if anyone would like to take this on as their startup? She raised her hand and now she's the CEO - it's called Roomzilla.
Does the center ever close? Is there a curfew, per se?
No. We are 24 x 7 and we occasionally find people sleeping under a desk in the conference room. That's not technically permitted but it happens.
What public attitude would you like to change?
In the past people thought it was weird and novel that people came into an environment like this to work. It was almost titillating and that's all gone away. It used to be that if you were a real company, then you'd have your own office space with a big logo and a receptionist and all that and then Google Android got started here with just one person and he didn't need a secretary.
Is anything holding back innovation in Cambridge?
What’s topical right now, and I am just one of many voices, is that it's absolutely crazy that some of the world's brightest people come here, we educate them using the best resources we have to change the world through their own brand of innovation and when they graduate, we kick them out. Why not say please stay and build a company here and employ Americans? Instead we say you have to leave. The globalist part of me thinks that this is actually very good for the world and that America could be doing no greater favor to the struggling nations of the world than to kick out some of our smartest graduates but the patriot in me thinks that this is an absolutely crazy mistake and that it's just unfathomable that we really make it so hard for people to stay here.
Did you hear Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is said to be putting millions of dollars behind an advocacy group backing immigration reform?
I heard that he was thinking about it and I’m glad he's taking it on and will move the needle. His timing is good because the GOP got their butts kicked in the last election, partly on the immigration thing, and they've gotten religion.
We need to fix immigration - high skilled immigration. I think it's going to happen in the next month or two. That's the barrier to more innovation happening in Cambridge. We need to start allowing the brilliant people who we educate here to stay here and build businesses with hill skilled immigration. Staple a green card to the diploma. This is the way Thomas Friedman puts it.
Share some of your best CIC success stories.
The best-known company is Google Android, started by a Cambridge guy, Rich Miner who at the time I didn't know but he's now a friend. He was serial entrepreneur and he started cooking up this idea while working in a corporate research lab. The company wasn't very interested so he set out to build a startup here. Google got very interested and bought that startup when it was still just Rich alone in our offices and I think one person on the West Coast. Before they left us, they grew to about two hundred people. They worked in stealth for three years. We knew that they were doing something interesting but nobody knew exactly what.
Another is a company called GreatPoint Energy. This was a group of entrepreneurs - their second company at CIC. They built a semiconductor company before that that they sold for many millions of dollars and then decided to work on clean coal technology. Coal is the most abundant source of energy we have and yet it's very dirty. It causes acid rain and global warming through the carbon dioxide pollution and so they found a way called coal gasification to convert coal into clean natural gas and sequester the carbon dioxide and the sulphur. When they moved in here there were three guys working on it. They eventually raised half a billion dollars of venture capital and are now building a multi-million dollar plant in China. They had a pilot plant in Massachusetts and another one in Illinois and the really big one in China.
How do you feel when companies move out?
What typically happens is as companies grow, they grow out of us and that has applied to both Android and GreatPoint Energy but that's what's supposed to happen. It's sort of like when you graduate college - hopefully you don't keep hanging out there. Often when they leave it's not yet clear that they're going to be as great as what they become but we're close friends with all these guys and we stay in touch.
Do you take ownership in these companies?
We don't believe in that approach. We think that any landlord that says, “Give me part of your company,” tends to miss out on the stronger entrepreneurs who tend not to hand their equity out except to just the right really helpful investors. Once in a while I personally invest because I know the people and that's always fun. I also have an investment in a restaurant downstairs called Firebrand Saints. It's not because restaurants are a good investment but because I really like the guy founding it and I wanted to help him be successful.
What event this year are you most looking forward to?
My upcoming April vacation with my family.
This past month’s Fifty On Fire was actually pretty fun. It was a lot of really cool people around Boston doing some cool things and for your community to step up and say, 'Hey, you're one of the fifty people doing things that are really worth recognizing,' was really fun for me.
On the personal front, I'm taking my son Sam - he's twelve now, turning thirteen - on an international exploration of the history of World War II for a couple of weeks. It's a real passion of his and I want to share in his passions.
Do you have a mentor that really pulled you along?
This is going to be trite but it was my dad. He gave me a piece of advice once that, 'When you wake up in the morning, if you find yourself looking forward to the day and looking forward to the things you're going to do in the day, you know you're on the right track.' You have to follow your passions and you'll do great things. I was really enjoying management consulting but I was traveling all the time. I wasn't around my wife Amy. She was also in a career at McKinsey and I started to think about startups and started to help Amy with her new startup idea. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do but then this idea gelled of creating a space for startups and it became clear we would need a lot of money. My dad lent me $600,000, which was a significant portion of what he had. It wasn't like it was an easy amount for him. My family had lived in the same house that we lived in since I was in grade school – a normal house on a normal street in Belmont and he really believed in me.
There was a glint in his eye and he said, 'Go for it' and it was really inspiring. He has always been. He has opened my eyes to some really life-changing directions in my life.
Where is your favorite place to eat?
These days, I eat often at Firebrand Saints. I'm a big fan of Gary Strack (Brick and Mortar, Central Kitchen and Enormous Room). Gary has a Masters in Anthropology from Harvard and when he had a part-time job at a restaurant he just discovered that he loved this industry. This guy literally goes to junkyards and finds models of old pick up trucks, buys the hoods, hammers them out and turns them into the tables for his restaurant. He just takes it to ‘eleven’ and that's just the way an entrepreneur should be.
Where is your favorite place for a cocktail?
Brick & Mortar and Neptune Oyster. Amy and I have a mini tradition of sitting at the bar at Neptune Oyster.
What’s your favorite thing to do with your kids?
We are part of the North Cambridge Family Opera that is just what it sounds like. It's a hundred families and we put on productions that at least our friends and family like to come and watch. It takes me totally out of my comfort zone. One of the things I like about it is that it's one of the activities in my life where I'm not in charge. Nobody asks me to organize things. It's not my responsibility. I have just loved the fact that I'm a peon, a minion and we just sing and get goofy.
Were you born here?
Born and raised.
Any changes you’ve noticed in Cambridge?
We’re a little less staid than we once were, a little bit more socially open. The word on New England is that’s it is an insider's club but today I think we are much more engaged with the world.
At CIC, we have something called Venture Cafe that we run every week, which is open to everyone in the venture and innovation community - extremely loosely defined. Every Thursday 3:00-8:00 and people show up from everywhere with all kinds of interesting stories and things they're doing. Recently we even had your Premier of New Brunswick, Canada and the Premier of Alberta and the guy who invented the mouse and a young woman who was the top chemical engineering graduate in China who came over here to go to school and learned about this notion of startups. People should check it out. Vencaf.org
Fast Facts on the Cambridge Innovation Center:
How much does the smallest office cost?
$350/mo (not an office, but a workspace in a shared area)
How much does the largest with the best view cost?
Hard to say. We've had companies (Google) rent more than a whole floor. And team spaces can be large. But if we're talking about a single, private office, the answer is $2135.
What is the longest someone has stayed at CIC?
We have one client that has stayed here off and on practically since we opened (Ambient Devices). Let’s say over a decade.
What is the average time a company stays?
About two years.
Have you ever had to kick someone out? Why?
The only instances I can think of where we have had to ask someone to leave, and its rare, stem from behavior that is not appropriate in a shared environment.
What are the material perks?
Extensive. Coffee, tea, food, printers, tech support, conference rooms and more.
Where will you locate your next innovation center in Boston?
Our Boston Innovation Center facility will open this summer atop the Courthouse T stop.