The Innovation at the Edges of NewCo Boston


Manufactured yesterday

This year’s debut NewCo Boston festival was outstanding — and I’m going to show why by not mentioning any Boston companies at all.

Although most of the action yesterday was in Boston proper, I spent the day visiting companies more on the city’s periphery. To get to them, I drove north from Boston on Route 128, then west on Route 9, home to many of the companies that made Massachusetts’ reputation as a center of business and technological innovation in generations past, such as Polaroid, Wang, Data General and DEC. And I learned that the new Boston innovation renaissance doesn’t much care about city limits.

On the surface, two of the organizations I visited, Design That Matters and MathWorks, couldn’t be more different. Design That Matters is a young four-person nonprofit in Salem; MathWorks, in Natick, has been around since 1984 and has 3,500 employees. It was fascinating to see how different companies could be but still be true NewCos.

Design That Matters, located at street level in historic Salem near museums both renowned and touristy, is a nonprofit that solves problems for and with the poor in developing countries. I’d seen Design That Matters founder Tim Prestero describe his work creating and distributing products like Firefly, a phototherapy device for newborns, several times in other settings, but it was different hearing his stories in the environment where those stories were written. Design That Matters is an unusual organization: it’s a nonprofit but it looks like a product design company.

It runs like one, too, doing a tremendous amount of work in the field, far from Salem, and aiming to avoid the narrative gap that comes when talking to people across cultures about possible new products. “I don’t want a product to fail because we couldn’t communicate,” Prestero says. “If a product fails, I want it to be because it sucks.” You can see in its products that they were created with the specific needs of developing-economy customers in mind. Otter is a bassinet that warms at-risk newborns. Echo is a remote monitoring system that tracks how medical equipment is or isn’t being used. And Pelican, a pulse oximeter, is a low-cost pneumonia sensor. The aforementioned Firefly, which cures jaundice by shining blue light on a newborn’s skin, eliminates all internal moving parts so the device will last much longer.

Design That Matters’ small open office was built for prototyping and collaboration, with 3D printers and other fabrication devices all around (that’s where the engraved wood piece above was made), thanks to the lowering cost of hardware — and the hardware to make the hardware. “The goal is to prototype here,” Prestero says, “and email files to the developing country, where they make it. All we have to ship are the raw materials.”

Eighty-five minutes southwest from Salem, in Natick (thank you, Route 128 and Mass Pike traffic), MathWorks, maker of MATLAB and Simulink mathematical computing software, feels more mature and more traditional; $800 million in annual revenue buys the privately held company a sprawling, flawless suburban campus right off the highway, but not a soul-less one. There were idiosyncratic touches: When we arrived, the lobby was alive with tiny mobile robots that you had to scurry around (or who scurried around you). The company’s mission is to change the world by accelerating the pace of discovery, innovation, development, and learning in engineering and science.

MathWorks fellow Jim Tung, who’s been with the company since 1988, when it was only slightly bigger than Design That Matters is now, emphasized the wide variety of industries that use its software and emphasized how the company’s education component complements its commercial side. The company’s pitch for creating a better world isn’t as overt as that of Design That Matters, but just look at what the company’s software enables: It was the platform that antilock brakes were created on, the platform that neuroscientists use to create devices that help people recover from profound injuries, the platform that helps developing companies simulate electrical grids, even the platform that helps commercial printing presses run more efficiently and humanoid robots act more human. Its footprint is broad and deep. MathWorks makes mathematical software but its customers aren’t mathematicians; they’re people making change.

If Design That Matters shows how a small organization can make a difference in people’s lives, MathWorks shows how big you can get yet still be a NewCo. And they both show how far beyond the Boston city limits you’ll find Boston innovation.

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