When it comes to nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs, don't overlook the value of collisions.

That's the guiding principle behind the Cambridge Innovation Center, or CIC, a 20-year-old co-working space optimized to encourage the exchange of ideas and expertise among entrepreneurs. It is the key reason CIC has managed to expand and thrive, while competitors like WeWork have sputtered.

"Entrepreneurs need three resources: money, ideas, and talent," says co-founder and CEO Tim Rowe. "In innovation districts, CIC mixes money, ideas, and talent like you were making a smoothie."

CIC has become a focal point for entrepreneurs within the eight innovation districts it serves--Cambridge, Massachusetts; Boston; Miami; Philadelphia; St. Louis; Providence, Rhode Island; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Warsaw, Poland--thanks in part to its nonprofit offspring Venture Café. The cafe's free weekly programs, which convene startup teams and others for conversation and events ranging from hackathons to workshops on patent strategies or emotional awareness, have become required activities among area entrepreneurs, regardless of whether they use CIC's co-working facilities.

The events attract "anybody who believes that innovation is a way to fix the world," says Travis Sheridan, president of Venture Café, which Rowe founded in 2010 as a means for maximizing the number of "collisions" among creative people. Today, the nonprofit operates within 11 cities, including three where CIC is not yet established.

Observed Behavior

Rowe didn't set out to colonize the next wave of startup ecosystems. When CIC started in 1999, it was just a bunch of friends doing their separate entrepreneurial things in 3,000 square feet of office space in Kendall Square, the neighborhood around MIT. "The landlord needed somebody on the lease, and that was me," says Rowe, an MIT grad who at the time was segueing from consulting into startups.

As he observed interactions among entrepreneurs in the building, Rowe became fascinated by the power of density. He found research showing that separation--even by a flight of stairs--reduces collaboration and knowledge sharing. Silicon Valley "had three times more physical space with startups and companies than Cambridge," Rowe says. "But they are spread out. In Kendall Square, we were concentrated in one tiny area. The possibilities were different."

Over time, CIC tried on different business models. While it had always charged local startups and entrepreneurs fees for renting office space, the company hadn't really considered giving quarter to larger companies. That all changed in 2005 when the team developing Android moved in. Google's interest in the CIC approach wakened Rowe to the potential for a larger market. But it wasn't until 2013, when the former provost at MIT--who had earlier become chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis--invited CIC to set up shop, that the company began its expansion. CIC anticipates being in 50 cities globally in the next decade.

Get With the Programs

CIC facilities combine space designed to maximize interactions; technology services and support; mentoring and education--including office hours with investors; free food; and, in some locations, wet labs. Of course, since the company's founding, a slew of accelerators and co-working spaces has sprung up offering some or all of these amenities. What sets apart CIC and a few competitors--such as Launch Pad, based in Stockton, California--is their mission to not just serve their tenants but also to act as innovation hubs for their larger communities. CIC's chief mechanism for doing that is Venture Café.

The organization's signature event is five hours of programs and networking held every Thursday, except Thanksgiving, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. across all its locations. In smaller markets like Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 200 people might attend. St. Louis often draws more than 500. A typical Venture Café comprises between eight and 12 workshops, educational sessions, or experiential programs. A panel might feature an acrobat and an attorney talking about how different professions define acceptable risk. "So you get one community [member] there that is a fan of acrobats and one that wants to hear what the lawyer has to say," says Sheridan.

When Adam Hoffman planted his startup in the CIC in St. Louis, he was excited to find Venture Café unfolding each week right outside his door. "There are hundreds and hundreds of people and all kinds of sessions," says Hoffman, founder of Qstodian, which makes a restroom monitoring system for facilities. Hoffman often attends himself and uses the events as a form of workforce development. "I tell my employees to feel free to take the second half of the day off, invest in your human capital," he says. "Grab a drink and meet the folks from across the space."

Ben Doranz founded Integral Molecular, a biotech company that discovers antibodies to fight disease, in Philadelphia's University City in 2001. He says the introduction of Venture Café is among several developments that have helped transform the neighborhood into a full-fledged innovation district.

"They have good attendance and it keeps growing," says Doranz, who drops in for presentations on subjects like artificial intelligence and the intersection of art and science. "It has also become a go-to event for many people outside the city--an excuse for them to come in and network with people here."

It's no wonder the model is expanding, says Bruce Katz, an innovation clusters researcher and director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Philadelphia's Drexel University. "Everybody agrees that it is not about the buildings," he says. "It is about the collisions, the programming, the seamless exchange of ideas across disciplines. CIC is really good at that."

Published on: Feb 12, 2020