Guarded hopefulness was the theme at last week’s XSITE (XconomySummit on Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship) at Boston University. The theme of the one-day event showcasing Boston-area startups and VCs was “The Recovery Starts Here.” But the talk in the hallways was instead of a long, slow slog back to anything resembling normal business conditions. Initial results of a survey done by the Xconomy Web publication showed only 24 percent of attendees felt the US gross national product would increase by the fourth quarter. But, as someone told me the other day, in today’s economy “’Flat’ is the new ‘up”.”

The day was nothing if not eclectic: Presentations by start-ups promising everything from a cure for Alzheimer’s to a “roadable airplane” (not a “flying car” but an airplane that can hit the road if the weather is bad or the pilot needs ground transportation.) Perhaps the biggest “innovation” in view, though, was a new model of fund-raising in which corporations such as EMC fund or direct research at the area’s colleges that otherwise might have been done by privately-funded startups. The vendors get low-cost research; the universities get much-needed revenue. Whatever works, especially in a funding environment one venture-capitalist called “horrific.”

Collaboration with federal and state governments was also a major theme. oMohamad Ali, Massachusetts Senior State Executive for IBM, told the conference IBM is working with New York State to seek funding to develop interoperable standards for medical health records. He said Massachusetts companies need to get on the standards bandwagon, as companies seeking to cash in on the federal government’s drive to digitize medical records will only locate in, and bring jobs to, areas that have health records standards on which they can build.

While there was plenty of evidence of a tough economy, there were also glimmers of hope, especially for Massachusetts companies. One speaker said that Massachusetts still has a number of small manufacturing firms geared to producing very high-quality, small-volume production runs of specialized components for military systems – production capacity that is well-geared to biomedical devices. And panelists at a session on health care said the federal push to records digitization could spur demand for everything from security to data mining to cloud-based storage and data analysis. Another possible growth area: Consultants to help small medical practices make the jump from paper to digital records.

The highlight of the show was inventor DEKA founder Dean Kamen, of Segue fame (infamy?), who slouched on stage muttering he was speaking “under protest” but wound up getting a standing ovation for a call for technologists to support his F.I.R.S.T. nonprofit, aimed at making science and engineering as exciting to young people (especially women and minorities) as “the NBA, NFL or Hollywood.” A Brandeis University study shows students who took part in the program were more than three times as likely to major in engineering than those who did not, and more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology. Kamen’s message is that, with our exploding national debt and increasing competition from other countries, we need to draw far more people into engineering and the sciences than we now are. If even one of them builds something like the robotic arm Kamen built for injured veterans it will all have been worth it.  

Author: Bob Scheier
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