Reflecting on 25 years (and counting) in Boston Tech

Posted on September 29th, 2021
Written by Andrew Lau | Uncategorized
Boston

The last two weeks have me reflecting quite a bit. I’m writing from Boston, the students are back, the leaves are about to fall, the autumn moon festival just passed, and two wildly successful Boston-based tech firms, Ginkgo Bioworks and Toast have just gone public! A HUGE congrats to those teams – what a milestone and at such scale (~$15B and ~$31B valuations, respectively)! Wahoo! 

This news hits home for me as a founder and as someone that’s been in Boston now for 25 years. To someone not in the area, the recent news out of Boston might have come as a surprise. But as someone who watched the Boston Tech industry closely over these years, I’ve seen that it’s been a long-time brewing. Let me share a bit of context and perspective (from my 25 years here) about the significance of the last two weeks as it relates to the history of Boston Tech.

Sowing the seeds: 1996 – early 2000s

This will have been my 25th year in Boston – yes, feeling old right now! I started my time here in Boston in the Fall of ‘96 at MIT.  I ended up taking a class called 6.313 (MIT code for Contemporary Computer Design) and was blown away by the professor Tom Knight (he was known around MIT as TK). At that time, he was dropping knowledge on chip design and how the secret of all chip design performance was about clock sync – who knew? In the early aughts, TK transitioned to work on – of all things! – synthetic biology. These seeds of this research eventually became Ginkgo Bioworks which he co-founded with four of his grad students. Hold on to that thought for a moment…

The same year I took that class with TK, I was hired by my Jellyfish co-founders Dave Gourley and Phil Braden. This company, Endeca, would go from a 8-person company to a team of 550 that was eventually acquired by Oracle. Along that journey, two team members, Steve and Aman, also left MIT and joined the Endeca “Special Ops” team. Around 2010, Steve, Aman, and Jon found their first customer for Toast at Firebrand Saints – a local restaurant right outside the Endeca offices in Cambridge. More seeds sown… 

2010: An ecosystem goes dark

Around 2010, I too was at the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey.  To remind you of the time – it was the age of the iPhone and startups were being built on just $400k! Social, local, and mobile companies were the ONLY thing, Web 2.0 FTW!  We all were also just lifting our heads out of the last recession.  The “world” was enamored with The Bay Area and New York as people and money poured funding into “those scenes.” The sky was the limit. 

But that was NOT the story here in Boston. With all this success in the Bay Area, and the burgeoning tech scene in New York, money and VC was flowing out of Boston. Boston was seen as old. It was the town of DEC (Digital Equipment Company – You didn’t know that?), and EMC. There was much hand wringing.  Boston became the city of “dinosaur companies” with *enterprise tech* old money, old ideas. Boston missed Facebook, Dropbox, Stripe. Boston was seen as not able to keep up. People thought that we lacked the talent or resources necessary to compete with these cooler regions! Amazingly, THIS was the ecosystem that Ginkgo and Toast were forged. The companies were built without the overwhelming attention that these cooler regions received. We instead had to rely on something different entirely…

The next 25 years

What we all missed was that Boston will always maintain a flow of brilliant people and ideas. These people chose to stay in town because of the network they met, the bonds they formed, and the ability to continuously learn here. That’s the story of many entrepreneurs and companies in Boston. And while not as loud as the Bay Area boom, nor bright as the New York lights, the Boston tech industry has been playing the long game, quietly building itself up, sowing its seeds, and helping each other out along the way. The seeds of yesterday are finally now entering maturity, and they’re ready to blossom. Toast and Ginkgo BioWorks, thank you for helping pave the way for the future, and congratulations! Here’s to the next 25 years!