How Boston is Brewing Innovation

Boston Innovation District

Maybe beer brewing is a good metaphor for innovation; or maybe their connection has more to do with a late-Friday-afternoon Freudian slip.

Both good beer and good innovation, though, require a subtle mix of flavors and careful fermentation. And the Boston Innovation District (BID) has got both down to a fine art.

Businesses of all sorts are setting up shop in the BID, drawn by the opportunity to cohabit with other innovators in a beautiful yet practical location along the South Boston waterfront close to public transportation and Logan International Airport. Proximity to elite universities like Harvard and MIT is also a plus.

In days past this light-industrial area was slightly gritty and underutilized. Today it still offers affordable rents along with water views. But there is another, less tangible benefit that many businesses prize: an atmosphere of innovation and openness to new ideas.

“The District started because there were big spaces that artists could afford,” says Sam Aquillano, executive director of Design Museum Boston, which makes its home in the District and hosts exhibits and events in public spaces and offices in the area.

“Entrepreneurs began moving in and naturally started collaborating as they shared office space and shared ideas. Now there are all these different people—architects, non-profit leaders, lawyers, bankers, designers, clean-technology engineers—and so many points of view. We see design as the intersection where all these constituencies can come together. The District is a melting pot – slightly messy, but good things come out of it.”

For Boston, one of the best things to come out of the Innovation District is jobs. Since its inception in January 2010, the BID has attracted more than 200 new companies and 4,000 new jobs, according to a March 2013 report released by Mayor Thomas Menino’s office.

David Silverman, a principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates, an architecture and interior-design studio in the District, thrives on the many chances it offers to interact with people outside his field of expertise. “As an architect, there are lots of opportunities for me to network with other architects,” he says. “Not that I dislike architects, but frankly there’s only so much benefit to continually meeting people who do what you do.”

Once a quarter, Design Museum Boston runs an event series called UNITE. It invites groups that exist together but wouldn’t normally interact much. “We try our darndest to unite two different disciplines, like engineers and marketers,” Aquillano says. “People meet each other, share resources and maybe end up working on something together. Or maybe just leave inspired by something they heard. You never know what’s going to come out of it.”

Harpoon Brewery has been on the South Boston waterfront since the company’s founding nearly 30 years ago. “We’ve participated in several events by providing beer or hosting,” says Charlie Storey, Harpoon’s senior vice president of marketing. “We’re looking forward to doing more.”

There’s an event in the District almost every day. “You can hit a talk on solar tech or a networking event on your way home,” Silverman says. “Or you can attend a panel discussion in the morning and meet some new people on your way into work. You find opportunities to collaborate with people because you’re in a neighborhood like this. It keeps you from getting trapped in your own silo.”

For many, connecting with people in other fields occurs on the clock. Forty percent of workers in the District are in either shared office space or a business incubator.

Though 25 percent of companies in the BID have fewer than 10 employees, it’s also home to large, well-established businesses. In mid-2014, Vertex Pharmaceuticals will move its entire local workforce—about 1,200 people—from 12 different locations around Cambridge to a single campus on Fan Pier in the District.

A sign of the city’s commitment to helping the District live up to its name, the Boston Innovation Center will open in stages this year. The 12,000-square-foot complex includes flexible meeting and event space and will host parties, conferences, workshops and pop-up retail experiments.

The brewers at Harpoon welcome the transformation of their neighborhood, along with their new neighbors. “We think a brewery should, to some extent, reflect the community in which it’s based,” Storey says.  “Our consumers are discerning beer drinkers. They hold us to high standards and don’t allow us to sit still on quality or product innovation. Having them even closer to the brewery will ensure that we stay on top of all aspects of innovation.”

Let the fermentation begin.

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