By Gail Spector
It’s the concentration of talent and collaboration in Newton and Needham that made Newton the obvious choice for the area’s newest innovation center to support startup companies.
That’s what the CEO of MassChallenge told an audience of nearly 500 attendees at the Newton-Needham Chamber’s 100th Annual Achievement Breakfast last month. John Harthorne, founder and head of the world’s largest startup accelerator, was the keynote speaker at the Nov. 5 event held at the Newton Marriott.
His appearance followed an announcement in August that MassChallenge and the city of Newton would partner to form the Newton Collaborative Innovation Center in the former Newton Corner Public Library.
“Historically, a lot of the startup activity has taken place in Waltham, but Newton is better positioned with more resources, more talent,” Harthorne said. “It’s all about the mentorship and the collaborative engagement toward helping startups to succeed and that’s what Newton has in excess.”
During his keynote address, Harthorne explained MassChallenge’s mission – to support entrepreneurs with no strings attached – and outlined his nonprofit’s reasons for choosing Newton for its first Massachusetts expansion outside of Boston’s Innovation District.
“We try to identify the highest impact, highest potential ideas, those that have the best opportunity to improve humanity in a really big positive way,” Harthorne said. “And then we accelerate their access to the people and resources they need to launch and succeed.”
Founded in 2010, MassChallenge gives away more than $1 million in cash prizes a year. This year, 2,300 startups applied from 65 countries and 40 states before the list was narrowed down to the top 128 ideas. The winners are awarded four months of free mentorships, training, and access to many services.
The results? MassChallenge has graduated 835 startups that have raised more than $1 billion in outside capital, generated more than $520 million in revenue and created more than 6,500 new jobs.
“Those are powerful numbers. This is massive growth. And most of these startups – the vast majority of them – have all of their growth ahead of them. Most of them are still just three people in their basement, just graduated, and have all of their growth ahead of them in the future. So there’s a lot of goodness to come,” Harthorne said.
Harthorne cited Pearl’s Premium, a chamber member, as an example of a MassChallenge graduate that’s working on technologies to make the world a better place. Pearl’s manufactures an ultra low-maintenance grass seed blend that requires dramatically less water and less mowing, and lowers carbon footprints.
Harthorne is a Newton Centre resident who believes “Newton is the best place in the world to live.” He’s encouraged by the collaboration he sees between Newton and Needham.
“We are not better off by fighting each other and trying to say ‘only Newton’ or ‘only Needham,’” he said. “We are radically stronger by helping each other and by working together as a collaborative community.”
The Newton Collaborative Innovation Center, the result of a chance meeting on an overseas flight between Harthorne and Newton Mayor Setti Warren, is a perfect location as the economy picks up, Harthorne said. The inner suburbs are
“well-positioned to grab this wave of growth and ride this wave of growth.”
The center, which will open in early 2016, will also engage high school interns to work with the startups.
The Achievement Breakfast also featured award-winning documentary film director and Olympic rower Mary Mazzio as guest presenter. Mazzio, founder and CEO of 50 Eggs, Inc. and a Needham native, presented Young Entrepreneur Awards to Grant Berman of Newton South High School and Anaya Tipnis of Needham High School.
Berman, the founder of Dirty Boys Composting, has installed and maintains about 100 household compost piles. Tipnis is the founder of Commisi, a company that connects startups with high school developers and designers to form mutually beneficial working relationships.
Newton residents Chris Steele from IC Associates and Chuck Tanowitz from HB Agency were each honored with the R.L. Tennant Award, the chamber’s most prestigious award which is presented in recognition of a member’s outstanding contribution to the economic and/or cultural vitality of the community. Steele and Tanowitz both played crucial roles in the establishment of the N2 Innovation Corridor.
Mazzio also delivered the chamber’s Commitment to Community Awards to Edward Olsen, Superintendent of Needham Parks and Forestry, and Jerry Reilly for his role as Newton’s “serial instigator.”
In recognizing Olsen, Mazzio lauded his many improvement to the town’s parks, fields and playgrounds, as well as the creation of Needham’s Rail Trail and Off Leash Dog Park.
“In addition to the myriad of professional accomplishments for the town,” Mazzio said, “Ed is the consummate civic volunteer... Needham is a better and greener place for residents to live, work, and play because of Ed Olsen, and today we are honored to present him with the Chamber’s 2015 Commitment to Community Award.”
Jerry Reilly, Mazzio said, is a “freelance software engineer by profession and a serial instigator by personality.”
Mazzio cited a litany of Reilly’s accomplishments since moving to Newton Upper Falls six years ago, including co-founding the annual Feast of the Falls, co-founding and producing the Newton Nomadic Theater, founding Tour de Newton, creating the Upper Falls Eggcelent Breakfast, founding the “Upper Falls News,” and blogging regularly for Village14.com.
“As you can see,” Mazzio said, “Jerry Reilly’s community activism often comes with a light-hearted, even mischievous touch. But everything he does is about creating a sense of place and community; about bringing together neighbors, businesses and villages in a city that too often takes itself way too seriously. For his many contributions - and antics - the chamber presents Jerry Reilly with a 2015 Commitment to Community Award.”
Linda Sloane Kay, vice chair of the chamber, thanked outgoing chair Seana Gaherin in a special presentation, saying that “she’s truly a one of a kind leader. When she has a vision, nothing holds her down.
“She leads this chamber with an unbeatable passion,” Sloane Kay said. “We are stronger because of you and we thank you.”
Gaherin will stay on with the chamber’s board as immediate past president. The chamber’s board of directors will elect a new chair in January.
Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber, briefly listed some of the top accomplishments from the past year, including obtaining a federal grant for the N2 Innovation Corridor; securing funding for Needham Street/Highland Ave.; bringing MassChallenge to Newton; and hosting 100 events in honor of the chamber’s 100th anniversary.
“Reports that chambers of commerce are dying institutions have been greatly exaggerated,” Reibman said, noting that the Newton-Needham Chamber’s membership has been growing and diversifying.
“Look around this room today you will see our long-time established business owners as well as folks who work in the life sciences, technology, restaurateurs, web designers, social media experts, physical therapists, architects, start-ups, folks who work in our village centers, in downtown Needham, in our office parks, at our hospitals, and out of their homes.”