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Book Review

Book Review: Robert Buderi's 'Where Futures Converge' chronicles the transformative Kendall Square

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-

Publisher: The MIT Press


A view of the famous Kendall Square.

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is to life sciences what Hollywood is to movies. A new book traces the story of its transformation from a depressing stretch of boarded-up factories to the “most innovative square on the planet”.

F your travels take you to Boston, Massachusetts, do take the T—the first subway system in the United States, built in 1897—to get around town and visit Cambridge. Get down at the Kendall/MIT station on the Red Line; yes, this is the stop for the Kendall business district and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the engineering school of renown. When you emerge from the subway, you will find yourself walking in the area that has earned the title “the most innovative square mile on the planet”. I

Right away, you will see tall steel-and-glass buildings on Main Street. These are the laboratories and offices of tech titans, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies: Google, Akamai, Novartis, Microsoft and Moderna, to name a few. Less than half-a-century ago, despite the presence of MIT and Harvard University, which is just two T-stops away, this same area used to be a depressing stretch of boarded-up factories, fenced-in vacant lots and parking areas. What changed?

In , Robert Buderi, a well-known business and technology writer, tells the story of the movers and shakers, the policymakers and planners, and the places and events that shaped the region’s knowledge economy. He offers a fascinating account of the history of innovation in Kendall Square, which is at the confluence of world-class research institutes, academia and hospitals, all within walking distance of each other. Where Futures Converge, Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub

An ecosystem like this cannot be easily replicated elsewhere, but Buderi asks pertinent questions: Can this area continue to maintain its ascendancy as a global hub of innovation? Can this economy do a better job of including minorities in the process of wealth creation? And the billion-dollar question, what will the next big innovation be?

Kendall Square is the home of the first long-distance telephone call, the Polaroid camera, MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, which helped the Allies win the Second World War. In the 1980s, Kendall had start-ups based on artificial intelligence, but they died quickly, and AI Alley vanished without a trace. The era came after. But the finest hour of Cambridge was when biotechnology first appeared on the scene.

Let us flashback briefly to the summer of 1976 to get a sense of how it all began. The local newspaper had carried a story about Harvard University’s plan to construct a genetic engineering laboratory that would use DNA recombination technology, which people knew very little about at that point. The tough-minded Mayor Al Vellucci called for a hearing at City Hall. The public came holding up signs, one of which said, “No Recombination Without Representation”, in a throwback to the Boston Tea Party, that famous episode in history.

Scientists on both sides of the debate—yes, there were dissenters among them too—explained the emerging technology and took questions about potential biohazards and allied dangers. A citizens’ review committee, which famously included a nurse and a nun, was formed to oversee the matter. This small group of non-scientists visited laboratories at both Harvard and MIT to gather information. By early 1977, the group recommended approving recombinant DNA research within city limits, a first in the world. The review board drew up concise guidelines that gave universities, and future companies, a clear set of rules to play by.

When Swiss biotech company Biogen opened a laboratory in the city in 1982, Mayor Vellucci showed up for the ribbon cutting. Philip Sharp, who had hosted the citizen’s committee at MIT, was a co-founder of Biogen and went on to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Like him, other top researchers at MIT and Harvard would become faculty founders, helping translate cutting-edge research into products, a primary reason why Kendall Square is to life sciences what Hollywood is to movies.

Among the faculty founders, Prof. Robert Langer of MIT, whose prodigious research output has earned him the nickname ‘Edison of Medicine’, stands out. He founded his first company in 1987, and by 2021 that list had grown to over 40. One reason for the success of start-ups in the area, Prof. Langer said, was the fact that well-trained young researchers, students and postdocs, wanted to transform their efforts in laboratories into a larger reality. Of the companies he founded, some like Moderna remain in Kendall, while others like Living Proof, for which actor Jennifer Aniston was a spokesperson, have moved out after being acquired.

From the world of Internet companies, a start-up from the 1990s that still stands tall in Kendall is Akamai (Hawaiian for smart or intelligent). Its founders, MIT Professor Tom Leighton and his student Daniel Lewin, a former officer of the Israel Defence Forces, tackled the issue of congestion in the burgeoning Internet. They succeeded in solving the bottleneck problem and took their high-tech company public. (Lewin, sadly, was on the first plane from Boston to Los Angeles that flew into the World Trade Centre in the 9/11 attack.)

Buderi also writes of new spaces that made Kendall a productive place. In 1999, a co-working space for Internet start-ups organically sprung up in the area. Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) was inspired, of all things, by the nightclub featured in the movie . Like the owner of Café Américain, played by Humphrey Bogart, Tim Rowe, the co-founder of CIC, hoped to facilitate connections and help get deals done. Casablanca

More realistically, the CIC was designed such that fledgling entrepreneurs could “bump and connect” with their peers and gain insights that would help them succeed in the world of business. The CIC, in turn, inspired the founding of Lab Central in Kendall, which provides a network of shared laboratory and working space for biotech and life sciences companies. Not having to worry about access to equipment or day-to-day operations frees up researchers to focus on the science, which makes such places vital to the innovation economy.

Despite these informal workspaces, there is still room in the square for beloved spaces where people of various stripes, including scientists, construction workers and local politicians, can drop in for food and conversation. The F&T restaurant, which closed in 1986 to make room for the Kendall T station, was one such place. Rainier Weiss, a Nobel laureate in physics who went there both as a student and a professor, recalls that the MIT crowd’s favourite was the round table where five or six people could squeeze in. “Scientists love to write stuff down,” he said. If they filled up the back of the paper place mat, they could go to the bar and grab a few more. “A lot of ideas came up in that place.”

There are still plenty of lively cafés and bars in the area. Sit down with a drink—you may be at the same table as professor-entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or graduate students—and feel the energy around you. Conversations flow quick and fast. Eavesdropping is inevitable because these places are small and tightly packed at peak times. Luckily, scientists do not always speak in jargon. If you are lucky, you can tune in to the buzz and learn of innovations and ideas that haven’t been featured in the media yet.

So, what will the next technological iteration of Kendall Square be? In nature, thriving ecosystems keep evolving and growing, spawning novel species and adapting to changing conditions. Innovative ecosystems evolve, the author points out, primarily through the convergence of existing technologies or scientific disciplines, which inspires ideas and sometimes new fields.

Buderi has talked to an array of leaders in diverse fields to give us an idea of what might drive Kendall’s economy a quarter of a century from now. Many speak of a convergence of AI, health care and biology, but some also envisage scenarios without biotech. Two centuries ago, Kendall Square housed soap plants, rubber makers, iron works, tanneries, confectioners and printing houses, and today the square is a hive of other kinds of industry.

The future of Kendall Square is again rife with possibilities. Now is a good time to pick up this informative and lovingly written book.

Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist.

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