Monday, August 31, 2009

Remembering Senator Kennedy as a Champion for the Technology Community

by Joyce L. Plotkin, President Emerita of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (formerly President of the Massachusetts Software Council)

Although most people will remember U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for his championship of important social issues, I will also remember him for his support of the technology community.

I was president of the Massachusetts Software Council in the mid-90s when I received a call from a reporter about the H-1B visa issue. The reporter asked for my comments regarding Sen. Kennedy's opposition to increasing the number of H-1B visas, a position which put him at odds with the technology industry. I replied that we were in discussions with the senator's staff and, beyond that, I had no comment. At the beginning of the next workday, I received a call from one of the senator's senior staffers thanking me for diffusing a difficult situation. The next day I received a call from the senator himself, and that began a dialogue with the senator that lasted 14 years.

Over that 14-year period, I brought in groups of technology executives to talk with him about visas, class-action suits brought against technology companies whose stock fell, taxes on the Internet and patent reform. It was the visa issue, once again, that provided another seminal Kennedy moment for me, enabling me to learn very specifically about his ability to listen, reach out and find compromises that benefit all sides. Three years after the reporter called me about H-1B visas, I was in Captain Marden's fish market when my cell phone rang. The senator -- who, because of his recognizable voice, never identified himself when he called -- said, "I have just left the White House and we have agreed on a compromise that will allow an increase in the number of H-1B visas issued." He added that the compromise he had struck with the unions was that a $500 fee would be assessed for the visas and that part of the money would go into a fund the unions could tap to train their members for technology jobs. We went from that one victory... to a few years later when one of the national technology associations gave the senator a 100 percent ranking for his votes on key technology issues. Trust me, no one was more surprised than he was about that particular ranking!

Another outstanding memory I have of Sen. Kennedy's commitment to the technology community has to do with Net Day, a late-90s effort to get computers and Internet access into Massachusetts schools. I had the honor and pleasure of chairing the organizing committee for him. When the press got wind of the effort, they wrote us off saying the effort was bound to become "mired in profits and politics." In the usual Kennedy fashion, the day after that column appeared, I got a call from another senior Kennedy staffer. He said that the senator wanted all of us to know that the work we were doing for the children of Massachusetts was too important to let comments like that get in the way. Net Day, under the leadership of and with the full support of the senator, went on to bring computers and Internet access into half of the public schools in Massachusetts. More than $30 million in private donations was raised and more than 15,000 volunteers were mobilized and deployed to help over 1,000 schools move into the Internet Age. In addition, the senator met with union leaders who emerged from that meeting and declared that they, too, would volunteer their help. The school custodians, who originally were going to charge the schools time and a half for working on Saturdays, donated their time. And in a truly magnanimous gesture, the IBEW Local 103 blew us all away with their commitment to wire every one of the Boston Public Schools for free. One meeting with Sen. Kennedy was all it took. The immediate benefit to the children of Massachusetts was huge -- the longer-term benefit to the technology community was immense.

We had been working together on patent reform when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. I know that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be remembered for many things. My belief is that technology should be one of them. I know I will remain "linked in" to the Senator ... through my wonderful memories of him.

(photo credit: Ted Kennedy Official Photo Portrait from Wikimedia)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Robotics Cluster Leaders Meet with Congresswoman Tsongas

MassTLC Robotics Cluster executives met in Lowell at the Office of 5th District Congresswoman Niki Tsongas. The group briefed her on robotics in the Commonwealth, thanked her for her participation on the Congressional Robotics Caucus, and noted that her broad-based support of robotics nationally is sufficient (as opposed to supporting Massachusetts robotics specifically) as Massachusetts companies will win contracts based on the strengths of the companies in our cluster.

Companies and institutions in the 3rd district include: Black I Robotics (Tyngsboro); Blueshift (Andover); Brooks Automation (Chelmsford); Gleason Research (Concord); Harvest Automation (Groton); Immersive Design (Acton); Kaztek Systems (Acton); Mercury Computer Systems (Chelmsford); Q Robotics (Groton); Solid Works Corporation (Concord); UMASS Lowell.

After briefing the investment community, the MassTLC's Robotics Cluster has shifted its focus to educating our elected public officials about the breadth and diversity of the robotics sector in Massachusetts.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Retaining Talent with "Innovation Open Houses"

Scott Kirsner convened 40-50 students, professors, investors, and technology leaders at Microsoft's New England Research & Development (NERD) Center to brainstorm ideas for connecting smart students with interesting local companies for the purpose of exciting and connecting them to our local entrepreneurial ecosystems. 

Scott, who has been championing the cause of connecting students to industry for over a year now, has settled on an idea he calls "Innovation Open Houses." The premise is simple -- we already have a lot of great innovative companies here in Massachusetts. If we can help expose the transient student population to robotics and flying cars, more will get excited about what Massachusetts has to offer and might join a local company or choose to start a venture here. 

Unlike formal campaigns that require significant financial and human resources, Scott is crowd sourcing this concept and tapping into a strong undercurrent  in the local community. People are frustrated by regional demographics, brain drain, and company migration to other regions. This means Scott has many people and organizations who are already interested in the issue and are willing to help. In the room, for example, were folks from the Commonwealth who are championing the "Massachusetts, It's All Here" campaign and Flybridge Capital, sponsor of the "Stay in MA" campaign.

After brainstorming ideas on the whiteboard, the group threw about 50 company names up and then voted (students voted for 5; all others had 3 votes; Scott had the final editorial say). The resulting top 17 companies were:  A123 Systems; Blue State Digital; Cambridge Innovation Center; EnerNOC; Global Rescue; Google Cambridge; Harmonix Music Systems; IDEO Cambridge; Innocentive; iRobot; Karmaloop; Kiva Systems; MIT Media Lab; Organogenesis; Terrafugia; WiTricity; ZipCar.

MassTLC is committed to fostering entrepreneurship and promoting the success of companies the develop and deploy technology across industry sectors.  We are part of the Stay in MA campaign and have a long history of workforce development. We applaud and support Scott's efforts to break down silos and connect serious entrepreneurs to our local ecosystem. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Congressman McGovern Meets with MassTLC Robotics Cluster

MassTLC's Robotics Cluster hosted Congressman James McGovern at WPI for a briefing of Robotics in Massachusetts. The Congressman represents the 3rd District which runs from the NH border through Worcester down to Fall River.

The briefing followed a meeting of the Robotics Cluster's Academic Working Group and included an overview of robotics in Massachusetts as well as videos and briefings from Foster-Miller, Bluefin Robotics, and WPI.

The Congressman engaged in a lively dialogue with the Cluster leaders on how to increase visibility and accelerate economic opportunites for the robotics sector in New England.

Following the briefing, the Congressman viewed a number of robots that were on display.

Some thirty-five leaders attended the briefing. Participants included: Chris De Vico, Robots and Relax; Gregory Fischer, WPI; Mike Gennert, WPI; Ed Godere, Foster-Miller; Helen Greiner, The Droid Works; Rod Grupen, Umass Amherst; Kathleen Hagan, Hagan & Company; Noby Hata, Harvard; Dan Kara, Robotics Trends; David Kelly, Bluefin Robotics; Bob Kispert, Mass Tech Collaborative; Ted Kochanski, IEEE; Joe Martino, Maxon Motors; Michael Messier, Autogen; Mark Newby, GEARS Educational; Ryan Pettigrew, IEEE; Tom Ryden, North End Technologies; Ra'ad Siraj, MassTLC Trustee; Rob Smith, iRobot; Bob Sullivan, Autogen; Russ Tedrake, MIT; Gretar Tryggvason, WPI; Holly Yanco, Umass Lowell; and more.

Robotic companies in the 3rd district include: Co-Automation (Westborough); Distron Corp (Attleboro); Hamilton Storage Technologies (Hopkinton); Hatch Technology (Fall River); Maxon Precision Motors (Fall River); Protonex Technology (Southborough); Robots and Relax (Boylston); Autogen (Holliston); Caliper Life Sciences (Hopkinton); Genomic Solutions (Holliston); Ocean Server (Fall River); Remote Reality Corp. (Westborough); Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester).