To the envy of many, Boston retains a unique combination of world-class universities and a thriving entrepreneurial culture. These interact to make Boston a leader in advanced manufacturing, from virtual reality, to robotics and genomics. To find out more, we caught up with Anne Morriss, Co-Founder and CEO of GenePeeks and Spencer Honeyman, Director of Business Development at VirZOOM.
A recent report, published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and start-up incubator 1776, ranked Boston first among the top 25 cities in the U.S in terms of its preparedness for the digital economy. The study measured cities’ physical and digital infrastructure, talent base and connectivity to determine its ability to adapt to the changing economy.
Boston’s ranking is not much of a surprise when you breakdown the city’s advantages. From the provision of high quality education at the likes of MIT and Harvard to its fast-paced climate of innovation in the latest technology, the city excels across the board.
Anne Morriss is Co-founder and CEO of GenePeeks, a Boston-based genetics start-up that uses the DNA sequences of two prospective parents to determine the risk of disease in their potential children, prior to conception. Anne first started work in this space after her own child suffered from MCAD deficiency.
She explains that whilst she had previously worked at the World Bank promoting entrepreneurship in emerging markets, this challenge was entirely new, approaching an issue locked up in the research space.
Boston's integration of the research and business worlds provided the perfect foothold for Anne to develop her company in the way it needed. "The level of innovation required a close collaboration with all stakeholders across the sector, as a company we benefit everyday from laboratory work and research available on public databases from workers in clinical sectors," Anne explains.
This type of entrepreneurship requires a degree of cooperation unavailable in other cities across the United States. "Businesses like ours completely depend on the hours spent in the laboratory and the government policies that allow funding to support that research," Anne says.
GenePeeks is based in Cambridge, just north of the river in Boston, an area that exudes entrepreneurialism. "There’s a real community here of like-minded souls who are waking up every morning to try and create the future," she explains.
"That’s so important for me, I need to understand what the patient is going through, and what the physician is thinking. To have those perspectives only three or four blocks away from me makes all the difference to helping me improve one of the most important decisions in a person’s life."
Another company capitalising on Boston’s strengths is VirZOOM, a virtual reality gaming company that creates unique VR games with a custom exercise bike as the game controller to provide health and wellness benefits.
The company was co-founded by Eric Malafeew, former chief architect on Guitar Hero and Rockband; and Eric Janszen, serial entrepreneur and investor.
Spencer Honeyman is Director of Business Development at VirZOOM; he explains that the aim of VirZOOM is to avoid the painful staring-at-the-clock feeling you usually have during a regular workout and replace it with visual stimuli in games that actually motivate you to move. In principle, the technology is not dissimilar to the Wii Fit, but in practice it is vastly more immersive.
The company has been in development for two years and after 15,000 play-tests by individuals, they’ve created a product that promises all the above and is free from locomotion discomfort. The bike is already approved on the HTV Vive, Oculus and Playstation VR headsets, which makes it compatible with the leading hardware. Whilst the existing games that come with the equipment are currently limited to the VirZOOM Arcade, the free software development kit already has over 100 developers working on new games, specifically for the VirZOOM exercise bike.
In addition to the experience itself, the 'My VirZOOM' dashboard utilises Fitbit and Strava to provide you with all your latest health data. Whilst this sounds like an unfamiliar experience, Spencer estimates that this technology will be available in gyms in the next few years.
Much like GenePeeks, VirZOOM is based in Cambridge. Spencer explains that this placement in the community means their opportunities for expanding the capability of the technology are almost endless. "There’s a lot of people here who are interested in the VR space, from medicine to gaming, from health and architecture," Spencer says. "VirZOOM sits at a unique intersection between fitness, gaming, health and tech,"
As a result, the opportunity to collaborate with experts from Boston’s most prestigious universities is unrivalled. There are nearly 120 schools within a 25-mile radius of Boston and it’s clear VirZOOM are willing to make the most of it. Spencer says they’re already working Harvard, MIT and Northeastern University with the ambition of fully exploring the capabilities of their technology.
GenePeeks and VirZOOM exhibit start-up characteristics that are typical of Boston, realising the opportunity to use Boston as a platform to develop world-leading technology. "In Cambridge, we don’t get on the highway and drive 45 minutes to get to the interesting entrepreneurial neighbourhood, which is what you see happening in Silicon Valley. Institutions, companies, schools, researchers and physicians are all on our doorstep. It makes a huge difference," Anne surmises.
As a city dwelling in possibility, it is without doubt that Boston’s entrepreneurs are set to thrive in the future economy.
October 17th will see Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic touchdown in Boston for their third Business is an adventure event. You can watch the whole thing live, for free, on virgin.com.