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June 25th, 2010

Innovation Events: a Tale of Two Coasts

Being based in Boston but spending a fair amount of time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I have had a chance to sample the “innovation” communities in both regions.

One thing that struck me- and the catalyst for this post- is that in both areas I have seen events that  highlight selected entrepreneurs, and they are not entirely different in format.

In Boston, there are two regular events: Web Innovators Group (http://www.webinnovatorsgroup.com/) (pictured) and Mass Innovation Nights. As a local, I am much more familiar with these events and their formats. WebInno (which recently held it’s 26th event in Cambridge, MA) is run by David Beisel of Venrock (also a sponsor along with Microsoft) began in the fall of 2005, and has grown into a quarterly event of more than 1,000 attendees, viewing and voting on three startups who present on the main stage, along with a number of “side dishes” that are also given air time. the format allows each presenting startup a limited-time presentation (a familiar theme, especially to those who have been to DEMO) followed by audience voting and capped by a general networking session. On occasions they have also run panels on entrepreneurship, marketing and PR, but the attraction to most attendees seems to be the massive networking opportunity- which is best used by those who come with a plan on whom they want to meet.

Also, it gives a sense that the entrepreneurial community, often compared unfavorably to that of Silicon Valley, is quite vital and large, cheered on by media champions such as the Boston Globe‘s Scott Kirsner.

DoInk.com at Web Innovators Group in Boston

Mass Innovation Nights sounds like a similar event, but wisely is not a copycat. Smaller in attendance but higher in frequency (monthly), MassInno, a newer event, gives the feel of a much tighter-nit community and offers slightly more formal features such as an “experts corner,” allowing people to interact and learn in a¬†structured- but not too-structured- way. (Disclosure- I was lucky enough to get to know MassInno founder Bobbie Carlton shortly before she started this venture).

Being familiar with the Boston events, I was curious to see an example of Silicon Valley/San Francisco entrepreneurship, and got a taste at May’s VatorSplash event, run by Vator.tv. There were a number of differences- first, unlike the above events, there was a significant admission fee (discounted for those who sign up early), rather than relying solely on sponsors to cover costs.

Another difference was the addition of high-profile speakers (like Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s- pictured). Are these attractions really distractions from the innovators- or does it lend cache and prestige to the event, letting the startups grab some reflected glory? It may just be a matter of style.

vatorsplash tonyhsieh zappos (1)

Zappo's Tony Hsieh at VatorSplash

A final difference, one which I would be interested to see one of the Boston events try, was that Vatorsplash had rotating panels of venture capitalist judges critiquing the demos in real-time, giving a little bit of show-biz (think American Idol for geeks tech geeks) to the proceedings, and putting the presenters on the spot just a little bit more. There’s nothing wrong with that in what should be a pretty cutthroat competitive world of raising capital and launching new companies.

Differences? Yes. Are there more events I am neglecting? Probably. Are other cities doing this? They had better be. Are you going and supporting these events and others like them?

Please do.

About the Author
Doug Haslam is a Supervisor on the Voce Connect Client Services team, managing client programs and developing strategy. In addition to Voce Nation, Doug writes his own personal blog and you can find him on Twitter as @dough.

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