Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Merrimack Valley Then and Now

We have our own weather in the Merrimack Valley, and Boston weathermen are always pointing that out when they predict snowfall amounts. At a recent event, while discussing the predicted pattern of the coming snow (which has come and gone by the time I write this), someone asked where I lived.  I replied "In the Merrimack Valley." To my surprise, the person I was talking with had no idea where that was. At lunch the next day, a friend pointed out that many people in Boston/Cambridge really don't know much of Massachusetts geography outside of Metro Boston. That got me thinking about where the Merrimack Valley fits in with the Boston media's definition of Boston when they talk about Boston's loss of tech dominance to Silicon Valley.

Even the Megaboston proposal 100 years ago this month, going around the Twitterverse today,  wouldn't have extended this far north. Of course, 100 years ago, cities like Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill were still important cities on their own. Maybe they weren't quite the world class cities they were in the 19th century, but they were definitely still on the map. There's a long and rich history of tech and innovation in the Merrimack Valley. So, completely serendipitously, I came across this video from the AT&T Archives about  Western Electric Merrimack Valley Works (in North Andover), later known as AT&T Merrimack Valley Works, now known as Osgood Landing.

The video reminded me of Alexander Graham Bell's Haverhill connection. Bell's story is not just about technology but also about venture capital back in the day. Say what? Yup. Bell's principal financier for the telephone was Haverhill leather merchant Thomas S. Sanders. Bell, a specialist in teaching the deaf, was tutor to Sanders' son. Bell and Sanders became friends, and lots of Bell's telephone experiments actually happened in Haverhill. Sanders invested $110,000 in Bell's telephone. Sanders was one of the founders of Bell Telephone Company in 1877 along with Bell, Thomas Watson, and Gardiner Hubbard (Bell's soon to be father-in-law).

Haverhill claims that the first business telephone call was between Sanders' home on Kenoza Avenue and his sole cutting business on Merrimack Street.  Haverhill was right up there with Boston (first phone call) and Cambridge (first long distance phone call). Nearby North Andover was at that time home to Davis & Furber, makers of textile machinery, and so home to many skilled machinists.  With good reason the AT&T video treats the valley as a whole as a good place to build a huge tech complex.

Osgood Landing (formerly Merrimack Valley Works) in North Andover

The successors to Bell's telephone company continued to be a big presence in North Andover until well after the Merrimack Valley Works was built in the 1950s.  With Alcatel-Lucent now gone, the building houses everything from laser optics to laser tag. The tradition of innovation in the Merrimack Valley goes back a long way and continues to this day. 

The valley has gone through transitions from the textile and machine industrial economy, to the old-style tech economy, and into today's New Economy. To ease the transition to the New Economy, entrepreneur Desh Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks, in the Merrimack Valley town of Chelmsford, founded the Merrimack Valley Sandbox to develop and enhance the innovation ecosystem in the cities of the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, including Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill.

In April, Mass Innovation Nights will be coming to Lowell, the very heart and soul of the Merrimack Valley. Boston/Cambridge innovators and entrepreneurs will be able to see for themselves exactly where the Merrimack Valley is.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Welcome to MIN34
The innovators gathered for another Mass Innovation Night at IBM Waltham. This was the first MIN without BobbieC, so Tim Stansky was in charge of rounding up the innovators. Between Tim and Christine Sierra keeping things on track they proved that MIN is all grown up!

Things in the Hall of Innovation, the conference room, and the Experts Corner were all buzzing before 6:00 PM and the excitement ramped up quickly. With products ranging from mobile website development to used textbooks to bras and nutritional supplements, it was a challenge to take it all in. That's a big part of what makes MIN fun.

BlueTrain Mobile Team

The BlueTrain Mobile team not only did a great presentation, but also won the triple crown for the night: best team costume, best hat, and best prop. They kicked off their presentation with a train whistle and presented an excellent video. BlueTrain's Mobile Marketing Engine enables you to create professional and compelling mobile websites easily. They also work with customers to translate the design and personality of their desktop site into a better mobile experience. The team had fun posing with their train conductor hats and made their brand name memorable.

Kevin with Smooth 8
Smooth 8 showed off their liquid additive that reduces acidity in beverages. According to Kevin and Evita at their booth, a few drops of Smooth 8 in your drink not only enhances the taste, but helps your body maintain a proper PH balance by reducing the concentration of free radicals in the body and making antioxidants more available. This helps your body stay hydrated and healthy. They claim it even prevents hangovers. I didn't try it, but their table was getting plenty of traffic.

Catch App
CatchApp is a smart phone application that lets you create and manage location-based reminders. Not only does it remind you to pick up the salmon for dinner, but it tells you when you're close to a store that sells salmon. CatchApp is currently in Beta test, so you can sign up to be notified when it becomes available in the app store.

The jog.fm team had matching T-shirts and an interesting product. Running, power walking, cycling, or spinning jog.fm matches your workout music to your pace.  It's a fitness app that gets you moving and keeps you moving.

Jess from Zyrra
It's about time somebody applied technology to getting a bra that fits! Zyrra does just that. Using 10 measurements and an innovative CAD system, Zyrra creates and sews bras for each individual consumer, no more 34 B or 44 DD - just size you! Whether it's at a bra party or on board the bra bus that comes to your work place, ten measurements and ten minutes to a great fit. Jess looked terrific and you can too.

Mike from GivingSomething
GivingSomething is the coolest way to give real goods to your favorite nonprofits.  Whether it's litter boxes to the cat shelter or lacrosse nets to kids in Nicaragua, they get what they need and you know exactly how your money is being used. It's kind of like a bridal registry for non-profits. The best part is, there's no cost to the non-profit!

Crowd Ready for Presentations to Start
Hall of Innovation
Pat from Campus Libre
There was a good turn out with lots of newcomers. I even talked to somebody from New York. The presentations from BlueTrain Mobile, GivingSomething, Smooth 8, and CatchApp managed to be fun and get done within the 5 minute time allotment.

I almost managed to talk to every participating company. Besides those already mentioned, I chatted with NetCommissions, Campus Libre, and Jungle Torch.

Jerry and Igor from NetCommissions

The Experts Corner was busy with innovators consulting the experts as always. Tim Orazem from Boston SEO Experts agreed to pose for the traditional Expert Looking Expert shot.

Expert Looking Expert