Walk of Fame Looking Real

Republished from Xconomy.com

It’s an idea people love the instant they hear it: movies stars have their Walk of Fame out in Hollywood, so entrepreneurs should have one, too—and what better place than right here in Kendall Square, the most fertile, concentrated ground for entrepreneurship in the world?

Last August, Xconomy was first to report on the idea for an Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame—the brainchild of Xconomist Bill Aulet, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. Now, almost a year later, I am pleased to report, the Walk has moved beyond the talking stage, it is walking the walk, so to speak. The idea has advanced in the Cambridge, MA, City Council, attracted at least one founding sponsor, nomination and selection committees have been formed—yours truly is an official curator, charged with nominating candidates for the Walk—and a launch date of September 16 has been targeted.

“The time has definitely come,” says Aulet. “The idea just resonates. Getting from idea to execution is always a challenge, but the idea has been so good that people have been lining up at all levels.” He says the first entrepreneurs selected would be given tiles in the plaza outside the Cambridge Marriott hotel, in the heart of Kendall Square.

There are still several moving parts to this, details being worked out (dare I say, nothing has been set in stone?)—including the definition of what, exactly, qualifies someone for the Walk, and how many inductees will be named this first year. But here are the key elements that appear to have been decided on so far:

Each entrepreneur would get a tile, emblazoned with their name and a star. Aulet was vague about how big the tiles would be, whether the tiles would include a picture of inductees and what else would be listed—such as their company name, year it was founded, etc. One idea being considered, though, is that a QR code would be embedded in each tile, so that anyone with a smartphone camera and a reader app might be able to take a picture and have it open a web page with, say, the bio of the entrepreneur, videos of them in action, and other features. The design firm IDEO is working on the tile design now.

The number of first-year inductees has not been set. But it could be as few as five.

Aulet says 25 or so people have been named as curators, charged with nominating candidates for the Walk. I don’t have all their names, but here are some from the Boston area: Paul Maeder, general partner and co-founder at Highland Capital Partners; Joi Ito, the newly named director of the MIT Media Lab; Leon Sandler, executive director of the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT; John Harthorne, co-founder and CEO of MassChallenge, and Howard Anderson, founder of the Yankee Group.

The selection committee, which will make final decisions about those who have been nominated, to date consists of seven people: Aulet; Desh Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks and chairman of A123Systems; Forester Research founder and CEO George Colony; Yankee Group chairman and former CEO Emily Green; Carl Schramm, CEO of the Kauffman Foundation; Stanford University professor Tom Byers, brother of venture capitalist Brook Byers and co-director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program; and Jason Pontin, editor and publisher of MIT’s Technology Review Magazine. Aulet says they are looking to widen the committee, and are specifically hunting for a biotech expert. “I think it is important to note that the selection committee has a one year term for now,” Aulet says. “We want to get a great first class and then take it from there.”

A logistics and planning group, headed by Xconomist Tim Rowe, founder and CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center, is charged with setting up a non-profit group to run the Walk, and handling all logistics details needed to bring the effort to reality. This includes working with city officials on planning and zoning, and with Boston Properties, which owns the plaza where the Walk would be created.

The Kauffman Foundation, whose whole mission is to promote entrepreneurship, has reportedly pledged to become a founding sponsor of the effort. Other sponsors are being sought.

As always happens with a great idea like this, lots of pols and others want to jump on the bandwagon—no doubt that could gum things up a bit and may have been behind what seemed to be relatively slow progress over the past 11 months. But this is pretty damn cool—and I applaud Aulet, Rowe, who is also president of the Kendall Square Association, and city councilor Leland Cheung (who has championed the effort on the political side), for keeping it going. As already noted, many details are still up in the air. But here are two early observations/suggestions I have:

The definition of “entrepreneur” needs to be sharpened carefully. The instructions I got as curator were to nominate “entrepreneurs who made a significant mark on the world as a result of their entrepreneurship. Inventors and innovators are acceptable, but only to the extent that they were also one of the prime movers behind the entrepreneurial/commercial success of their innovations. These entrepreneurs may come from anywhere in the world, and from any epoch.”

This is a fantastic start. I believe the effort should include both contemporary entrepreneurs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and people like Edwin Land of Polaroid, who have long since passed away. But who are we nominating, exactly? Is the focus on high-tech entrepreneurs? The whole ethos of Kendall Square is around tech and life sciences, and that’s certainly what I assumed as I made my nominations. But what about people like Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame or Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. They certainly made a significant mark on the world, and they were innovators in their way. Do they count? Also, does an entrepreneur have to the founder of a company, or can he or she also be an early CEO, say, the one to really build the idea into a great business?

I spoke to Aulet about this over the weekend, and he is indeed working on sharpening up the definition of what they are looking for. He says candidates should be in innovation-related areas, which is another step towards saying “high tech,” but not quite there. He also says the group might also look for inductees who led their companies to some minimum market cap level, say $1 billion. Finally, he says, candidates should have an inspirational story behind them. None of these, though, will likely be a hard-wired requirement. “You can’t say let’s pop in an algorithm and have someone come out,” he says. There are myriad factors to consider: did they pioneer a new field, what era were they operating in, and so on. “It’s like the Hall of Fame for baseball—it’s not just about stats.”

My own two cents is, this should be around technology-related innovation, including the life sciences or anything considered high technology—and that it should not include the Ray Krocs or Sam Waltons of the world. And the Walk should be about people who really took companies to their initial major plateaus—either the founders or first CEO in almost every case.

Given the mandate that nominees could be “from any epoch,” it seems fitting that the first entrepreneurs given tiles in the Walk should be a mix of historical and contemporary figures. Perhaps two should be inducted from a given decade, or generation. That way, it won’t just be celebrating deceased entrepreneurs, but a tribute to folks still walking among us and shaping our lives, the way the Hollywood Walk of Fame is. We want Zuckerberg, Sergey and Larry, at the groundbreaking! Again, Aulet says he is thinking along the same lines and is contemplating limiting the first wave of inductees to those whose companies were formed after 1950. Even then, though, I would suggest inductees spanning the 61 years between then and now.

Round out the committees. The steering committee, especially, feels too MIT-centric right now. Aulet and Pontin are MIT employees, and Deshpande is a life member of the MIT Corporation and a major donor to the school. That is three out of seven—too high a percentage for a truly national process. The committee needs more women as well. Finally, the charge is to find candidates from around the world—so we need committee members from around the world as well. I’m not sure about the curators, but all the names given to me were from the Boston area—and that needs to change as well.

Aulet says he is aware of all these issues, and that folks behind the Walk are already moving to address them. But such questions aside, what a great concept. Entrepreneurs, far more than movie stars, are the lifeblood of our economy—they are the key to future growth and prosperity, not just in the U.S., but around the world.

It’s fitting to bring you this news right after the Fourth of July, the birthday of our nation, itself one of the most important entrepreneurial creations in history. Let’s keep the fireworks going. This is worth celebrating.

http://www.xconomy.com/boston/2011/07/05/entrepreneurial-walk-of-fame-looking-real-september-16-launch-targeted/