Think Kendall Square, and you think cutting edge. The East Cambridge neighborhood is known as the ultimate innovation cluster for its high concentration of high-tech leaders — but it hasn’t always been that way.
For the first half of the 20th century, Kendall Square was dotted with factories, distilleries and power plants. But when Phillip Sharp joined the faculty at MIT in 1974, many of those industrial buildings were abandoned.
“It was a pretty dingy subway stop,” Sharp said. “And at night, at 10:00, you didn’t want to be in Kendall Square. It was not considered safe.”
The advent of biotechnology spurred the renaissance of Kendall Square. In 1978, Sharp co-founded Biogen, one of the world’s first biotech companies. It opened its doors a stone’s throw from MIT, and soon other pioneering technology companies followed suit.
“Genzyme started in about the same time up in Tech Square and moved south,” he said. “Biotech companies developed in Cambridge Corner and ... Akamai and other companies, Google and Microsoft, all developed research institutes around Kendall Square”
Today, the once desolate streets of Kendall Square hum at lunch hour, filled with employees of the world’s leading biotech, information technology and venture capital firms. MIT is still a strong magnet for companies looking to recruit from its talent pool — but it isn’t the only draw.
“One stop away is Mass General, and uptown, two subway stops away is Harvard,” Sharp said. “So, we’re connected by the Red Line to an enormous intellectual and medical community, universities that are just world-class.”
The redevelopment of Kendall Square is far from over. Construction projects representing more than 5 million square feet are underway — or have recently been completed.
“You see the crane?” Sharp asked. “The Broad [Institute] is expanding by factor of two. It’s doing some of the most innovative work on human genetics and the causes of human diseases and new treatments.”
Pritesh Gandhi co-founded Ambient Devices 12 years ago. It's one of hundreds of startup companies that have sprung up alongside technology titans. Ambient’s staff has grown from three to 10. Today, its products are sold by major retailers.
“I think it will just continue to grow and flourish,” Gandhi said. “I don’t see anything slowing it down any time soon.”
Ambient makes Internet-connected devices different from your usual laptop or tablet.
“The most popular ones have been these weather devices that show a five-day weather forecast similar to what you would see at your evening 11 o’clock news,” Gandhi said.
Gandhi says his business benefits from being in close proximity to other innovative companies — many of which face similar challenges.
“Regardless of the industry, many of the problems are relatively common across many industries,” he said. “So, I think you see knowledge transfer happening on a very organic fashion here.”
The evolution of Kendall has also kick-started a commercial boom. In the last three years, 21 restaurants have set up shop, helping further redefine the character of the square.
“Not only has Kendall Square become very attractive for investments and venture and innovation, it’s also becoming attractive for people to live here,” Sharp said.
In a relatively short period, Kendall Square has transformed from a cluster of blighted city blocks to the premier high-tech hub and a model for cities around the world.