Non-Competes & Other Highlights from MassTLC's Annual Meeting

Thursday Mar 14, 2013 by Dennis Keohane - Contributor, VentureFizz

Tuesday morning, members of the Boston (and Massachusetts at-large) tech / innovation community gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in the Innovation District for MassTLC’s annual meeting. The event was highlighted by talks from two influential members of the Massachusetts business community: Governor Deval Patrick and The Kraft Group Founder/Chairman/President Robert Kraft.

Governor Patrick explained his “Vision for Massachusetts” with The Boston Globe's Scott Kirsner; first, talking policy impact on the technology / innovation sector and then responding to ideas from members of the community.

The policy portion of Patrick’s talk focused on possible tax increases and how tax revenue will be used to update outdated infrastructure to create a more dynamic and interactive business community in Massachusetts. Overall, the Governor praised the state’s innovators and entrepreneurs, urged a continued push for more technology-focused education, and offered his support to foster the continued growth and creative spirit to keep Massachusetts a center for innovation.

This was best displayed during the ideas proposal portion of the event. Described by Kirsner as a “kind of office hours with Governor Deval Patrick,” community members posed questions and ideas, and the Governor responded with solutions and guidance. Patrick connected each proposal with a key member of his staff who could best assist the needs of the educators, legislators, and business leaders who sought to solve a singular problem facing the Boston/Massachusetts technology ecosystem.

Kelly Powers, of the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlboro, proposed that Computer Science should be a requirement for high school graduation for a state whose “economy is driven by High Tech, Biotech, Finance, and Healthcare sectors, [who] are all depending on computing talent and expertise to build jobs.” Flanked by a few of her students, she spoke about how Computer Science is mandatory at AMSA from middle school onward.

Powers, and her students from AMSA, were followed by other industry leaders including Startup Institute’s Aaron O’Hearn and TeenLife’s Marie Schwartz, among others.

O’Hearn made a point about the difficulty his institution, formerly known as Boston Startup School, has had in obtaining a permanent space in Boston. He also continued to press the theme of furthering technology education, asking the Governor how he could help to bring the Startup Institute’s curriculum and ideas to Massachusetts’ high schools.

To help with O’Hearn’s first query, Patrick connected him with another member of his cabinet, the Secretary of Economic Development and Housing. On the education issue, the Governor said, “Our school’s have to be much more connected to where we are trying to drive the economy and, frankly, where the economy is driving us.” He added, “We have some tools for that, but we are still working on content, and I think that is where you can help.”

One of the more interesting moments of the idea exchange occurred when the Governor was questioned by Branko Gerovac on the subject of non-compete agreements. Gerovac, formerly of Blackwave Inc., SeaChange Inc., and MIT, had some great data on how Boston has fallen behind other areas in the tech sector over the past twenty years. He earned a large round of applause from the crowd when he commented that the way non-competes are enforced are hurting Boston, and added, “One major change that we could make to this area would be to eliminate non-competes, totally.” He reinforced his arguments by explaining how the agreements cause issues with hiring employees and lead to some fired employees being unable to work for extended periods of time.

Scott Kirsner then related a story about a trip to Pinterest where the hallways were populated with former Facebook employees who migrated from one innovative company to another, something non-competes would prevent from happening in Massachusetts. 

Governor Patrick first stated that there were “a lot of tech sector leaders who are very much on the opposite side of this question.” Yet, the Governor later added, “I am not practicing law anymore but I have some serious doubts as a lawyer whether a [sic] non-compete is even enforceable in Massachusetts.”

From this writer’s point of view, the problem with non-competes in Massachusetts is not whether or not they will be upheld as enforceable by a judge, it’s more about the threat.  Larger companies can take legal action against startups in an effort to distract them and drain their cash on legal fees for an extended period of time, which can stall the pace of innovation for our region.

The second half of the event was a “Fireside Chat” with Robert Kraft in which the Patriots owner and head of The Kraft Group encouraged all members of the Boston tech community to work together as a team. At times, Kraft was very emotional, especially when talking about his late wife. However, his message mostly related to the need for Massachusetts to maintain / regain its innovative edge.

At one point he even referred to Facebook starting in Cambridge but eventually moving to Silicon Valley, and his belief that major employers leaving Boston should not be acceptable anymore. 

The Q&A session with Kraft ended up moving away from business questions to topics surrounding his NFL team, which I guess is to be expected when the owner of the beloved New England Patriots is in the room.

Dennis Keohane is a teacher, journalist and contributor to VentureFizz.  You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.

*  Homepage photo credit, Mass Technology Leadership Council.

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