January 30, 2017

Newton-Needham's N2 Innovation District is Bringing the Urban Startup Vibe to the Burbs

The Newton-Needham area is home to many of the Bay State’s leading innovators and entrepreneurs.  Yet, over the past few years, the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber has sought to promote these two Boston suburbs as vibrant places to work, not just to live, by attracting cutting-edge companies to the N2 Innovation District (pronounced N-Squared), which runs along Route 128 and straddles the Newton-Needham border.  A diverse range of high-growth businesses operate within this 500-acre expanse of office parks and commercial properties, such as  PTC, CyberArk, Big Belly Solar, Kaminario, Shark Ninja, and Karyopharm.  In 2015, TripAdvisor opened its stunning new headquarters in the N2 Innovation District.  

TripAdvisor's Headquarters
TripAdvisor's Headquarters

Tapping the Talent

The City of Newton and Town of Needham posses an extraordinary stock of human capital.  Camoin Associates, an economic development consultancy that works closely with the N2 Innovation District Task Force, found that nearly half their residents – over 25-years-old – hold a graduate or professional degree and the number of patents per 1,000 residents is five times that of the state as a whole.  

This evidence suggests that the community is already quite innovative. Yet, the Camoin report also states that only 29 percent of Newton and Needham residents work in either of the two municipalities and only 6 percent of the 1,166 patents – issued in 2015 with a Newton or Needham resident listed as an inventor – were assigned to companies located in either of these districts. In short, only a small sliver of the professional talent within the Newton/Needham workforce is employed by companies based in the city or town where these individuals live and raise their families.  This dynamic is typical for the inner suburbs of an economically vibrant city like Boston.  

Yet the N2 Innovation District envisions an alternative model in which businesses partner with local governments and organizations in order to foster an integrated work-life environment.

“In a traditional suburban environment, you drive your car [to the office], you work in a building, then you get out and drive home,” said Chuck Tanowitz, Director of N2 Innovation District.  “The challenge here is we need to make sure people are getting outside and interacting.”  

The N2 Innovation District recently launched their “Know-Your-Neighbor” program, which provides an opportunity for individuals to learn about companies across the District over beer and pizza.  Tanowitz listed a variety of athletic, artistic, and social events as potential ways of strengthening the N2 community.  

The Road Ahead

The N2 Innovation District aims to import the vitality of an urban innovation district while maintaining its relative affordability and avoiding over-congestion, combining the most desirable aspects of suburban and city life within a single space.  Those involved with the initiative understand that this is a challenging endeavor and will take time.

“We’re not looking at timelines that are short here,” said Tanowitz.  “We’re looking at timelines that go out five to ten years.”

The high cost of housing, limited transit options, and aging workforce remain two of the N2 Innovation District’s most persist obstacles.  The District will also have to compete against the Boston area’s more established hubs of innovation for companies and workers.  Furthermore, some constituencies in the City of Newton are not eager to invest in housing construction or transportation infrastructure.  

Yet, despite these hurdles, the N2 Innovation District’s stakeholders remain optimistic for many reasons.  Transportation improvements, such as new bike lanes and highway ramps, are underway and Newton Mayor Setti Warren has unveiled an ambitious plan to expand housing.  

“We now know we have the ingredients to bring companies out here,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber.  “Now, we have to keep filling it with tenants.”

If you are looking to learn more about the N2 Innovation District, the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber is hosting an event on Friday, February 3rd, which will outline more of the details on the various projects. You can show your support by donating to the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber's fundraising campaign by clicking here.

David Ullmann is a contributor to VentureFizz. 

Photos provided by N2 Innovation District.