Kendall Square in the 1970s was a mass of old factories, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and chain link fences, says Institute Professor Phillip Sharp, “and if you were wise, you didn’t walk around by yourself at 10 o’clock at night.”
But now this East Cambridge neighborhood is an innovation powerhouse, a hotbed of new ideas, new technology, and know-how, and it is teeming at midday with technologists and entrepreneurs. Today, Kendall Square hosts 150 high-tech companies, including some of the most celebrated life science, technology, and pharmaceutical companies on earth, such as Biogen Idec, Genzyme, Novartis, Akamai, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.
President John F. Kennedy wanted to build NASA’s Electronics Research Center in Kendall Square. It opened in 1964 but closed five years later because of budget cuts. “That left this big void, so MIT then partnered with the City of Cambridge to advance plans to revitalize Kendall Square,” says Provost Martin Schmidt, co-chair of the Building Committee, which now has big plans to further develop this booming innovation cluster.
“Kendall Square is the epicenter, but the reach is all around the edge of campus,” Schmidt says, adding that with the input of hundreds, a plan has been designed to create “a gateway” and “a sense of destination” in Kendall Square, so that when you rise up out of the subway, it will be visibly clear that you’ve entered the MIT campus.
Soon to come, he says, will be academic space, graduate dormitories, a childcare center, and the new home of the MIT Museum. Also slated over the next decade is innovation space, high-rise housing, retail and commercial space, all with landscaping and underground parking. “We see it as an opportunity to further enliven the area. It will become a place to go, rather than a place just to walk through,” says Schmidt, who has cofounded or co-invented the core technology for six start-up companies.
“Every state in the country wants an innovation center like Kendall Square, so we’ve been lucky that we were first,” says Sharp, who launched Biogen here in 1981, triggering the biotechnology industry as well as the renaissance of Kendall Square.
“Kendall Square is the densest innovation cluster in the world,” Schmidt says. “What makes it unique is in a few square miles, you have an enormous concentration of start-ups, high-tech companies, and venture capital firms. What makes Kendall so interesting to watch is its proximity to the surge of talent at MIT, the universities, and the hospitals,” he says. “You have to assume that that’s going to translate to significant advantage in terms of all the serendipitous interactions that are going to occur.”
Sharp adds that MIT has long been expert at translating basic research into the marketplace. “We’re not here just to gain new knowledge; we’re here to transfer that new knowledge into useful things,” he says. “It’s what made Kendall Square Kendall Square.”