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By Eric Reed
The story of Kendall Square has always been one of innovation. For hundreds of years, this corner of Cambridge, Mass., has produced some of the most cutting-edge companies of the era, whether they were inventing rubberized hoses or delivering today’s groundbreaking RNA vaccines. But while the future of innovation in Kendall Square continues to look bright, it didn’t happen overnight.
In 1916, the Barbour Stockwell iron foundry sat on Hampshire Street, spanning the intersections between Clark and Davis streets. Kitty-corner to those forges, the Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Company factory operated. It shared real estate with a manufacturer of boxes, and its holdings crossed Binney Street into the nearby freight rail yard. Most of these buildings opened onto the Broad Canal. To support the area’s many factories during the 19th century, Kendall Square was connected by a network of shallow canals that ferried raw materials in and finished goods out.
Now ubiquitous, products like cardboard and rubber were once cutting edge and arrived during the Industrial Revolution. Reliable heat and electricity would rewrite the world in the 20th century, and even something as simple as wrapped sweets changed the way people went about their daily lives.
From Standard Oil to Tootsie Roll, these industries took root in Kendall Square. Almost none of them are there today. In fact, out of 12 major products that Kendall Square was once most known for producing, from coffins to steam boilers, only one significantly remains: candy.
In place of an iron foundry, you’ll find an audio engineering software firm. Labs dedicated to cancer research and the study of infectious disease sit side by side with venture capitalists. While the Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Company’s building still stands, it now hosts management consultants and technology firms.
As for Broad Canal, most of it doesn’t exist anymore.
Only small sections, like the Broad Canal Walk, remain. It’s yet another reflection of how the area has transformed from an industrial zone to a pedestrian-focused neighborhood known as “the most innovative square mile on Earth.” Modern Kendall Square is home to hundreds of startups and established firms, all trying to invent the next game-changing technology.
But Kendall’s transition didn’t always feel like a sure thing.
“Thirty-three years ago, when I was here negotiating the lease, there were way fewer buildings and a lot of open space,” says Phil Bannatyne, owner of the Cambridge Brewing Company, which is located outside the former Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Company at the One Kendall Square complex. “One of the reasons I ended up here was it was one of the only places in Cambridge that I could afford,” says Bannatyne. “It was not the hub it is today.”
What he experienced was the hangover from an industrial collapse that all but wiped out Kendall Square, along with many of the industrial towns of the Northeast.
Communities that previously relied on manufacturing for their jobs and tax bases saw those businesses move to cheaper markets, or end altogether as new technology took over. The story was no different in Kendall Square, where the former industrial landscape spent decades slowly moldering.
But that abandonment may also have been exactly what saved this corner of Cambridge.
“For a long time, it was just an industrial space,” says C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association. “There was this little shot of hope when President Kennedy decided that what would become NASA’s headquarters would go here and the land was cleared. Then, of course, Kennedy died and President Johnson decided NASA would be moved to Texas.”
While history suggests Kennedy may have changed his mind before Johnson’s order, work had begun on the new NASA headquarters when the new order was given. With cleared land and several buildings in place, Cambridge changed gears: It transformed the space intended for mission control into offices and enticed the Department of Transportation to take up residence. These offices would become a research facility and eventually provide space for new companies in the years to come.
In 1978, the founding of Biogen, a company that would grow to become a major player in the in biotechnology world, helped continue pushing Kendall Square to become a center of research and high technology. So did the launch of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a startup hub that today hosts hundreds of individual companies under its roof. While no one factor can explain how Kendall Square has become such a center for innovation and technology development, together these many small pushes helped build what Webb calls the area’s “synergy.”
Webb echoes that sentiment. Being in close proximity, companies have access to each other and to a strong business environment. As faculty and students from nearby universities come up with new ideas, and as employees at local companies do the same, Kendall offers them space to launch their own businesses. Doing that near other startups lets them share resources, from lawyers and investors to human resource experts and employees. “It’s really practical,” she says. And it is about the innovation that comes through spontaneous communication.
“That doesn’t wait for the next planned Zoom meeting. Those kinds of discoveries, some of them are that classical eureka moment,” Webb says.“They happen because you bumped into each other on the sidewalk talking about the meeting you just had. And someone else said, ‘that’s very interesting because of this paper,’ and you put one and one together and it equals three.”
That mix of creativity and pragmatism has helped launch the renaissance of Kendall Square. Where once this neighborhood was home to the cutting-edge technologies of the Industrial Revolution, today it’s where you’ll find cutting-edge biotechnology and pharmaceutical research. For the people who live and work here, that change has been a long time coming.