Juan Enriquez: The Next Boom, by Zipcode

There is no rescuing this economy from our debt, denial and epic implosions like General Motors and the city of Detroit. The only hope is that our unfinished season of disaster will be inundated (and the new economy floated) by a flood of invention.

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Juan Enriquez‘s vision makes you want pray for a rain-out, bet on the flood. Especially if you live in one of the research and teaching centers of the world — best of all in MIT’s zipcode: 02139. Recovery, jobs and money are all fuctions, in the Enriquez brief, of zipcode concentrations of brain cells and emerging new “life science” industries.

Juan Enriquez is an investor, teacher, writer and sometime politician who’s famous now on YouTube and the conference circuit for riffs like this one. We’re picking up on, first, a TED talk he gave this Spring in California, and then a grand Boston boast that the Red Sox playing field is the epicenter of the next economy. At TED, he pictured a race underway between the crashing of car companies and newspapers and other branded industries and the simultaneous blooming of super-tech invention: the Big Dog carry-all robots, implantable organs and shoe leather man-made without cows. I asked Juan Enriquez in his Boston office tower for a sort of scorecard as of late spring in year one of the Age of Obama. The bad news is that we’re in real danger of sinking ourselves (not our kids — us!) with debt we cannot pay. We’ve been through some tentative confession of our sins, but atonement is still to come. Here’s the good news:

I’ve never seen a better time to invest: things are cheap, there’s a lot of smart people around, there’s a lot of technology we’ve been investing in for 15, 20 years in life sciences that is incredibly exciting right now. And Boston is the center of the universe for that stuff. Per capita, there isn’t a smarter place than Boston right now…

Half facetiously, I claim that the center of the universe is the pitcher’s mound at Fenway. And the reason for that is because you’ve got Boston University sitting on one axis, Harvard on another, MIT on another, then Boston College and Harvard Medical School… Within a three to five mile radius of that pitcher’s mound you have an awful lot of what the new economy looks like.

Of the known universe, at this point, the corner of Vassar St. and Main St. may be the single most interesting corner anywhere and the reason why is because you’re sitting in the middle of a zipcode, 02139, that has generated one the largest economies on the planet in terms of the companies that the faculty and students that graduated MIT have done. The second reason is that you have a huge concentration of life-science powerbases that around the Whitehead and the Broad Institutes and the Human Genome Project. You have a new neuro-cognitive center, the Picower Institute where they’re bringing together in one building everybody who’s thinking about the brain. So if you’re a psychologist or a psychiatrist, if you’re a neurosurgeon or a brain imager, if you’re a computer scientist, anybody who’s thinking about brain circuitry or how this thing works, you’re all talking to one another in a building, which is highly unusual for academia.

And then right across the street from that you’ve got a Frank Gehry building that has possibly the next generation of computing, the next generation of artificial intelligence, and the next generation of robotics. And you bring those three things together — and you think of single professors’ labs — a lab the size of your house — generating market caps of five or 10 billion or 20 billion dollars in the students that are graduating and the companies they found…

When I want to show somebody why the US is still a really important power despite the debt, despite a certain sabbatical from governance, I drive them through the area… As you go past the Stop & Shop, you’ll see the old NECCO candy factory, which has now become the global research headquarters for Novartis. In three other huge buildings next to it they’ve taken the three big Swiss Pharma companies – Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz – merged them and offshored almost all of the R and D to Cambridge, MA, which is a big deal! That’s offshoring probably five percent of the future of the Swiss GDP. That’s what the bet is… And then you hit the Charles River, which is lovely, right?

Juan Enriquez in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, June, 2009.

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