Boston VCs Test 'Collegial, Youthful' Investment Style

Thursday night they launched a collaborative workspace called CriticalMass in a Cambridge office building near Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just down the avenue from Harvard University where Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. Of course, he then moved to California, which some think sort of symbolizes Boston’s problem.

Perhaps the Asian hors d’oeuvres at the launch party were meant to infuse a cool, West Coast vibe. Down the hall, draft beer flowed at the weekly Venture Café. If you stayed away from the windows – it was snowing – you could imagine yourself at a South of Market (San Francisco, that is) shindig.

New England venture capitalists need to work together to “reinvigorate start-up activity in this region” instead of alone in “our own little parochial pods, in our own self interest,” said Jamie Goldstein, a partner at North Bridge Venture Partners and president of the New England Venture Capital Association, a CriticalMass sponsor.

North Bridge, which is based in the Boston suburb of Waltham along with several other established venture firms, is also one of the sponsors of CriticalMass, which will provide a place for entrepreneurs to work for free for three months or at a monthly rate of $125 for six months. North Bridge and several other firms have small conference rooms off an open work area that can accommodate up to 48 entrepreneurs a year. Goldstein, a communications and Internet infrastructure investor, said he expects to be there weekly.

Across the nation, VCs are working hard to get close to young entrepreneurs, mainly in the Internet world, who like hanging out with like-minded people in a city instead of a suburban office park. The university town of Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, is attractive to them. Polaris Venture Partners-backed Dogpatch Labs has a collaborative workspace nearby that was a model for CriticalMass. Venture firms such as Greylock Partners have moved to Cambridge and young firms such as OpenView Venture Partners and .406 Ventures opened shop in Boston.

Goldstein said he expects about one-half to three-quarters of CriticalMass entrepreneurs to be working on mobile or digital-media projects.

“I don’t think you’re going to see the next big semiconductor company come out of CriticalMass,” he said.

CriticalMass and the year-old Venture Café are in the Cambridge Innovation Center, which is home to 350 young companies of various sizes and stages of development. CIC provides support services. Tim Rowe, CIC president, said the collaborative spirit where entrepreneurs want to work together to help each other build businesses didn’t really exist when he started CIC a decade ago.

Now, he said, VCs, too, are developing “a collegial, youthful way of working.” The Venture Café, which CIC helped launch, is the largest regular gathering of entrepreneurs in the Boston area that Rowe is aware of and a place where local VCs are available for informal meetings.

Clearly Boston has a ways to go to catch up with the Bay Area in fostering a mobile, social-network driven investment climate, but it sure is trying. And soon it will be spring in Cambridge and the Red Sox will be playing across the Charles.