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Unity Through Innovation — The North Shore’s Journey Toward Becoming a Tech Hub

VentureFizz documents the burgeoning technology and innovation scene on Boston's North Shore, highlighting Steel Root as an example of new technology startups in Salem, Massachusetts.

This article by Colin Barry originally appeared in VentureFizz.

Massachusetts’ North Shore is a popular area for multiple reasons; the beaches, the culture, and the historical significance of its several towns (Salem in particular). And to add one more reason to the list, it is slowly but surely on its way to becoming a growing tech hub in the Bay State.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of tech in Massachusetts, the cities and towns in the North Shore may not come to mind. Most think of Boston and Cambridge, as being the main sectors for tech companies and entrepreneurship.

It may come as a surprise that the oceanside towns of Salem, Gloucester, Beverly, and others are making strides to become more known for their entrepreneurial and tech scenes.

If someone takes a closer look at the region they will see there is more than meets the eye.

Justin Miller is the newly appointed Head of Marketing at Workbar, and maintains a presence in the North Shore with the innonorth program.

“There’s lots of innovation going on in the North Shore, but people just aren’t aware of it yet,” said Miller. “We wanted to show that there’s more going on over here than what people think.”

Miller is a resident of Salem who started innonorth in 2016 as a way to bring awareness to the North Shore’s burgeoning tech scene and connect those working within the area. The inspiration came from noticing a prominent tech company in Salem.

“I had heard about the company Dribbble, and knew they had been around in the digital marketing space for a while. However, I noticed their headquarters were nearby a downtown coffee shop and not in a typical startup space,” Miller remembers. “It surprised me this relatively large company was in a space like this.”

On the website itself, visitors can see the kinds of networking and/or tech-oriented panel discussions that are taking place in the area. The website also welcomes any and all startups to post jobs.

The project developed into a joint effort between Miller and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. Driscoll has been the Mayor of Salem for over ten years and has seen first-hand how the tech community has grown.

“There are lots of people who work in tech in Salem, but most of the talent is independent,” Mayor Driscoll said. “The trouble is getting people together, which is one of the reasons why Justin and I spearheaded the innonorth project. The question we were trying to answer was ‘How do we get folks to build a tech nucleus around the North Shore?’”

Shortly after innonorth started, Miller put together the first event at Salem’s Notch Brewery & Tap Room, inviting anyone working on the North Shore.

“The turnout was great, and a lot of tech workers and entrepreneurs attended,” Miller remembers. “However, a lot of them didn’t even know each other or that there were others in the city.”

Salem, Massachusetts.

When that town is mentioned, most think of witches and kitschy, Halloween-themed tourism.

Thanks in part to Driscoll and Miller’s efforts, Salem has developed a growing tech scene. Since much of Salem’s culture is devoted to art, including a section of downtown nicknamed Artists’ Row, it’s no surprise that there are a few digital media and advertising agencies focusing on creativity.

Besides Dribbble, which is a community website supporting web and graphic designers, has been a fixture in tech sector since 2009. Another “creative” company in Salem is Fresh, an agency that caters to all kinds of markets to create brand awareness.

Fresh Co-Founder Erin Hegarty is a Salem-native who said it’s a “no-brainer” to work on the North Shore.

“The work-life balance here is great,” Hegarty said. “We’ve also been able to hire a lot of freelancers out of Salem, thanks to the network provided by Mayor Driscoll. There’s a great group of workers in the area.”

Hegarty and her team at Fresh cater to all different companies across several industries, but their main clientele consists of eCommerce companies.

Digital marketing is not the only tech sector in Salem. Steel Root is a cybersecurity firm that offers consulting advice to very early stage companies. Since Salem is full of SMBs, Steel Root fits right into Salem’s growing tech scene.

“We offer customizable solutions for companies that may not have an IT department yet,” said Steel Root Managing Partner Ryan Heidorn. “We’ve worked with MarTech companies, some 10-year-old companies, but it’s mostly small businesses in general.”

Driscoll believes that there is potential for other tech clusters to grow in the area. One particular form of technology that comes to mind is what she calls the “blue economy.”

“Around the city, we have over 45 acres of deep water,” the mayor said. “There’s lots of R&D opportunities and interesting areas of study with the ocean. We’d love to think that we could advance that into something further.”

The City of Beverly and Its Incubator

The City of Beverly is home to North Shore InnoVentures, a startup incubator with one very specific mission in mind: helping biotech and cleantech companies in the North Shore.

“You can start a software company in your basement, but if you start a biotech company in your basement, the police are going to get involved,” joked Martha Farmer, the Founder, President, and CEO of North Shore InnoVentures.

Farmer founded InnoVentures in the middle of the economic crisis in 2008, as an opportunity for the biotech and cleantech sectors to grow. Initially, the incubator was a spin-off of the North Shore Technology and began its life as an online program that eventually grew into the city’s premier startup accelerator for cleantech and biotech startups.

“We want to give early-stage companies in the biotech and cleantech sectors an opportunity for growth,” said Farmer. “We also want to foster growth of the region’s tech sector by accepting companies from all over the state.”

There have been a wide variety of meaningful companies that have come through the accelerator including Thrive Bioscience, a company developing products for cell research; CrowdComfort, whose platform allows building and property managers to keep track of their tenants; and IVIVA Medical who, in partnership with MGH, has built artificial kidney transplants.

North Shore InnoVentures offers internships for students, which showed Farmer that there is interest from college students not just in the area, but from all over the country.

“Many of our interns come from Endicott and Salem State, but they have been appealing to students on the west coast as well,” Farmer said. “They are appealing to them, because many of the companies are doing impactful work.”

“I’m personally blown away by the impact the interns make,” Farmer added.

How Gloucester is Coming Together

Many of the cities on the North Shore are focused on trying to bring talent in, and no city highlights this than the City of Gloucester.

“There are so many people around here who work in tech, but no one knows who they are,” said CoWork Gloucester Founder Bo Abrams. “Gloucester is seen as this ‘old fishing town,’ but they don’t know about the other stuff going on behind the scenes.”

Abrams’ goal is to create a coworking space for Gloucester, and to give the tech workers an opportunity to finally meet with one another. Abrams comes from a non-tech career, but has extensive experience in organizing events.

“I come from a family of early adopters of tech, and my husband works in advertising with a lot of tech companies,” said Abrams. “So, I have an understanding of what people want with that particular field. The main idea of CoWork Gloucester is to create a community that can benefit the tech industry as a whole.”

One particular tech company that stands out is Flying Car, a digital advertising agency. There is also a non-profit organization named Gloucester Innovation that is focused on unifying the lowkey tech scene in the town by hosting events.

“Gloucester Innovation identifies who is here, and will host events similar to TED Talks,” says Abrams. “We are trying to connect with them and maybe host one of their events at CoWork Gloucester.”

Bringing in Talent and People

The largest issue the North Shore faces is a lack of central locations that can bring people together since many of the cities are spread out from each other. Salem’s Economic Development Planner for the Department of Planning & Community Development Andrew Shapiro believes that the region has plenty to offer its talent.

“There’s lots of appeals here. It’s affordable and by the water, which is attractive for some people. There’s also a lot of great restaurants and bars,” Shapiro said. “We’ve been seeing the drips and drops of the tech industry, and the market should increase as more people come in.”

However, Mayor Driscoll acknowledges that growing the smallerscale companies, as well as attracting local talent, is key in order for the scene to grow.

“We want to leverage collaboration with the whole North Shore,” Driscoll said. “Through working with the surrounding cities like Lynn and Swampscott, we can create congenial relationships and raise the bar in a positive way.”

Organizations like the North Shore Technology Council in Lynn host gatherings in order to bring these issues to light. Miller believes his position at the Workbar location in Danvers will be another great opportunity to help bring more tech workers to the North Shore.

“There’s a demand for coworking spaces all across the area. Danvers is a good central location for the North Shore since it is nearby Salem and Beverly,” he said. “We’ll be teaching a good mix of classes at Workbar Danvers to bring people together.”

What Does the Future Hold for the North Shore?

Could the North Shore be the next big tech hub? It could be too early to tell, but the future looks bright for the cities by the ocean. The North Shore is no longer just a place to visit a beachfront hotel or visit a historical museum. It is on its way towards bringing towns and cities together, all with a single goal in mind: tech innovation and entrepreneurship.