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Updated: January 20, 2020 Starting up

Is Worcester a startup city?

In his inaugural Starting Up column for WBJ, Peter S. Cohan examines technology from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 
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Is Worcester a startup city? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for years. But what does that even mean? To answer it, I’ll begin by defining what I mean by a startup: Rather than, say, a restaurant founded and run to employ family and friends, a startup is a small company aspiring to get big fast, with help from heaping dollops of venture capital.

Peter S. Cohan

A startup city – the subject of my 14th book, “Startup Cities” – hosts many startups because venture capitalists have already made a financial killing there. In so doing, they’ve enriched themselves and the successful startup’s founding team. And they hope to keep the momentum going there by plowing capital and talent back into the local startup soil.

Silicon Valley – a region surrounding Stanford University in California – is the world’s most successful one.

For years, the region’s economy was quiet, featuring plenty of fruit orchards. But in 1925, after earning his Ph.D. at MIT in Cambridge, Frederick Terman moved out to Stanford and rose to dean of its engineering department.

Terman took a cue from MIT and helped two of his students – William Hewlett and David Packard – start Hewlett Packard. Terman helped Hewlett turn his graduate thesis into a product: an audio oscillator Disney used in the movie “Fantasia.” Ultimately, HP went public and became a source of talent for other companies, such as Apple.

Common ingredients for a startup city are: capital, talented entrepreneurs, cutting edge ideas from universities.

Worcester certainly has the cutting-edge ideas, but since I started writing about it in September 2011, I tried but failed to find any venture-backed startups, based on technology developed in Worcester, which have gone public and operate here.

But here’s an example of local cutting-edge technology conceivably achieving that potential outcome.

A Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor is working on new materials with the potential to make bulletproof vests and other protective systems for people and structures more effective.

The professor in question is Nikhil Karanjgaokar, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at WPI. He earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology.

In a November interview, Karanjgaokar explained bulletproof vests are designed to protect people from specific kinds of bullets under specific conditions. Some criminals know this and hack the vests by obtaining specific bullets – such as so-called cop killers – against which the bulletproof vests are ineffective.

This “horses for courses” approach is used in protective surfaces like “personal protective gear for police, military personnel and first responders, protection systems for missile silos, shock absorption devices for structures to protect them from micro-projectiles, shock absorption for electronic devices or sport equipment,” he said.

But Karanjgaokar has a better idea: Create a new kind of material able to change its internal structure as it is being struck by a projectile. If such a material could be designed, built, and deployed to the people and structures needing protecting, the world would be safer.

What’s more, Karanjgaokar would be tapping into some large markets. According to San Francisco market intelligence provider Grand View Research, the global body armor market alone was $2.1 billion in 2018 and is expected to expand at a 5.5 annual rate from 2019 to 2025. Demand is coming from emerging economies such as India and China, which are replacing legacy equipment. His work could be useful for the shock absorption applications he described above.

Since he shares ownership of this technology with WPI, it could be the basis of a company making and selling a specific product or licensing it to others.

Much would need to happen for Karanjgaokar’s technology to turn into a successful venture-backed public company. He’d need to develop the technology into a product consistently delivering on its promise; hire an executive team to raise capital and build a company to make and sell the product; and ultimately, the company would need to grow to, say, $100 million in revenue.

At that point, it could probably go public and put Worcester on the path to becoming a startup city.

Peter S. Cohan of Marlborough heads a management consulting and venture capital firm, and teaches business strategy and entrepreneurship at Babson College. His email address is

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