May 21, 2022

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Startup accelerator MassChallenge gets new boss

3 min read

Much credit for Boston’s robust startup scene goes to the city’s strong tech, health care, and finance sectors, plus its renowned colleges, universities, and hospitals. But another key resource is the incubators and accelerators that support entrepreneurs.

MassChallenge, a 12-year-old nonprofit that encourages startups at the earliest stages, has helped lead the way. On Tuesday, the group announced chief executive Siobhan Dullea is stepping down after three years to deal with a serious health situation in her family. Current executive vice president Cait Brumme will take over as acting CEO.

One of the first things Brumme explained to me when we met over Zoom this week was the source of the group’s name.

“Most people think it is related to Massachusetts, and I don’t want to break anyone’s hearts out there, but it’s ‘Massive Challenges,’” she says.

To start, Brumme isn’t planning any big change in the mission of MassChallenge. If anything, the emergence of long-gestating startups like Moderna during COVID has reinforced Brumme’s support of the mission.

“We know that really big problems require unconventional partnerships and unconventional models to get businesses off the ground,” she says. “Our goal and our belief is that we can increase the impact of entrepreneurship on sectors and geographies and founders and big global challenges that have yet to be unlocked.”

In addition to expanding to other cities since being founded in Boston in 2009, MassChallenge also has started accelerator programs focused on specific sectors such as digital health. Brumme says the group is planning to add another program for crypto and web3.0, the developing ecosystem of apps and services that rely on blockchain technology.

A current climate technology effort out of Switzerland also will be expanded. “We very much think that should and will be a global effort,” she says. “Climate is top of focus for us.”

MassChallenge plays “a crucial role in the super-early-stage development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Jody Rose, president of the New England Venture Capital Association. While Dullea’s departure is a “large hit,” Brumme will be “spectacular,” Rose says. “She’s balanced, she’s energetic, and she’s a sound operational leader.”

Brumme originally joined MassChallenge almost three years ago from Harvard Business School’s Impact Collaboratory, a research program on impact investing where she was a director setting strategy in conjunction with the school’s faculty. She previously worked at investment advisory firms Social Finance and Strategic Value Capital.

Diversity and inclusion has been part of MassChallenge’s mission all along but got heightened attention during Dullea’s tenure. The forced switch to virtual educational programming and meetings during COVID has worked well for MassChallenge and could help support “more individuals, more communities, and more economies around the world” in the future, Brumme says. At the same time, it allows “more talent to connect into existing ecosystems like Boston,” she says.

Still, the continuing pandemic has forced MassChallenge, like many other organizations, to delay plans to return to the office. The group just moved its headquarters to a floor of MassMutual’s new building in the Seaport.

“We were planning our big return to the office, and we’re now back in soft-launch mode,” Brumme says.

Aaron Pressman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.