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Will the Next Great Boston Tech Company Please Stand Up?

January 30, 2014

What will the next great Boston tech company look like?

I’m not talking about valuations, or IPOs, or number of jobs created, or biggest wins for investors, per se. I’m talking about greatness.
It’s subjective, of course, but you know it when you see it. EMC. TripAdvisor. Akamai. Bose. Digital. Polaroid. Plenty of others.

Each defined an industry. Each is known nationally. Each became a tech icon and had impact on lots of people. If not a true household name, at least you know what it does, or did.

Something tells me the next great Boston company is one I haven’t mentioned yet. Great successes often seem to come out of the blue and are notoriously difficult to predict. Yet they are right there under your nose, toiling away for years, if only you knew what to look for.

Here are five candidates (plus a wildcard) to keep an eye on, based on recent conversations with entrepreneurs and investors. This was not an exhaustive survey, and there’s some of my own opinion in it. What’s most informative is not the particular companies I’ve listed, but rather their fields, stages, and approaches. All were founded in the past five to six years:

1. RunKeeper
Someone from the world of wearables and health/wellness apps should emerge as a big winner in Boston. RunKeeper has a head start in terms of users and brand recognition.
Other players: LoseIt, Bobo Analytics, Neumitra, Segterra
Challenge: Keeping its focus in a crowded field, and turning a loyal user base into big bucks.

2. Actifio
There’s something about data. Big data, data management, databases, data layers, analytics—someone will become the next big enterprise-data company in town. And cloud storage and backup seems a likely entry point.
Other players: Backupify, Basho, Cloudant, Nasuni
Challenge: Making money and getting enough traction before EMC or IBM figures it out.

3. Nanigans
OK, selling me on advertising or marketing tech is tough, but this startup is impacting how brands and companies represent themselves on the Web. The broader idea is how to create the future of digital marketing across different screens.
Other players: Brand Networks, DataXu, Fiksu, SiteSpect
Challenge: The whole business is predicated on Facebook’s platform and big Web advertisers. If either declines, watch out.

4. GrabCAD
Cloud-based collaboration is starting to change how physical products are designed, made, distributed, and sold. Computer-aided design (CAD) and product lifecycle management (PLM) might be ready for their second coming in Boston, and this is one of the companies in the lead.
Other players: Onshape (fka Belmont Technology), Dragon Innovation, Formlabs, Salsify
Challenge: Getting people and companies to care about the future of CAD enough to pay for it. Could cheap tools undercut the business?

5. Xamarin
The post-PC era is upon us. Mobile-app development, management, and testing have matured. There is a killing to be made in enterprise software, if you can get enough developers and testers on board—and this startup is getting there.
Other players: Apperian, Kinvey, Localytics, uTest
Challenge: Making enough money while remaining focused on developers—especially Microsoft developers, as the mobile-platform war shakes out.

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