Live from Central Square ... it's tech TV
By Scott Kirsner
The weekly TV show "High-Tech Fever" has three different green rooms that the host and guests can use to prepare for their half hour on the air. When the guest is a teetotaler, the pre-show briefing takes place at the Starbuck's or the 1369 Coffeehouse in Central Square. When the guest isn't averse to knocking back a few before the broadcast, there's The Field, an Irish pub just across from the studios of Cambridge Community Television.
"High-Tech Fever" is, as far as I can tell, the only regularly scheduled show on Boston-area television dedicated to invention, entrepreneurship, and the financing of technology start-ups. The host, a 34-year-old career MIT student named Joost Bonsen, describes it as "a cross between `Charlie Rose' and `Wayne's World."' The subject matter is brainy, but the production values — Bonsen and his guest squeezed side by side behind a pink formica desk, shot by a single stationary camera — are bargain basement.
Still, the content stands out. Bonsen's roommate, Rick LeVine, a fellow degree-seeker at MIT's Sloan School of Management, says: "What he's delivering through that show is an MIT Sloan graduate education in entrepreneurship — what some of us pay $100,000 a year for — and I have no idea who is watching. He's on between, like, a comedian with a flowerpot on his head and a storyteller."
Bonsen, who runs a well-regarded monthly networking event at an MIT campus hangout called the Muddy Charles Pub, seems to know every student and alumnus who is starting a company, and who is doing the most interesting research at the institute. As someone who has helped organize the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, helped start several clubs and courses, and helped author a study on the impact of MIT start-ups on the global economy, Bonsen is a central node in the MIT network — the guy who can make the connection you need.
And his show is a window into what's happening at MIT. Bonsen buttonholes people he runs into on campus and books them on the show. He's had as guests ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, a member of MIT's board of directors; Jonathan Goldstein of the venture capital firm TA Associates; and, Gus Rancatore, the proprietor of Toscanini's Ice Cream, which Bonsen regards as an important meeting place for budding inventors and entrepreneurs.
At 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday late last month, Bonsen was using The Field as his green room. ("High-Tech Fever" airs live at 6, and is rebroadcast throughout the week.) His guest was Christopher Turner, an MIT grad and a cofounder of Granite Peak Technology, a research and development shop that works primarily on medical devices.
Bonsen was wearing khakis, a black T-shirt, hiking sneakers, and a black fleece jacket with an MIT $50K logo on it. Sitting beneath a Guinness poster, Bonsen got Turner ready for the interview.
"Imagine yourself a decade ago," he said. "What advice would you give people? And try to be as specific as you can. Often, on shows about entrepreneurship, the answers are too vague to be useful, like, `It's important to have a good founding team."'
As 6 p.m. approached, Bonsen and Turner finished off their pints and headed across the street to the studio, where they got situated behind the desk. A technician came in to adjust the camera, which was mounted on an aluminum pole. Below it was a television monitor, and next to it was a small digital clock, the kind you'd see on a bedside table. The background was a black curtain with lettering that read "Be Live!"
From a glass-windowed booth next door, the technician gave Bonsen a silent countdown: five, four, three, two, one. Bonsen addressed the camera: "Welcome to High-Tech Fever, the show that interviews inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, and other key players in the greater Cambridge technology venture zone. I'm your host, Joost Bonsen." (His first name is pronounced "Yost," to rhyme with "toast.")
For the next half hour, uninterrupted by commercials, Bonsen led Turner through a conversation about his education at MIT; his involvement in research at the Media Lab that led to the founding of E Ink, a start-up that is trying to develop electronic paper; and the part-time job he landed as a student, with NeuroMetrix, a medical devices company that started off trying to devise a noninvasive blood sugar test for diabetics but ended up, circuitously, with a system to help diagnose carpal tunnel disorder.
"What the company found was that it needed a product that it could get to market more quickly," Turner explained. Bonsen asked him about the challenges of getting doctors to adopt the carpal tunnel device.
"Doctors look at new technologies as interesting," Turner said, "but they wait for someone else to try them out."
Turner also talked about some of the projects Granite Peak hopes to work on — like developing "active fabrics" that would be able to measure the wearer's vital signs — and how Shai Gozani, the founder of NeuroMetrix and a former professor of his at MIT, encouraged him to peel off and start Granite Peak, using space at NeuroMetrix's Waltham office.
Some guests bring prototypes for show-and-tell. David Levy, a former Apple Computer researcher and the founder of Digit Wireless, discussed several iterations of his thinking about how to integrate a full alphanumeric keyboard into a cellphone, and addressed the difficulties of negotiating with big companies like Ericsson and the cost disadvantages of manufacturing high-tech products in the United States.
Others provide helpful advice about financing a first company.
"Make sure that you ask [friends and family members] for a sizable chunk of money," said Asheesh Advani, the founder of Cambridge-based CircleLending. "It's not worth the time dealing with a lot of $1,000 investments. It creates too much emotional stress for what it's worth."
Bonsen says he has two reasons for doing the show, which he took over in 1999 from James Currier, the Harvard MBA student who started it, when Currier left to start an Internet company.
Reason number one is that "I want to have a conversation with these people," Bonsen says. "It gives me a chance to touch base with folks, and find out about the stuff they're working on, and see how it progresses over time."
Reason number two is that Bonsen believes his guests "have something to say that I think is of relevance to the broader Cambridge community, because these are people who invent new things that benefit humanity." Up this Wednesday is Bill Warner, the founder of Avid Technology and Wildfire Communications, and the mind behind FutureBoston.org.
It's too bad that the broadcast media in Boston don't dedicate more air time to those who are working on "new things that benefit humanity." Unfortunately, only about 24,000 people in Cambridge can see "High-Tech Fever."
While I'm a big fan of reality shows, I also think it's important to show younger generations that there are ways to get ahead in the world that don't involve eating live maggots on "Fear Factor" or vying for an attractive and wealthy "Bachelor."
What Bonsen's doing is swell. But isn't there some way to get more models of successful entrepreneurs and inventors onto the airwaves?
Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company magazines. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org