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Boston and New York have same tech startup problem

January 30, 2013: 2:03 PM ET

arod_varitekThe quarterly Boston vs. New York funding debate misses the bigger point.

FORTUNE -- There has been lots of talk in recent years about the venture capital battle between Massachusetts and New York, with both states fighting to be the distant second to California. Massachusetts has the historical advantage, but New York has gained ground thanks to some built-in advantages (Madison Ave. in an age of ad-tech), the advent of cloud computing (Manhattan real estate is more affordable when you don't need space to house servers) and the financial crisis (lots of available engineers with strong security backgrounds).

In fact, New York-based tech startups last year raised $1.67 billion in VC funding, compared to $1.4 billion by Massachusetts tech companies. If other sectors are included, then Massachusetts has the edge by a $3 billion to $1.85 billion margin.

But what the Massachusetts and New York venture capital markets have in common is far more important than the couple hundred millions of dollars that may separate them on a given year: Each is still waiting for a massive technology hit.

To be clear, both cities have had plenty of successful VC-backed tech companies. Plenty of IPOs and notable acquisitions. But neither has created a $5 billion-plus independent tech company in the past decade. And this matters, because those types of successful anchors are what help spawn future tech companies, thus helping the ecosystem build upon itself. Wealthy employees become angel investors. Other employees, buoyed by past success, feel more emboldened to strike out on their own. Local students are more likely to stick around post-graduation, knowing there is an employer that would look good on their early resume.

In Massachusetts, this generation's lack of a new tech giant has been grating. Sure we have stalwarts like EMC (EMC) and the Route 128 legacy, but none of that really speaks to the current generation of entrepreneurs. Facebook (FB) would have done the trick, but then Mark Zuckerburg dropped out of Harvard. Massachusetts currently has just four VC-backed tech companies that have gone public over the past decade, and which currently are valued at more than $1 billion -- the largest being IPG Photonics (IPGP) with a $3.4 billion market cap.

In New York, the record has actually been worse. The state currently has just three VC-backed tech companies that have gone public within the past decade, and which are now valued at more than $1 billion: DealerTrack Technologies (TRAK), MarketAxess Holdings (MKTX) and Medidata Solutions (MDSO). But none of them are valued in excess of $2 billion, and that includes another company -- RiskMetrics -- that went public but later got acquired for $1.8 billion.

In fact, the closest example to a New York anchor would probably be DoubleClick, although its sale to Google (GOOG) is now more than four years old. That example came from Brad Keywell, the Groupon co-founder whose venture firm, Lightbank, is opening a satellite office in New York:

"I think having a massive hit is a galvanizing force. New York had one years ago with DoubleClick, judging by the number of people in today's Internet and ad-tech worlds that came out of there. Kind of like what the West Coast has with PayPal. I believe, at some point, New York will have another – judging by the amount of start-up activity now there."

Hopefully Keywell is correct. And hopefully there is another one around the corner in Massachusetts as well. Or perhaps something huge will spring up from the engineering offices that companies like Google and Microsoft (MSFT) have opened in both states.

In the meantime, both markets keep floating around -- occasionally surpassing the other. No real anchor to help keep one in the permanent lead.

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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