Last evening, some of the largest players in the local innovation community, including Sycamore Networks founder Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, Flybridge Capital Partners General Partner Michael Greeley and Ken Morse, co-founder of 3Com Corporation, gathered at UMass Boston’s Venture Development Center (VDC) to celebrate the launch of MassChallenge. This new not-for-profit organization aims to provide a platform for early-stage entrepreneurs seeking to start-up a venture in Massachusetts. Winners will receive mentorship and seed funding through a $25 million business plan competition. The first competition is slated for 2010.

The program could create up to 150 jobs per year — five jobs for each of the 30 winners. But the state’s economic development chief, Greg Bialecki, said there’s a bigger prize, that of showcasing the state as having an environment that is supportive of entrepreneurship. The networking and mentoring that happens in California does not seem to be so naturally happening here. Last month Governor Patrick announced financial support.

The founders of MassChallenge, Akhil Nigam, John Harthorne and David Constantine, said they view UMass Boston and VDC as a critical cornerstone in helping build their vision into reality. “We are excited about the opportunity to work together to solidify Massachusetts’ pre-eminent position at the convergence of cutting-edge research and ground-breaking commercialization.”

Harthorne is a recent MIT Sloan School MBA who founded the organization with former Bain consultant Nigam and former medical device entrepreneur Constantine. Each left their jobs for their new initiative. The reception drew seventy-five individuals and honored those who signed up to match the state government’s stake with a contribution of at least $100,000.

The event was sponsored by Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center. WPI President Dennis Berkey and reps from Boston University and Babson College also attended.

Chancellor Keith Motley welcomed the guests to campus, followed by UMass President Jack Wilson, who remarked that with 60,00 students and over $450 million in research, UMass ought to be able get a big company “popped out” of the university. Microsoft’s Sara Spalding followed by underscoring that Microsoft is pleased to support MassChallenge.

Microsoft in a sense is a local start-up. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started the business in Paul’s apartment near Fresh Pond. But it had to travel west to be with its first customer. And that seems to be the challenge for Massachusetts.

Undaunted, Nigam, Harthorne and Constantine told us after the event that “speaking with the pre-eminent leaders in attendance yesterday bolstered our enthusiasm for our initiative, further convincing us that this is the perfect time to catalyze a startup renaissance.” We are with you all the way! – WJB