[This article appeared in the November 26, 2010 Triangle Business Journal]

Fiscal growth starts with local needs

Can North Carolina compete in the world market if our state government and its surrogates continue to ignore fresh expertise within our own borders?

More and more there seems to be a drive to compete and position certain areas of our state as economic infrastructure bases – promoting concepts such as regional innovation clusters – where the effort to tap the local talent is conspicuously absent or restricted to established industry insiders and other firmly entrenched companies.

When will the politics of protection give rise to the recognition that today’s fresh local talent may be tomorrow’s sought-after international experts? Working with international companies and with emerging U.S. companies that are leading the way into fuel cell technologies, engineering, nanotechnology, and even manufacturing, it is readily apparent that regional and national prejudices do come into play more and more within the U.S. infrastructure. What our government and quasi-government nonprofits (those funded purely from state and federal dollars) are unable to see or recognize is that homegrown talent is the foundation for regional growth. Small businesses, niche businesses, and those with broader expertise and experience need to be brought into the “prestige” circle.

In the past few years, many regional initiatives have been started to build the infrastructure and support systems for incubating industries and/or technologies. What these initiatives have lacked to date, is a new way of doing business. Instead of creating new business models and innovating the content, delivery and players, these initiatives have amounted to a rearrangement of the “way we’ve been doing it.”

If you have ever attempted to build a 3-D puzzle, you know that you are not only trying to put together a picture, but create depth and construct something that can be viewed from every direction…and identified properly. If you were building a 3-D cube, you could find the corners, you could find the edge pieces, and eventually the field of each side. But you cannot take a one corner and force it to fit in another, or put the field pieces together randomly and expect to have the puzzle work. This unfortunately is the story for most, if not all, regional innovation clusters. They begin to resemble more of an impressionist vision of a cube, than valid representation of a 3-D business model.

Government, universities, nonprofits, and private sector have their roles. So far, few of them are fitting their particular puzzle pieces into a new implementation and innovation model that will have meaningful and significant impact on the technology, industry, economy, or jobs. Too bad, as the amount of investment to date and planned is substantial and could have a real impact not only in the long run, but today when it is most needed.

Every day that passes without impactful investment and development of local talent and expertise – and the usage of that talent – to jump-start and energize the development of U.S. based businesses, is a day that the economic growth and welfare of the nation is further undermined by the loss of organizations and technologies that fall under the lack of funding and infrastructure support. While education programs and networking events are important in the development of companies, what is critical is that actionable, relevant access to talent needed for successful commercialization is facilitated. The focus on the prestigious or international image of an innovation cluster is less important to a company seeking funding to compete and survive if it does not enable his/her business.

Image is everything for the politicians and leadership of the clusters. For the businesses seeking support, infrastructure and access, these forums to date have been decidedly lacking in direct funding and access to capital and customers. It is much like handing a “prestigious” award to a business in the morning, while the banker turns his funding request down at noon, and the tax collector comes at the end of the day expecting the government’s share of “earnings”. An award does not pay the bills. An award doesn’t close a deal. An award is a dust collector, a doorstop, or at best a momentary “great” before you get back to paying the bills.

Do we measure the success of innovation clusters on visibility? On what event they can get that lasts a day or a week? Or do we measure success on the true results – how many viable, ongoing businesses are being grown and supported? What is the economic return that is being generated on the investment – now? What will it look like tomorrow and in five years will it be positioned to go toe to toe with the competition or will they have innovated their business and competitive models to leave our “innovation” clusters behind?

Copyright © 2010 F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.

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