Innovation

The Older I Get, the Less I Know

I’ve built my innovation career on a number of basic principles, primary among them that new knowledge drives economic growth (and that economic growth is a good thing). My worldview is that new jobs will be created, as they have been for centuries, with the development of new technologies. I’m holding tight to that point of view, but it’s fair to say that many folks are having second thoughts. There are a substantial number of observers of current trends in artificial intelligence and bioscience who now believe that billions of people will become unemployed and unemployable. They are advocating for guaranteed income and other similar measures.

Another basic question that came up this month is about which entrepreneurs should be supported by public programs. I’ve always advocated for high-growth, traded sector companies, rather than generic “small business.” But I’ve recently changed my mind. We’re not so great at figuring out who will become high-growth, nor which sectors could transform from locally-serving to traded. Think about the craft beer revolution for a moment. It started out as entrepreneurs who just wanted to make small-batch beers for their local communities. Now, it’s broadening to a national movement where these beers are exported, where supply chains are kickstarting innovations in local farms and where the effect on sectors other than beverages is significant.

A more important question is What if this fixation on “high-growth” is really just a smokescreen for supporting entrepreneurs who look like us? Entrepreneurs come in many sizes and colors, and prejudging that a minority-owned or woman-owned business is “just a lifestyle business,” for instance, means that lots of opportunities are left on the table. I’m trying to come to grips with how my perspective has been shaped by my own (admittedly elitist) experiences (white, privileged, Harvard-educated) and to make room for alternative explanations that also support the facts of the matter.

How about you? What do you think?

Free 3-part Video Series on Innovation-Based Economic Development

In the almost thirty years that I’ve been involved with innovation-based economic development, the field has continually gotten broader and more sophisticated. In the beginning, we focused on growing research and development in our states. Other organizations had the lead in supporting entrepreneurs. Few organizations thought about industry clusters, culture or workforce. Capital was always a concern, but very few organizations had their own funds to invest.

Today, all of these are part of innovation-based economic development, and many organizations, at the state, regional and local levels, are involved in all of them. It makes for a complex field, especially for those who come to it from other endeavors.

How does a person who is new to the field get up to speed? There are great conferences, usually once a year. A few training classes exist, if you have a week of free time and the budget to travel out of state. Or, you can go online.

This week, we are launching a free series of 3 online videos to help people get up to speed in innovation-based economic development. These videos answer questions we get asked all the time, and will enable you to make some first-level progress on bring innovation and entrepreneurship strategies to your community. We hope you will join us! Sign up here to get all 3 videos delivered to your inbox starting June 5! Click HERE.

Innovation Isn’t Only for High-tech Businesses

In Maine, the legislature is currently debating slowing or eliminating an increase in the minimum wage enacted last year after a citizen initiative passed. Small businesses came to Augusta to argue that they couldn’t raise their prices, and so the increase in their labor costs was too high.

For small businesses who sell products based on price alone, it’s probably true that raising prices isn’t possible. But why don’t these businesses try to offer new products or services that aren’t commodities? Why don’t they try innovation as a strategy? It may be that many small businesses think innovation is only something that high-tech companies can do. Here are some examples, all small Maine companies, that prove them wrong:

Gelato Fiasco, a small business based in Brunswick, ME, wanted to enter the crowded ice cream business. But, instead of making ice cream like everyone else, they decided to make gelato, an Italian type of ice cream. By being different, they were able to gain a large following. Today, Gelato Fiasco’s Brunswick store is still crowded on summer evenings, but their product is also sold in grocery stores nationally.

Sea Bags, based on the waterfront in Portland, ME, makes tote bags. You’d think that tote bags are all the same. But Sea Bags decided to make theirs out of old sails. So, not only are they a sustainable business, using recycled materials, but their bags are very different – each one is unique, depending on the sail it was made from. By the way, they aren’t cheap! But, by being unique, Sea Bags has earned their price point. Sea Bags has grown to have 19 retail outlets and sells online as well as to corporate clients.

What’s more a commodity item than compost? Coast of Maine, based in Washington County, ME, made compost into a higher priced, designed product, by incorporating locally sourced materials such as shellfish (lobster & crab shells), salmon, wild blueberries, and cow manure. Additional local ingredients include: tree bark, worm castings, and seaweed. Coast of Maine distributes organic retail bagged goods to independent garden centers along the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and parts of the Mid-West.

Luke’s Lobsters is another innovation story. It seems like almost everyone in Maine sells lobster rolls. Luke and his brothers saw a unique opportunity – sell lobster rolls where people least expect them to be! His first food truck in the Lower East Side in Manhattan was wildly successful. Now, they are in multiple locations in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and soon, back home in Portland. To make this happen, they have had to be innovative about their supply chain and distribution network.

Innovation is new ideas, products, processes, business models that get implemented, that come to market. And, innovation can be defined, to quote Doug Hall, as something that is “meaningfully unique,” something that your customers would be willing to pay more for! When you uncover a need that potential customers have, and you meet that need in a way that is important to them, they will generally pay more for it! If something is really unique, versus being more of the same, you will generate new revenues, either from your normal customers or from new ones.

Are you interested in learning about innovation and entrepreneurship-focused economic development? Get started with this complementary pdf. https://pages.convertkit.com/d33a2124c1/13b87cf746

Are Rural Economies Terminal?

In December, the New York Times published an article about rural America that painted a bleak picture of declining populations, declining employment, increasing opioid addiction and death. The article suggested that the decline is inevitable and perhaps irreversible. “This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are,” said the authors.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I think the rumors of the death of rural economies are greatly exaggerated. It is undoubtedly true that some small communities are vanishing, having to close their schools due to lack of enrollment, and eventually losing their post offices, local governments and local businesses. And, I have met folks from across the country who are proud that they have fought off any development efforts from anyone with outside capital.

On the other hand, all across this country, I’ve visited (and lived in) small towns from Maine to Indiana to Virginia to Colorado to New Mexico that are flourishing. Sometimes the ones that are flourishing are just miles away from those that aren’t, providing a natural experiment to determine what makes a difference and what works. There are quite a few commonalities among the towns that are doing well.

One that stands out is that these thriving places have high-speed internet service and reliable cell service. What seemed like a “nice to have” only twenty years ago is absolutely a baseline requirement these days to attract and retain citizens and businesses.

Another commonality is what some people call “place-making.” Most of these towns have invested in themselves. They spruced up downtowns with new sidewalks and street lights. They helped landlords repair and enhance storefront facades. They supported the real estate investors who come in and rehabilitated signature, historical buildings, like old textile mills in New England, tobacco warehouses in North Carolina, Victorian-era houses in Colorado mining towns and adobe buildings in New Mexico. Most of all, these towns celebrate their history, rather than tear it all down.

A third commonality is civic engagement. In many of these places, a major anchor entity –Colby College in Waterville, ME; Corning Glass in Corning, NY; the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, IN – makes a commitment that goes beyond enlightened self-interest and starts to invest in the community and takes a leadership role, bringing others along with them. Often, these moments of civic engagement occur because of a crisis, or a generational change in leadership – a base closure; a weather-related disaster like a flood or tornado; a major plant closing. Smart leaders know the value of a good crisis – it’s a window of opportunity when resistance to change is lowest, and the willingness to try something new is highest.

But the most important thing that all of these thriving small towns have is an entrepreneurial spirit. There are entrepreneurs who are thriving in Maine’s small towns and in small towns across the country. In these places, you will meet intrepid entrepreneurs who have seen a need and created a product to meet it.

  • Joshua Davis and Bruno Tropeano, two recent college graduates, decided it was too bad that they couldn’t get gelato in Brunswick, ME. So, they opened their flagship store, Gelato Fiasco, on Maine Street in 2007. Today, their gelato is distributed nationwide.
  • Shannon Kinney, Founder of Dream Local Digital in Rockland, ME, came home after years of traveling and working with large corporate clients. She started an internet marketing agency in 2009 and had grown to nearly 40 employees, supporting clients all over the US and in Maine too.
  • Hannah Kubiak started Sea Bags on the Portland, ME waterfront fourteen years ago. When Beth Shissler learned about the company in 2006 and joined in, a dynamic entrepreneurial team was born. Sea Bags makes custom, fashionable tote bags and other accessories out of used sails. Now with eighteen company retail locations, a corporate sales arm and distribution in specialty stores nationwide, this company leads the way in sustainability, and is bringing back traditional textile work.

Visit most any small town with a thriving downtown, and you are highly likely to find a great coffee shop that’s locally owned, a co-working space or a maker’s space, restaurants serving food from India, Thailand, and Greece, as well as locally sourced, farm-to-table meals with micro-brewed beer. Talk to folks in these places and you will probably meet young, well-educated people, who have moved home with their families because it’s affordable, they can find interesting work, and be part of a community. No, these rural places aren’t dead, not by a long shot.

Are you ready to learn more about innovation and entrepreneurship-focused economic development? Get started with this complementary pdf.

Nostalgia for the “Old Days” is Misplaced

A recent op-ed written by a local economic developer about the rural economy in Maine generated a lot of comments showing clearly the live wire he touched. Leaving aside the usual name-calling and insults that unfortunately inhabit most comment sections, several points of view emerged. One was the idea that if people don’t find opportunity where they live, they should move elsewhere. Another was that we should revive the traditional ways of making a living (i.e., forest products, fishing, agriculture) and embrace them. A third was that reliable cell service and high-speed internet offer people a way to make a living where they are. Perhaps all of these things are valid to some extent.

What many of the comment writers, and indeed, the author of the piece all have in common is nostalgia for the “old days” when the rural economy was strong, when young people didn’t leave to move to the “big city” and when you didn’t need a college education to make enough money to raise a family. A great narrative to be sure, but there’s a problem. These “old days” never existed. Whether you go back a generation to the 1950s or to the start of the last century, rural communities have always been characterized by hard work and marginal living. Young people have always heard the lure of anywhere but where they grew up. And more education has always been correlated with higher incomes.

Like it or not, shift happens. Economies change. Places change. People (sometimes) change. For rural economies today, this means that new technologies are changing and potentially reviving traditional ways of making a living. Whether this is the advent of aquaculture or bio-based products made from wood pulp, or the use of sensors and drones in agriculture, nothing stays the same for long. The race is won when people, and their leaders, see the opportunities ahead and seize them.

Are you ready to learn more about innovation and entrepreneurship-focused economic development? Get started with this complementary pdf. https://pages.convertkit.com/d33a2124c1/13b87cf746

Erick James Innovation Award

Yesterday, at the 6th annual Innovation Engineering Conference, I was touched to be included in a group of IE pioneers to be awarded the Erick James Innovation Award. Erick was a truly amazing innovator who passed away a number of years ago after a horrific car accident. Erick was one of those guys who was absolutely fearless when it came to innovation. No idea was too crazy to say out loud. No test was too difficult to try. No obstacle was too much to overcome.

I remember being on a team with him at a learning session. The goal was to create new ideas for a guitar maker. We came up with the idea of a guitar that would change its sound based on the type of music you were playing. The wild part was the prototype that Erick constructed in about five minutes to demonstrate the idea. He cobbled together his iPad, some cardboard for the neck of the guitar, and programmed the iPad to play different genres of music. It got the idea across and the client loved it! Most of the rest of us (including me) would have been fearful of showing the idea that way. Erick was triumphant instead.

IE teaches that meaningfully unique ideas, the big ones, come from stimulus (new information), leveraged by diversity, and undeterred by fear. Erick embodied that ideal, and taught us all so much. We miss him terribly.

Celebrating Success

Amazing! The Portland Press Herald, our local newspaper, actually had an editorial this week that said that innovation and entrepreneurship was the key to economic growth in Maine! Now this isn’t a radical statement at all. What’s amazing is to hear this nuanced statement from the media! The PPH was writing about a local company, Howe and Howe, this is being bought by a large conglomerate, Textron. Howe and Howe is a defense contractor that has developed several innovative projects, like a remote controlled tank, based on government-funded R&D. The company is 13 years old, and has grown organically to 50 employees, a success story by any standards.

Two things surprised me about the editorial. One, the paper didn’t call this a small business. Rather, they did distinguish between Main Street businesses and an innovation-based business like Howe and Howe. Second, they didn’t cry about this exit taking money out of Maine. Many local companies get acquired by large companies from “away;” (there aren’t very many large companies that aren’t from “away.”) And, when local entrepreneurs have their success validated and monetized, they and their workers have the opportunity to reinvest in the local economy, whether the company stays local or not. In most cases, the companies do stay local because the quality of Maine workers and the cost of doing business here are both very competitive.

All of this points to the great value of local success stories. They inspire local entrepreneurs, and also put a place on the map in the broader context. So congrats to Howe and Howe and the many other Maine entrepreneurs who have had exits this year.

A Clear and Compelling Vision for Economic Growth

You can tell from the nearly constant attack ads on television during the evening news that we’re in the middle of at least two contentious campaigns this fall here in Maine: one for Governor and one for the 2nd Congressional District, where a Republican Congressman is trying to keep his seat. Both races are very close. However, in all the noise, one thing is startlingly missing: a clean and compelling vision for how to improve Maine’s economic prospects. This is because the choices continue to be framed as less taxes and regulation for business against more rights and benefits for workers.

I recently reread Rob Atkinson and Stephen Ezell’s 2012 book, Innovation Economics, which reminded me that the answer is something completely different from this false paradigm. There are only three ways to get an economy to grow: increase productivity, create new firms or add activities that create new value. You increase productivity by increasing the revenue of each employee: improve processes, add technology to increase output, or add new products and services. Similarly, new firms or activities that create new value boost economic activity overall. Atkinson and Ezell say there are three things that build vibrant, healthy business establishments in globally traded sectors in order to improve economies: business leaders who will take risks, do research and development or create new products, and add new plant and equipment; workforce that supports these changes instead of being afraid of new technology; and government that supports investing in the future.

There are bright lights in many of the communities where I work, where entrepreneurs are taking risks, where business leaders recognize the need to invest in creativity and where civic leaders are adopting innovation and entrepreneurship as guiding principles for their cities, towns and states. Here’s hoping that grassroots change will save the day.

Don’t Fall in Love with your First Idea

I have had the great privilege of working with an entrepreneur since February as a mentor in Maine Center for Entrepreneurship’s Top Gun accelerator program. We were part of the first ever aquaculture cohort, in cooperation with Focus Maine, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and CEI.

The entrepreneur and I worked on customer discovery during the 16-week period, and by the end, we thought we had come up with a great idea that really addressed an important problem in aquaculture. Imagine our surprise when he pitched the whole idea at one of the sessions and the feedback was, “We don’t get it. What problem?”

Our first reaction was annoyance, and denial, but then we thought, “We’re not telling the story well enough.” We went back to the source (customers!) and refined our problem statement. In fact, we uncovered a much bigger and more important problem, one that meshed even better with our idea.

When the entrepreneur pitched at the regional pitch-off, the final version with this bigger and “badder” problem statement was well received, and he is continuing to have productive and impactful conversations with potential backers using the pitch deck we worked on.

Lesson learned: Keep digging. Keep asking questions, especially of potential customers. Don’t fall in love with your first idea, a better one may be just around the corner.

Maine’s Innovation Progress (or lack thereof)

Our new study, Maine Knowledge Economy: A Snapshot of 2017 shows an increase in the relative importance of the state’s technology sectors, but also a corresponding lack of progress in the state’s economic competitiveness overall. All of the seven targeted technology sectors designated back in 1999 except forestry, exceeded Maine’s economy as a whole over the last decade. As predicted, those sectors with high science and engineering content, even those with a natural resources connection such as agriculture and aquaculture, have thrived.

On the other hand, when compared to the other New England states, this growth is not as robust. Maine continues to lag in the percentage of firms and employment that are “high technology” compared to our neighbors. The percentage of our jobs that are science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), is lower than our neighbors, contributing to our lower per capita income.

Explanations for this lagging growth include the low level of investment in research and development, both at our academic institutions and in our businesses, with resulting lower patenting, venture capital and SBIR awards. While our rate of business formations is reasonably consistent with our neighbors, many of these new businesses in Maine are in non-technology sectors such as real estate, construction and hospitality.

The growth of some of the technology sectors with high employment, such as Information Technology and Engineering Services, is constrained by the lack of qualified workers: the level of working age adults, 25-44, with Bachelor’s degrees is lower in Maine than in the rest of the region, although there is some progress here. Almost 35% of degrees in Maine are in STEM fields, approximately the same as in MA.

Given that Maine has had a strategy to improve many of these indicators dating back over 20 years, the continuation of past trends is discouraging. And, it begs the questions, is it time for a different strategy? Or, is it simply that past public investments are been too low and erratic to be effective.

The answer is probably yes to both questions. Looking at the national landscape (and, indeed, some international models), those states and regions that have improved their competitiveness in the Innovation Economy are largely places that have invested heavily in research and development, entrepreneurial support, access to capital and workforce preparedness. Examples include Washington, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, Utah, Connecticut, all in the top 10 states according to the 2017 New Economy Index. Laggard states, without significant state investment in innovation, include all but two of the bottom ten states. (Maine is number 36 of 50 on this list, down from rankings in the high 20s for most of the past twenty years.)

However, another critical difference between the successful state initiatives and Maine’s effort is how the money is spent. At some point, Maine policy makers started equating investment in research and development with investment in buildings where research and development occurs. And, because getting bonds approved in the legislature and through the public approval process is easier than identifying new money in the biennial budget, and bond money is constrained in its use to capital investments, over the years one-third of the $715 million of public investment went towards buildings. In contrast, only one percent went to the entrepreneurial support organizations that directly work with startup companies. The only program dedicated to encouraging businesses to patent was completely defunded a number of years ago. In contrast, most other states have significant investments focused on startups, and commercializing the research coming out of their universities.

What would I do? Here’s several thoughts:

1. Continue to fund the Maine Economic Improvement Fund. This is critical to keeping our level of research and development at UMaine high. Expansion would encourage other campuses, notably USM, to do more research, an effort that has been abandoned in recent years. Add $1 million/year to fund earmarked for patenting support statewide, to be provided by UMaine Orono to other schools as well.
2. Dramatically increase the funding available for entrepreneurship programs, up from $100,000 to $750,000. Use this funding to deepen the capacity of existing programs to serve more entrepreneurs across the state.
3. Rework or replace the existing R&D tax credit so that more companies in Maine can take advantage of this incentive. Expand the amounts available (by corresponding decreases in Pine Tree Zone, BETR and BETE programs), to get companies to increase their focus on innovation and bringing new products and services to market.
4. Support Maine Technology Institute at their current level, but use some existing funds for program equivalent of old Maine Patent Program.
5. Help companies scale-up past the startup phase by establishing funding (at MTI or FAME) for businesses to apply for substantial loans for purchase of equipment, training for workers, patenting, and marketing to expand product and service offerings.