Innovation

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.

Innovation First

Recently, I was emailing with a friend of mine who lives in Cheyenne, WY. We’ve been following an initiative of the Governor of Wyoming for economic development in the state. In December, the recommendations came out. “Rick,” I wrote. “This is great! They included some entrepreneurship strategies.” “I don’t agree,” he wrote back. “There’s nothing on innovation.” At first, I was taken aback. After all, the recommendations were pretty standard stuff. But then, I realized that Rick was 100% completely right.

We tend to focus on entrepreneurship, and sometimes R&D, but rarely on innovation in our public policy recommendations. And, innovation is actually the critical step. It’s the link between ideas and the market. It’s the key piece that allows companies, big and small, old or new, to produce something meaningful for their customers. Without innovation, there’d be no entrepreneurs! So innovation has to come first.

From a policy perspective, what can be done to support innovation? First, we can educate. Everyone can learn to be more innovative. It’s a process. There’s a system. Second, we can incentivize companies to do innovation. One effective tool is R&D tax credits, but likely they need to be redefined to include all innovation activities, not the old style R&D alone. Other tools include grants and loans to support innovation learning and implementation, grants and technical assistance for patenting, and for market research.

Thanks Rick, for the insight.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship go Mainstream

I recently had the occasion to review all the regional and statewide economic development plans, public and private, written for Maine in the last five years. The good news is that all of the plans identified some of the same challenges and opportunities for the state, and many agreed on the broad outlines of work to be done. For instance, nearly everyone now sees the demographic tsunami coming at us in the dual guises of an aging population and decreasing workforce. Another universal theme is the dearth of high-speed internet services, especially in rural areas.

For me, the shock was the also universal call for increased entrepreneurship and innovation. I wasn’t shocked at its inclusion: I’ve been calling for the same thing for literally decades. What was shocking was that these ideas are now mainstream. Unfortunately, the action and implementation plans associated with this goal are still weak and nebulous, leaving a lot to be desired.

Perhaps the reason for this is that it’s difficult to know exactly what to do, especially in rural areas, where entrepreneurs and innovators are far apart, and not particularly visible. I’m hosting a panel at the International Business Innovation Association (iNBIA) conference in late March to learn from people that are implementing programs to support entrepreneurs in innovation hubs in rural areas. As a group, the panelists seem undeterred by rural challenges. Just Do It seems to be their motto – maybe it’s time for Maine to do the same.

Unfortunately, the state budget currently being debated is looking in another direction. The Governor and his staff zeroed out funding for the state’s incubators, a grand savings of $170,000. We’re working on getting this put back or moved over to MTI who has the funds to support entrepreneurship programs. More later!

Needed: A New Approach to Economic Development

Do you think it’s a coincidence that there’s a 1:1 correlation between states that rank in the bottom 50 percentile on the New Economy and states that voted for Trump? I don’t. It makes sense that the populist fervor is coming from places that feel left behind in our decades-long transition to the New Economy. I’m convinced, however, that neither of the current political narratives will turn things around. Neither small government and lower taxes, nor increased distribution of wealth will help.

What’s needed is a third approach—one that focuses on spurring innovation, boosting productivity and improving global competitiveness. We need to ensure that our workforce has the education and skills to have a place at the table – meaning STEM education, retraining AND importing workers from away to shore up places with diminishing populations. And it means a concerted investment in broadband infrastructure and R&D focused on value-added agriculture and aquaculture, and energy production.

For a detailed look at this strategy, visit the website for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading US Science and tech policy think tank, led by Rob Atkinson. http://www.itif.org.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are core beliefs

I’ll admit it. I’m not a happy camper. I went to bed on election night with the realization that Trump was going to win, and when I woke up in the morning, it wasn’t just a bad dream. You can count me among the 64 million Americans who voted for a different outcome.

But, in my lifetime, I’ve been on the losing side about the same number of times as on the winning side, and somehow the country has survived, although I agree, this one feels different. I saw Senator Elizabeth Warren on television a few days after the election and she made sense to me. She suggested that we work with the President-Elect where his policies support things we think are important, and fight hard when they don’t. Isn’t that what we’ve always done? We all have core beliefs that we don’t compromise on. For me, that starts with basic human rights.

To that, I add the belief that innovation and creativity are the key underlying ingredients to our economy, and that can create prosperity for all of our neighbors, not just the elites. This means that we need to figure out how to make sure that we don’t just applaud new ideas, but also be mindful of how new ideas can leave people behind, and how to help those harmed by “creative destruction.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t partisan issues usually, but reasonable folks seem to disagree on how governments should best encourage them — invest or stay out of the way seem to be the two choices. The book The Entrepreneurial State, reviewed below, attacks this paradigm straight on, and debunks this myth, recounting in great detail the government investments behind most of the major innovations of our time, including the Internet and the iPhone. However, red tape does seem to be strangling many small businesses, and access to capital is more difficult now than ever before, largely due to banking regulations.

Let’s hope that supporting entrepreneurs is important enough for a bipartisan effort to unleash the economy in rural America, at the same time making transitions easier for those currently employed in jobs that are changing or going away.

The Genie Is Not Going Back in the Bottle

I used to think that innovation was a non-partisan issue. After all, who can argue with economic growth? Turns out, lots of people. Recently, I’ve seen a spate of articles that are saying that it’s innovation that has left so many Americans behind; that productivity gains have been at the expense of the workers. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this.

True, a manufacturing plant with a lot of robots needs less manual laborers, and has replaced workers who performed repetitive, predictable jobs with machines. However, new jobs have been created for folks who can program the robots, maintain them, and create new products that weren’t possible before. And, the new jobs pay better, are less hazardous, and are less likely to be mechanized or outsourced.

However, some individuals cannot or have chosen not to make the transition from one job to another. We’re hearing a lot of frustration from this camp in this election cycle, with anger directed outward.

It’s true that all change creates winners and losers. As a country, we’ve sometimes helped individuals and communities affected by change, such as assistance for places affected by military base closures or by foreign competition (e.g. Pittsburgh steel industry). At other times, we invoke Horatio Alger and say, “It’s your problem.”

I don’t think that we’re going to put the genie back in the bottle. Innovation is here to stay. So the challenge in front of us is to provide the opportunity for everyone to participate in the upside, even if that means a lot of retraining and investment.