Why Universities Matter

Empirically, regions with universities grow faster than those without, and in smaller places, the university’s role is even more important. Universities “heavily influence the ability of regions to attract and retain technology-intensive firms, to provide the regional labor force with modern knowledge skills, and to respond flexibly to…. economic circumstances.”
University research spurs the creation of new firms and thus affects regional employment. Research partnerships with universities expand and complement the absorptive capacity of the firms, increasing their innovation and competitiveness.
For regions to be competitive,
“The key event is the creation of an entrepreneurial university, whether from an existing academic base or a new foundation, which takes initiatives together with government and industry to create a support structure for firm formation and regional growth.”
The entrepreneurial university is characterized by a focus on industry-partnerships, technology transfer of research discoveries to interested and capable industry partners, including startups, support for entrepreneurs, whether students, faculty, or community-based, and support for the ecosystem, often in the form of research parks, incubators, and other capital-intensive infrastructure.
University spin-offs are an important part of the picture since they provide innovative products, new jobs, induce corporate investment in university R&D and have highly localized impacts. Eighty percent of spin-offs operate in the same state as their host institution. However, technology transfer efforts such as these are most effective if they are located within a strong innovation ecosystem and when university reward systems are aligned with desired outcomes.
There is also rising interest in entrepreneurship among students. Increasingly, campuses are involved with supporting entrepreneurs, including student-led companies as well as those from the community. Universities that support entrepreneurs and new businesses, including those generated both on and off campus, also support a flexible and creative workforce, and can significantly leverage economic revitalization. Indeed, students with entrepreneurial skills and knowledge are themselves a valuable output of any university.
The role of a university in its community seems to have changed along with many other institutions in our society. The ivory tower image of a university with a sole focus on teaching and research has given way to an understanding that universities are important place-based assets that can help a region be competitive in a knowledge-based economy. The linear science-push model has given way to a more nuanced and complex understanding of entwined interests among universities, industry and government, and a new contract has arisen, one that suggests than in return for public funds, universities must address their “users” – society and the economy – and be more accountable.
For a recent project, we looked at how high performing regions organize themselves to support innovation and entrepreneurship, especially the interactions between the anchor innovation assets like universities and the surrounding business community.
We learned:
• The places studied that are doing better seem to have accomplished an integrated approach to economic development that embraces traditional business attraction as well as innovation and entrepreneurship support, workforce development, and place-making. Transportation, excellence in K-12, arts and culture all play a part in the approach.
• For many universities, moving from a model of teaching, research and service to one that more explicitly includes economic development is a long-term evolution. Each of the universities highlighted was in some stage of this evolution, with most having significant research, technology transfer, entrepreneurial support, and research commercialization activities.
• The places studied vary in the tightness of the connection between the university and local/regional economic development, with most having a greater relationship in the university’s home community and diminishing impact in rural communities farther away.
• The areas vary considerably in their attention to the issue of inclusion, with two explicitly and prominently seeking to extend economic prosperity to all of its citizens, regardless of their location (urban and rural), and actively seeking ways to connect the poorest to better jobs, higher skills and more supportive neighborhoods.
• Two of the places studied have made significant investments in broadband, and two have focused on air service, both essential infrastructure for a knowledge-based or creative economy.

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5 Ways to Get to Successful Implementation

We’re all familiar with strategic plans that gather dust on a shelf (or these days, never even get printed out). What’s the difference between plans that get implemented and those that don’t? Plans that get implemented are designed to be executed. Here are five steps to successful implementation:

1. Get the do-ers involved in the planning. While many of us think we know the answer before we start the planning process, both the process and the execution will be stronger with broader involvement throughout. This is because diversity of thoughts and experiences held by the various stakeholders will improve the ideas themselves, but also because of the “Ikea Effect” – people are attached to things they help build.
2. Test the ideas during the planning process. Just because a strategy works somewhere else or just sounds good doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your community. Test the ideas – hold a public hearing on proposed strategies; conduct a survey on social media; run a pilot program. All of these are designed to learn about concerns, unintended consequences, and alternative approaches. Don’t take forever to test, and learn from the results, by improving the strategies and tactics based on the input received.
3. Measure, measure, measure. Include metrics along with your plans, so you will be able to demonstrate progress and identify problems towards implementation. Commit to and provide resources for regular measurement of key metrics, and report to your stakeholders on progress. Use this process to surface issues, concerns, or opportunities for improvement.
4. Have a System! Good planning should be a process, not an event. It should be part and parcel of how you operate your organization. Make annual reviews of the environment you are in a part of your work and implement annual planning retreats with your Board. Collect data and review progress on the plan and prioritize next steps at least quarterly. Encourage staff and stakeholders to stay alert to and share changes in your competitive landscape, best practices and emerging opportunities.
5. Treat the plan as a living document. Make improvements to the tactics along the way. Take advantage of new opportunities that arise. Adjust to changing circumstances, technologies, and challenges. Build into the plan a way to get approval and buy-in to major shifts and retain the flexibility to do what seems right.

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Science and Technology Got It Right

In the past week, we’ve seen the awesome potential of nature with a solar eclipse and now a historic flooding event. Here in Brunswick, we also had the Blue Angels flying overhead at the Air Show on the weekend. The former two events were predicted by science; the latter is enabled by technology (and some incredibly skilled pilots). So, it’s cool to believe in science and technology right now, after a period where many felt under siege.

One of my cousins (a Texan, by the way), informed me earlier this month that climate change was real, but there was no evidence that humans caused it. For the sake of peace in the family, I didn’t quote him chapter and verse of the evidence that has lead 98% of scientists to disagree with him. “Scientists can be wrong,” he said. But guess what. They’re much more often right. That’s the whole point of the scientific method and peer review – to keep getting better at our understanding of what’s going on around us.

While we support our fellow citizens in Texas in their time of need (and try to forget that Texans legislators voted against support for the victims of Hurricane Sandy), let’s also hope for renewed belief in the importance of science and technology.

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Chville on my mind

It so happens that I’m in Charlottesville, VA today, just a few days after the horrific violence here, and the same day as the memorial service for Heather Heyers, the woman who was run down by an alt-right protester. The mood down here on the Downtown Mall is somber. Lots of people are wearing purple, Heather’s favorite color. There are flowers in profusion at the spot where she died; and signs in most every store window: “heart” Heather and “heart” Chville.

The good news seems to be that this event has once again brought people together in a common vision of what’s morally right and wrong. It’s too bad, however, that we can’t seem to remember these lessons collectively for very long, as we also seem incapable of addressing the issues that lead people to the conclusion that hate is the only solution to their problems.

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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!

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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.

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The worst mistake ever: running economic development like a business

“I’m a smart guy (or gal). I can figure this out.” I heard this all summer as we recruited for the Executive Director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development. We’re seeing it now in the appointees to President-elect Trump’s cabinet. We’ve seen it for years in economic development, especially the appointment of successful entrepreneurs or venture capitalists to run incubators and other entrepreneurial support programs. The assumption that many people make is that being good in business is the same as being good in government.

I argue that business acumen is necessary, but not sufficient for economic development. The skills sets required to get anything done in government are in fact extremely different from business; Phillip Joyce’s recent commentary in Governing lists the ways:

• In government, we need to be accountable to the public interest. There is no equivalent in business.
• Private sector focuses on profitability, while government is about the achievement of specific outcomes.
• Compromise is fundamental to success in the public sector.
• Government must constantly confront competing values; efficiency isn’t the only one.
• Government has a short time horizon, usually two years (due to the election cycle).
• Government actions take place in public, with scrutiny from the press and the public.

To this list, I would add that the operations of economic development organizations also require a firm grasp of macroeconomics, fiscal and tax policy. Specialized entities like incubators and accelerators also have a well-defined set of best practices. While there is always room for innovation, there is no excuse for starting from scratch, recreating the wheel or whatever metaphor you like. And the lessons learned in a single business or startup may not extend to a broad range of startups.

So, if you want to get something done in a public sector setting, I recommend getting someone with experience in both the public and private sectors. Been there, done that, got the tee shirt.

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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.

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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.

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Time to Get Rid of the Bushel

I recently had the good fortune to achieve recognition in one of my hobbies, and I shared the news with a few friends and family, starting with the statement, “Sorry to brag…” My brother-in-law, Thomas, wrote back, “Never be afraid to state the truth!” Out loud I thanked him, but inside I was thinking, “Well, more proof he wasn’t brought up in New England!” I was taught that it is rude to talk about your accomplishments, because they are only evidence of the gifts and opportunities you have that others don’t, rather than of any work on your part.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who “hides their light under a bushel.” It seems that a lot of us don’t want folks to know that we’re doing well. We also don’t want folks to know when we’re not doing well, when we have failed.

I encountered this feeling recently helping a client with a strategic planning exercise. We were using Innovation EngineeringTM tools and techniques, including those often summarized as “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap.” The senior manager said, “I don’t want to fail at all.” I totally got it. He’s new in his position, and doesn’t want to stumble.

I explained what “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap” really means. It means working through issues and challenges one piece at a time, by trying one approach, measuring the results, and using that knowledge to try another approach. Each cycle is a learning cycle. Learning cycles are usually not in public, but done with your team. So, if you have an idea for a new product, the first learning cycle might be to find out if the technology you need is already available, and could be licensed. If the answer is yes, then the next cycle is to call the person who owns the technology and learn more. If the answer is no, that’s not a failure, it’s just new information.

On the other hand, a friend of mine is in the process of closing down a promising entrepreneurial enterprise that he’s been working on for several years. I know he thinks this is a failure, because he’s been blogging about it. But I’m also impressed by how he’s taking the experience as an opportunity for growth and learning…it’s not an indictment of his worth as a human being at all.

Long story short, both accomplishment and failure are part of an ongoing learning exercise called life. Time to get rid of the bushel.

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