Monday, June 28, 2010

Support Pittsburgh's Innovation Economy

Governments at all scales are in a fiscal crisis. That doesn't mean all expenditures should be slashed. Why gut a program that creates businesses and jobs? I'm passing along a call from the Pittsburgh Technology Council to support the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority.

Ben Franklin funds Pittsburgh-based Innovation Works, an incubator that helps to bring local ideas to market. In today's New York Times, Innovation Works is celebrated as an excellent example of how universities can be leveraged to grow regional innovation clusters:

And in Pittsburgh, a state-financed nonprofit group, Innovation Works, has invested $45 million over the last decade to help the area’s university researchers — and anyone else — prove their ideas and showcase them with investors. The companies have attracted more than $800 million in venture capital and have gone on to create 3,000 local jobs, says Matt Harbaugh, the chief investment officer of Innovation Works.

One company, Bossa Nova Robotics, is made up of Carnegie Mellon robotics researchers who had a commercial hit last year with a pair of toy robots, the Prime-8 gorilla and Penbo, a penguin.

Look around the country. Such a glowing review is the exception, not the rule. From the same article:

Toby E. Stuart, a Harvard Business School professor who researches social networks and entrepreneurship, noted that virtually every government wants to replicate Silicon Valley’s university-driven system of innovation.

“But you can’t engineer it through policy means,” he says.

He thinks proof-of-concept centers would be more useful at universities other than the likes of M.I.T., Stanford and Harvard, which are already hubs in entrepreneurial clusters.

“But in any significant way, it will happen organically,” he says, “and not through some bureaucratic intervention.”

Pittsburgh is fortunate to have Innovation Works. Other regions wish to mimic its success. Yet Pennsylvania would starve the program of funding. Toby Stuart suggests that Pittsburgh is one of the few places where such an initiative is working. Killing an effective public investment to balance the budget will do much more harm than good.

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