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The Importance of Culture, Partnerships, and Perspective in Regional Economic Development

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Guest blog post by Paul J. Corson, Deputy Director of the U.S. Commerce Department Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Recently, as part of our ongoing series of public conference calls with members of the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE), we spoke with Dr. Christina Gabriel, president of the University Energy Partnership, a nonprofit organization that was founded jointly in 2010 by five major research universities in the Pittsburgh area, and Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan. Dr. Gabriel and Dr. Coleman, who both play leading roles in regional-based economic development in promoting the commercialization of research, stressed similar themes, including the importance of culture, partnerships, and perspective in regional economic development.

During her call on May 22, Dr. Gabriel emphasized the importance of leveraging local strengths. She noted that while foundations historically have embodied a regional perspective when it comes to economic development, many universities have only recently begun to do so. Universities possess very rich and diverse strengths that are best leveraged by applying them to difficult problems in collaborative efforts. For example, the University Energy Partnership was set up to leverage broad research efforts and applied technology developments in the energy space that has been developed over many years—not just in the Pittsburgh region, but throughout the four neighboring states.

In order to achieve success in regional cooperatives, Dr. Gabriel recommended that institutions focus on what their region is good at, and to build around that. She cautioned against blindly following the latest fad and hiring consultants to try and steal companies from other regions. By focusing on regional strengths, she said, even regions that have fewer resources—including those that have lost human and industry resources—can slow, and even reverse, these declines.

In a written follow-up to her call, Dr. Gabriel offered additional thoughts on participating in i6 Challenge-style grant competitions. She encouraged applicants to know their audience, its objectives, and its culture. Grant applicants should demonstrate how their proposal will achieve the agency’s goals and contribute to national priorities. Over the longer term, Dr. Gabriel encouraged organizations to participate in the collaborative process by which funding programs are designed. This will result, she said, not only in better relationships, but will improve the quality of the programs and solicitations themselves.

Dr. Gabriel stressed that program officials want to get to know the community and develop the most effective funding strategies based on bottom-up ideas, needs, cultures, and perspectives. Organizations with funds to grant or invest are looking for innovative organizations that have, or can develop, partnerships and possess an understanding of what needs to be done.

In her remarks on the NACIE conference call held May 24, Dr. Coleman discussed evolving efforts to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan and throughout the region as a whole. She noted that when she first arrived at the University of Michigan 10 years ago, the university embodied the characteristics of a typical research institution: it was great at generating ideas, but failed to get substantial numbers of those ideas into the marketplace.

To address this challenge, Dr. Coleman pushed for the development and adoption of new policies to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among faculty members. These policies led to an increased interest among students, who began pushing for more assistance, courses, and incubation space for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Today, the University of Michigan excels at providing support services, space, and curriculum for entrepreneurship and innovation at all its colleges. Of paramount importance, Dr. Coleman noted, is the university’s attempt to provide a safe environment for students to try and even fail, which is often an important learning experience.

For educational institutions that do not have the resources of an institution like the University of Michigan, Dr. Coleman recommended that they first assemble a group of willing faculty members and encourage them to start putting ideas on the table about curriculum development, incubation space, and other tools to create a safe environment for entrepreneurship. She emphasized that a lot can be done at very low cost, and that once good ideas are developed and implemented, “the money will come.”

Dr. Coleman echoed Dr. Gabriel’s advice that it is important, when applying to government agencies for funds, to understand the agencies’ different missions and to engage them over the long term to understand their cultures and develop the right perspectives.

Like Dr. Gabriel, Dr. Coleman also recommended cooperating and coordinating with other regional institutions. For example, she noted that 15 universities in Michigan had negotiated and utilized a master agreement when interacting with Procter & Gamble. This cooperation can reduce the time it takes to get technologies into the market while ensuring that all parties to an agreement have their internal needs met. She encouraged those interested in learning more to contact the University of Michigan’s Business Engagement Center, whose staff would be happy to share their experiences and assist others along this path.

To learn about upcoming conference calls in this series and to register to participate, please click here.

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