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Innovation in Austin, TX: EDA Investments Help Create Jobs and Industries of the Future

Matt Erskine, Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, touring the Austin Technology Incubator

By Matt Erskine, Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development

There is a lot of talk about innovation today, and how it can be leveraged to promote economic and job growth. In Austin, Texas, it’s more than just talk. Throughout the region, businesses are developing cutting-edge technologies, commercializing them, and—with the help of research parks, incubators, and other business support facilities—creating jobs.

Last week, I was in Austin to tour recent Obama administration EDA investments. Grants to the Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas, the Science, Technology, and Advanced Research (STAR) Park, and the Pecan Street Consortium are helping to spur high-tech commercialization and business development.

These investments are addressing two major issues for the Austin region - the creation of the next-generation smart grid technology infrastructure and the shortage of wet labs - to help create the jobs and industries of the future.

EDA’s investment with the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) at the University of Texas to conduct a wet-lab feasibility study provides a great resource that will increase capacity and access for entrepreneurs, innovators, and small businesses. The study, completed early this year, describes best practices culled from existing wet-lab facilities and identifies potential sites for a new wet lab. The key finding is that market demand in the Austin region for wet-lab space is great. The economic impact of such a facility operating at capacity includes $40–$110 million in additional earnings and 275 to 400 direct, and 415 to 1,095 indirect, jobs.

This fall, Texas State University will hold the groundbreaking for the Science, Technology, and Advanced Research (STAR) Park in San Marcos. The research park, which will provide wet labs, is expected to become an economic engine for the region. EDA’s funding to the STAR Park will help build this state-of-the-art research facility to serve as a technology accelerator for startups and early-stage businesses.

The Pecan Street Project at the University of Texas at Austin is quite compelling, and EDA is proud to have provided the initial seed funding that served as a catalyst to attract additional investment from the private sector and a major grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The initiative is fueling business development in technology and assessing customer behavior surrounding advanced energy management systems (such as smart appliances, solar panels, advanced thermostats, etc.). In the past two years, Pecan Street has outfitted 200 homes with solar panels and supported the purchase or lease of 100 Chevy Volts by local residents. Companies—including General Electric, Intel, Dell, Best Buy, Sony, and Whirlpool—are using the Pecan Street Project to test new products that rely on the smart grid.

An important partner in this effort is the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), which is monitoring energy usage to help stabilize the grid and identify opportunities to reduce the region’s carbon footprint. TACC hosts, analyzes, and visualizes home data from the Pecan Street Demonstration.

These projects are promoting American innovation and are the kind of efforts that illustrate President Obama’s vision for an economy built to last.

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Next-Generation Grid Infrastructure

A potential problem with EDA investment in innovation is that it may be only chasing previous government policy. For example, the creation of next-generation smart grid technology may not be quite so smart if based on current technoloy that would become stranded costs in a properly structured free market. This free market would follow upon deregulation and with the replacement of the subsidy of inefficient central-station generation with carbon taxes and uranium royalties.