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Remarks to University of Virginia: i6 Announcement

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks to University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia

Thank you, President Sullivan and Acting Assistant Secretary Erskine.  It’s great to be here with faculty and students at one of America’s top public universities.

In my travels, I have had the chance to visit labs, research centers, and tech transfer programs at a number of universities. Having also spent a good part of my life at academic institutions, I’ve seen first-hand that research universities have a way of sparking new ideas among both faculty and students, which they can then test and refine. 

In many cases, those new ideas, combined with a bit of entrepreneurship, can generate new businesses and new jobs. 

Right now, it’s particularly important to find ways to help new ideas grow and to help entrepreneurs launch new products and new startups that could change the world. 

But let me back up for a second. Remember where we were a short time ago:

  • In the fall of 2008, our economy was spiraling downward. Both the stock market and the housing market plunged;
  • We were losing 750,000 jobs a month; and
  • Americans were rightly concerned that we could be heading into a second Depression. 

But due to the actions of this administration—the Recovery Act, the bailout of our auto companies, and other tough decisions that President Obama made—along with the hard work and resilience of our private sector, we’ve now had 30 straight months of job growth totaling 4.6 million jobs, including more than 130,000 right here in Virginia.

Nobody thinks our economy is back where it should be.  Growth has been steady, but slow.  Unemployment has dropped but it is still too high.   

So job creation remains our top priority.  And entrepreneurs and innovators are key, not only to new start-ups and near-term job growth, but also to assuring that American businesses remain competitive and lead the global economy in the decades ahead.

In fact, a number of economic studies suggest that innovation—new products and new processes—accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic growth since World War II. Innovation drives increases in productivity and rising incomes.

So entrepreneurship and innovation is what today is all about.

Today, through the Economic Development Administration’s i6 program at the Commerce Department, we’re announcing $7 million in new awards for what are called Proof of Concept Centers. 

These centers will help provide the tools and the support entrepreneurs and researchers need to take their product to market, to launch businesses, to drive innovation, and to create jobs.

From a diverse pool of about 80 applicants around the U.S., we selected seven organizations that had strong potential to foster ecosystems of entrepreneurship and innovation. 

Today, I’m very pleased to announce that one of those awards—$1 million—will be going to the Virginia Innovation Partnership. 

This Partnership includes UVA and Virginia Tech, as well as SRI International, a nonprofit research institute. 

Together, these organizations will create a stronger network among Virginia’s researchers, entrepreneurs, investors and corporate leaders, as well as economic development groups and business incubators.

This project will link innovators to mentors and investors who can help them move ideas from lab to market. This includes front-end help with product design and leveraging new technologies, as well as help in scaling products and services in order to make them commercially viable and put them out into the marketplace.

Importantly, the Virginia Innovation Partnership is expected to create thousands of jobs over the coming years with the help of this investment.

Today, we’re also announcing support for six other proof-of-concept centers—in California, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Some of them, like this one, will be focused on supporting a variety of projects across many industries, while others will be targeted specifically to certain fields—everything from advanced batteries to agriculture-related technology.

The common thread is that we’re investing in local people and local organizations who know their communities best. They know how to maximize and leverage the impact of these federal dollars better than we do in Washington.

And the message we’re sending with today’s announcement is simple:

  • Let’s encourage Americans who want to take risks with game-changing new ideas;
  • Let’s speed that innovation into the marketplace; and 
  • Let’s empower the next generation of job creators in places like Virginia.

These grants are only one step in our efforts to drive U.S. innovation and competitiveness in the decade ahead. I’ll give four quick examples of additional efforts in which this administration is engaged.

  • First, the president is working to reverse the erosion we’ve seen since 1980 in federal support for basic research and development. His goal is to double federal dollars in R&D over a five-year period, and we’ve made a good start on that.
  • Second, we just announced the pilot for the president’s proposed National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. This brings together universities, manufacturers, and others to help speed the tech transfer process in cutting-edge fields. We need Congress to step up and provide full support for this Network.
  • Third, we are modernizing and expanding our patent system because we know that patents are the fuel for innovation. We need to make it easier for folks such as those here in the UVA community to get patents so that they can, in turn, attract funding and launch a startup.
  • And fourth, we need to help more students—especially women and minorities—find the path to degrees in science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM fields that are central to many fields of innovation. And, as the president has said, foreign students who get STEM degrees at places like UVA should be able to stay in the U.S. and start or join an American company that drives innovation.

At the Department of Commerce and throughout the administration, we will continue to make investments that support American ingenuity and innovation.

After all, it is American entrepreneurs—and the products they create and the new businesses they build—who are will ensure that our economy is truly built to last.

If we want to remain the world economic leader, we can and must out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete the rest of the world.

I look forward to hearing about the new products, businesses, and success stories that will flow out of UVA and the Virginia Innovation Partnership. This is an important example of what we need to do across the nation.

Thank you and again congratulations to the Virginia Innovation Partnership.

Now, I’d like to invite the winning team up to the stage to join President Sullivan, Acting Assistant Secretary Erskine and me for a photo.

  • Dr. Tom Skalak, UVA’s Vice President for Research
  • Mark Crowell, the Executive Director of UVA Innovation
  • Dr. Krishna Kodukula, SRI’s Executive Director for its Center for Advanced Drug Research
  • And I should note that Dr. Roop Mahajan sends his regards. He’s Virginia Tech’s Director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and the Hester Chair in Engineering.