Monday, May 21, 2007

NSF Grant / IT, Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Lansing town hall aims to create 'innovation economy'

Nearly 100 people gathered Friday at the Lansing Center for a town hall meeting of the Mid-Michigan Innovation Team.

The MMIT is a $15 million, three-year initiative funded by the United State Department of Labor's Workforce Innovations in Regional Economic Development initiative.

The WIRED initiative focuses on regions, within and across states -- communities willing to join forces for a critical mass of assets and institutions to make economic transformation possible.

In the MMIT's case, that means a 13-county region that includes the metropolitan areas of Lansing, Flint, Bay City, Midland, Saginaw and Michigan's Thumb region.

Organizers say the region is big enough to have major assets, such as international airports and universities, and diverse enough to include manufacturing, technology, agriculture and tourism economies.

But it's linked in many cases by an intensely local, small-town focus -- small towns that under the grant will be encouraged to align resources and commitments for regional benefit.

Your humble narrator played a role in the festivities, speaking about some of the innovative companies he visited during the recent Great Lakes IT Report Spring Tech Tour, and offering a few unsolicited opinions on the state of innovation in mid-Michigan.

But the real meat of the program came from Randall Kempner, vice presidnt for regional innovation at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C.

Kempner presented the results of a Mid-Michigan Regional Innovation Assessment, a survey of the region's current capacity for economic innovation.

The survey showed entrepreneurial strengths in transportation infrastructure -- good highways, low commute times, three good airports.

Also, regional leaders said the region's universities and community colleges were really good at working with employers.

And the cost of doing business isn't out of line -- it's 97 percent of the national average in Flint and Lansing, 99 percent in Saginaw and 101 percent in Bay City.

Also, Michigan public school students beat the national averages in ACT and SAT testing, and all but three of teh 13 counties involved have high school graduation rates above the national average.

The challenges -- and we've heard 'em before! -- are workforce educational development, a lack of an entrepreneurial culture and a lack of risk capital.

In short, it's a big company mentality. It's been common across the country in many places, Kempner said -- from Rochester, N.Y. where everyone used to work for Kodak, and Wilmington, Del., where everyone used to work for DuPont.

"Without intervention, it will take at least a generation to change this (big company) mentality," Kempner said. "So your challenge is -- intervene! You have to keep telling kids their future is in IT, not a lifetime job in an auto plant. And the auto plant jobs that will remain are not dark, dirty and dumb -- they are it jobs too."

Kempner said he did see hopeful signs, like angel investor groups springing up, entrepreneurship training programs emerging and a new culture in K-12 education.

And he said there also needs to be more regional cooperation. The little three-county regions of which the MMIT is comprised -- the three counties around Lansing, the three counties around Midland, Bay City and Saginaw, the three counties of the Thumb -- "are not big enough to win in the global economy. You don’t have enough assets on your own," Kempner said.

The town hall concluded with breakout sessions on the four economic areas identified in the MMIT implementation plan -- advanced manufacturing, the bio-economy, health care and entrepreneurship -- and a presentation on automotive information from David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

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