Forging Innovation

Catalyzing economic development in Pittsburgh through collaborative discussion and emergent thought.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thinktank in Pittsburgh

I recently found out about this company from Madison's blog. The folks at Thinktank have come up with a pretty interesting business that enables cash-strapped innovators to take advantage of a communal work space and shared resources. This could lead to some interesting things. Very cool. Best of luck guys!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Building Awareness

Hooman points out some of the wonderful highlights that our community has to offer. These, among many others, make this a great place to live. Still, we hear complaints about the business environment on a regular basis. I helped survey the entrepreneurial community regarding the business environment last year. We asked about 30 entrepreneurs what they liked and disliked about the region and what they needed more of to be successful. Interestingly, there was no one consistent complaint. Some complained about a lack of capital. Others about a lack of experienced leadership. Yet others complained about a lack of local customers willing to buy their product. All of these complaints ring true to some extent, but it dawned on me that perhaps our biggest problem is a lack of awareness of what resources are already here. For each of these problems you can point to multiple companies that have successfully overcome them without leaving the region. Without a doubt we need to improve in all of these areas, among many others, but let's be sure we're leveraging all of the resources we already have. Pittsburgh is chock full of great companies and people who work tirelessly but don't publicize themselves very well, if at all. Many of these companies are well-known in their industry or niche. They spend their precious marketing dollars targeting high-value prospects, not educating the masses about their existence. We can't expect them to spend their valuable time doing press releases about how much they're doing for our community, but there they are, creating jobs and adding value to customers day in and day out. It's up to us to seek them out and to learn about those areas that are of greatest interest to us. Unfortunately, learning about what's here is often harder than just a quck Google search, although you can find a lot that way. Many resources are only available through networks of people. Some might call this the "old boys network", and that network certainly runs deep in Pittsburgh. I'd claim that the network is open to anyone willing to make the effort to get tied into it. Mark Desantis recently wrote the following article that helps differentiate those who are in the network from those who aren't: It's up to each one of us to get into the network and find out what's going on. Only through personal interaction will we achieve the kind of collaboration and innovation that will drive our region forward in an accellerated fashion. So, get out there and find out what's going on and how you can help others!

Some interesting resources we have in our community that folks may not be aware of or not taking advantage of adequately include:
  • Angel investors and the networks that bring them ideas
    • Blue Tree Investors
    • AGT
    • Smithfield Trust
    • SPAN
  • Networks and networking events
If you have found sources of capital or expertise that people may not be aware of, I invite you to share them here. See you at the events!


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pittsburgh Positives!

As promised, I am going to try to run through the brighter side of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has so many great qualities. There are so many, in fact, that I cannot list them all. I will try to list a couple though. I will probably take a more sophisticated stab at this later. Let me know what you think. Not bad though, eh?

- Nationally leading research institutions (Carnegie Mellon, Pitt)
- Recognized college town (CMU, Pitt, Duquesne, Chatham, Carlow, W&J, etc)
- Recognized center for the arts (Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Museum, Warhol)
- #1 Ranked City that Rocks by Esquire for emerging music
- Home to one of the best health care systems in the world (UPMC)
- #1 Ranked Baseball Park according to Readers Digest
- Home of 4 time superbowl, 5 time division NFL champion Steelers
- 7th best city to "Live and Play" by Men's Journal
- 7 Fortune 500 company headquarters
- Concentration of affluent individuals/families (Hillman, Mellon, Heinz, Scaife)
- History of innovation (Mellon, Carnegie, Westinghouse, Rockwell, Schwab)
- Big city ameneties, small-town values
- Low cost of living
- Fantastic airport
- Beautiful skyline
- Stong non-profit foundations to promote the region
- Strong manufacturing industry

Ed Engler Joins Forging Innovation

Ed Engler, a regular commenter on the Forging Innovation site, has joined the contributor team. We figured since Ed contributes such wonderful comments so regularly, why not just let him post directly to the site! As founder and CEO of Summa Technologies, Ed is a recognized leader in the entrepreneurial community and should have some fantastic things to say.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mudslinging in Pittsburgh

As an active member of the community, I make it a point to follow the news associated with state-funded, economic development organizations such as Idea Foundry, Innovation Works, Allegheny Conference, Pittsburgh Technology Council, etc.

Recently, there has been a lot of noise around the community about the progress that is being made by those organizations. Some of these organizations, like the Allegheny Conference, have received more attention than others. One side of the camp argues that organizations such as the Allegheny Conference serve no purpose. Their efforts ultimately are a waste of money and may even be deleterious to the general growth of the economy. On the other side of the camp, there are those individuals and organizations that staunchly defend these organizations. These folks claim that our economic development organizations have made massive progress and are leading us towards a brighter future. Who do we believe?

I don't really care. Why? Because it doesn't matter. Regardless of how we got here, we are here now. Let's do something about it. It is essential that we stop the mudslinging, stop pointing fingers, and start to work together as a community. There is no right, or wrong side. These organizations have done good things for the city. Whether they can do better, or not--that is another question. In my humble opinion, they most certainly can. You can always do better. In this particular case, it is clear that they not only have to do better, but have no choice in the matter if our region is to move forward.

Ultimately, however, critics of the economic development community are right on one thing. Our goal as a city should be to eliminate economic development organizations. These organizations were ostensibly formed to foster an environment of self-sustaining growth. If they are effective in achieving their goals, we should have an economy so vibrant that their presence is no longer required. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ok, we have problems--What do we do?

I will be the first to admit that I am not the only person in Southwestern PA that recognizes we have some serious economic challenges to address--fast. I will also go so far as to say that there is a select group of folks that actually have uncovered the same systemic problems that are the root of our troubles. Some of these problems include our social network structure, culture of incrementalism, and inefficient innovation architecture.

That's great. We all know we have problems. What the heck do we do about it? People always ask me if I had to pick one thing for our community to go after, what would it be? Would I invest in a particular sector like en silico biology, semiconductors, or robotics? Would I create an investment arm to funnel risk capital into new businesses? Would I create an organization to facilitate programs to help educate and network the local corporate community?

If I had to bet on anything, I would put my money into transforming Pittsburgh into a hot-spot for collaborative research between the government, private sector, and academic community. Why? I thought you would never ask. Pittsburgh's greatest strength is its world-class research institutions. Hundreds of millions of dollars are invested each year at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt to produce cutting-edge technology and life sciences research. Creating a collaborative research park will leverage these existing strengths and address the systemic problems in our regional infrastructure, while creating a self-sustaining mechanism to fuel economic growth.

Why would companies participate? It is simple. Universities invest millions to conduct exploratory research that most private sector companies cannot justify investing in alone. This structure would provide companies a simple way to leverage university innovation with minimal risk through the establishment of a research facility in a low-cost city. We could bolster private sector incentive to pursue this unique opportunity with government tax breaks and subsidies. Carnegie Mellon has started the process with their Collaborative Innovation Center. Technology super-powers Intel and Apple have already set up shop. More could follow, if we just stay the course.

This park will have immediate impact on job creation. Just look at how many jobs were created by Seagate coming to Pittsburgh. Imagine how many more jobs could be created if we manage to bring in other world-class technology firms. A collaborative research park will serve to foster cross-sector social ties by putting together folks from variety of communities. Academics, business professionals, financiers, and lawyers will all be connected in order to facilitate the transactions necessary to create and support this initiative. This dense network will provide the essential vehicle to transition the inevitable flood of innovation from concept to commercialization. As rates of innovation increase, it stands to reason that we will see an influx of investor dollars from outside the region intended to capitalize upon new technologies. Capital always flows towards opportunities with the highest return. Wealth creation associated with commercialization will have a positive feedback effect and fuel further development. Service providers will have incentive to set up shop in the region to facilitate the growing business community.

This initiative will also have a profound effect on the culture. Research and university settings tend to be youth-centric. Initially, the best and brightest engineers and scientists will have opportunities to stay after finishing school. As more businesses are attracted to the area such as consultancies and other service providers, students in other disciplines will also have access to the lucrative opportunities available in high-profile cities like New York and Boston. It goes without saying that an increased youth population will not only enliven the region with an infusion of talent, but also with some fresh ideas.

In short, this is a great goal to shoot for. It is not a panacea, however. We still have to work to create a unified economic development community and single brand for our region. Transportation issues remain problematic. Our city and county government need to be streamlined. Universities need to actively work with the private sector and government to shape policies that will increase the rates of commercialization. Bottom line, however, is that this type of move would definitely be a step in the right direction. Regardless of what course our leaders choose, it is essential that they commit to a common vision and economize in mass to achieve it. Stay tuned. I will post more about this and other ideas in the near future.