Is it too late for Middle America?

Is it too late for Middle America?

For the past 18 months, I’ve been giving Steve Case’s book, Rise of the Rest out to future and current clients. Mr. Case is best known as the founder of AOL but in years past has continued to provide his view into the technology industry’s crystal ball. There are few I trust more to weigh in on incoming technological waves. You can imagine that as his book title attests, his belief is that the middle part of the country, long overshadowed by the invention, innovation, and entrepreneurialism on the East and West coasts, will soon come into its own. And as you also might imagine, I not only drank the Rise of the Rest Kool-Aid but dunked my head in for a nice long soak. Lately, however, I’ve started to ask some questions—mostly around geographically and cultural readiness.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been fortunate to have visited with folks in a number of markets—each with its own personality, history, and agenda: Ann Arbor, MI; Kenosha, WI; San Antonio, TX; Cambridge, MA; Dallas, Waco, TX; Nashville, TN; Chicago, Lincoln, NE; St. Louis, MO; Detroit, MI; Denver, CO; Milwaukee, WI; San Francisco, Portland, Austin, just to name a few.

It’s solidified my belief that there are Tech 1.0 cities and Tech 2.0 cities. In later posts, we’ll talk through some identifying characteristics of each but namely, my concern is for that of 1.0 markets in the middle part of the country.

Granted, my Middle American experience as it relates to readiness has been mixed. I would say that roughly half of those in Middle America has been open, ready for change and hungry to not only compete but transform. But the curiosity and my concern come from the other half that is not. Folks in the center part of the country pride themselves on being risk-averse, careful and slow to embrace change. There doesn’t seem to be a desire to not only get caught up on what the global economy has accomplished in the last twenty years but to surpass it and prepare for the future.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the opposite of the characteristics required to lead innovation economies.

But here is the true problem: as communities discern whether or not it makes sense to jump on the innovation bandwagon, other cities, including those on both coasts, are readying to double down on investment. The more advanced markets (i.e., Boston) have made those commitments already.

If 2.0 markets, in realizing the benefits of innovation-driven activity, are doubling down to compete on a whole new level, and the U.S. continues to see the rise in urbanization (younger populations leaving rural areas to seek opportunities in urban markets), what will this mean for communities still on the fence about positioning their markets?

I am compassionate for these communities. I often joke that they are “my people” having been raised in a very rural area of Illinois. There is nothing more powerful than the drive to help your tribe.

However, I’ve also come to realize that a certain minimal amount of courage is required to jump out of your comfort zone. Time will be our truth-teller in this case but may we see more and more Middle American communities using their courageous selves to indicate that they are ready to change. The future of their economies depends on it.

Continued Investment

Continued Investment

A last-minute trip to Cambridge last week turned out to be eye-opening. Over the past year, Waymaker’s focus has been on serving markets in the middle part of the U.S. But, I’m discovering, even the most advanced markets need support too. Hosted by @BioLabs, led by good friend and colleague @Joan Siefert Rose, the experience was an ironic reminder by one of the most revered life sciences markets in the country. A wake up call that even the most mature ecosystems make continued investments in their own development—even when you suspect they could evolve organically.

It was beyond refreshing to be dropped into an environment where investors & entrepreneurs led with a desire to “have an impact on human health” and “develop a solution that will have an impact on society”. It was also refreshing to know that the principles for building a successful life sciences company have stayed the same—despite the tumultuous environment the industry has had to endure over the last decade. More on that topic soon…Thank you Joan & co. for providing a much-needed breath of fresh air. Witnessing Cambridge’s investment in growth & continued learning, all while still endeavoring to save the world, are principles all markets regardless of region could stand to be inspired by.

Innovation and Invention

Innovation and Invention

For the last few months, I’ve been in Milwaukee diving deeper into the economic potential of the Midwest. I left with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement, specifically with regards to the amount of invention and innovation coming from the region already. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio all came in higher than anticipated in patent and research and development spending. Steve Case recently bragged that about 20% of all new patents in America are currently coming from the Midwestern states. While we are seeing an impressive amount of innovation and invention already, the missing link to accelerate their economic growth is going to be a doubling down on the commercialization of these inventions.

Often I’ve found that in discussing startup culture, innovation, invention, etc., there is confusion between the varying elements required to fuel a healthy system. While we can be proud and excited that the Midwest fares well in the creation of new solutions and products, we’ll need to do a stronger job of distinguishing between the creative IP process and the culture and expertise required to commercialize inventions in the marketplace. I’ve met with numerous industry leaders this past week in Milwaukee who are ready to capitalize on the tech boom that is happening in other parts of the country. The good news is that the innovation and invention is already booming in the Midwest. As I see it, in order for successful commercialization to occur, the next big step is for industry and government leaders to shift culturally towards fostering robust startup activity. The punch line to this story is that while patent and research and development activity are high in the Midwest, most cities in the five states I mentioned rank in the bottom quartile of the Kauffman Index. Cities in these promising states will not only have to shift culture, but very seriously consider importing the entrepreneurial talent they need to shift into innovation economy gear.