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.

 

 

 

The Methodology – Every City is a Tech City

The Methodology – Every City is a Tech City

After many years working with industry leaders as the CEO of the Austin Technology Council, it is clear to me we are living in a new era of economic development and city growth. We are living in the era of innovation. The traditional methods of how we study and measure city growth and development are based on industrial economies, not innovation economies. In order to truly understand and quantify tech’s impact on a city, we must evolve our practices and develop new and creative ways to look at economic and urban development. Based on my research, every city exists as a tech city already. Furthermore, every company – regardless of industry – is a tech company as well.

So what do I mean by, “every city is a tech city?” The impact of technology on our everyday lives is undeniable. From phones that are more than just phones, to smart thermostats and connected health trackers, it’s clear that technology is woven through every fabric of our society, so seamlessly these days, that we sometimes don’t even realize it. When I started at the Austin Technology Council (ATC) back in 2008, I was told Austin was not a tech city. A government city or university city, yes, obviously, but not a tech city. The truth is, the tech industry was already present and booming in Austin at that time. Together with key Austin influencers, we spent years developing an updated methodology that leveraged data, galvanized key influencers and better aligned resources — for an innovation economy — not an industrial one. We challenged traditional practices and old definitions and used new ways to count the same data. Most importantly, we leveraged the new practices to begin a new narrative within the market, and to shift the city’s understanding of who it was.

What we see today is an acceleration of the lines blurring between industries. Manufacturing companies and tech companies are no longer separated as they were in pre-internet days. Take for example, the seamless transition of Under Armour’s core product line of athletic undergarments to connected device and health trackers. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and others like him are realizing the enormous potential of doing business in this new era of the innovation economy. Every company, regardless of industry, is a tech company. That is, if they choose to see the opportunities and the inevitability of technology and innovation.

So what happens when we start including tech in the economic equation in cities and regions previously thought to not be “tech cities.” As was the case in Austin, a significant cultural shift from how we identified the city and the core industries contributing to the city’s growth occurred. Subsequently, the economic growth of the city went from stagnant to accelerated in pretty short order. This cultural shift is the first step in welcoming that exponential growth. The second is remembering who you are. Both processes we’ve just begun to witness within the Midwest. After a painful thirty-year economic correction, the Midwest is finally ready to experience this culture shift, to remember who it is, and to become its own tech region. The timing, the Midwest’s DNA, and converging global and domestic economic trends make this unfolding movie in the central part of our country a very interesting one to watch. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we begin to dive deeper into what makes the Midwest region ripe to be the next mountain of opportunity.