WASHINGTON – Whatever will be said and promised in this difficult and already acrimonious 2012 political campaign, America’s long-term future and prosperity rests on its ability to continue producing technological innovation.
America: still competitive?
But on this critical variable the signs are not as good as we would like. Aside from US undisputed leadership in IT –R&D and design only, mind you, as manufacturing is all contracted to China– there are few areas of obvious American world technological leadership.
When all is said and done, there is only one Silicon Valley. And yet, leaving aside this globally recognized icon, there are very hopeful signs elsewhere. They should be noted, and elected officials –Governors and Mayors– nationwide should do their best to put in place the right policies that would encourage more of these to come to life. Here is the basic guiding principle: any public policy measure that makes it easier to translate viable research into commercial applications would help.
Fort Collins, Colorado, is an innovation hub
Take for instance the city Fort Collins in Colorado. There you have a vibrant innovative environment created via a good partnership that includes a pro-active municipality, Colorado State University, and the Rocky Mountain Innosphere, a business incubator and science park facility. As a result of this collaboration, you have the sprouting of a variety of “innovative companies operating in bio-science, software, hardware and clean energy that contribute ideas, inventions and products that positively affect the local economy“, as a document produced by the City of Fort Collins says.
Research areas include clean energy, water and disease prevention. And there are results. The city has one of the highest ratios of patents per number of inhabitants in America (and indeed the world), a remarkable record.
State of the art facilities
Most recently the Colorado State University Engines & Energy Conversion Lab was listed as one of the 25 “most awesome college labs” in the nation by Popular Science magazine. Wired magazine called the Lab one of the “Emerging Epicenters” for innovation and high-tech job growth in green technology.
And this is not just about a good teaching environment. It is also about the ability to conduct state of the art research on new engines and new fuels that may have enormous industrial spin-offs. This facility has become a recognized component of the US automotive industry R&D base. Indeed, the Lab’s ability to rely on high-tech contributions coming from a variety of sectors, all present in the area due to clusters and the Innosphere, fostered innovation in energy efficiency of existing engines as well as in thinking about new solutions, be it in hybrid vehicles or bio-fuels.
Major grant by Siemens
And all this progress has been noticed. Recently Siemens announced a major $ 44.5 million (in kind) software donation to support research performed by the University within the “EcoCar2″ Project, a program sponsored by Government and the car industry. This way students will learn how to use complex state of the art computerized systems that will help them advance their R&D activities. This is the largest donation of this kind ever received by Colorado State University.
A good eco-system encourages innovation
Indeed, the Fort Collins formula is validated by the commercial success of many of its innovations, including a major redesign of a motor used now by all large pipeline systems. And here we have the evidence that this eco-system created by a good University, the municipal authorities, and the Rocky Mountain Innosphere and other players, (including the Federal Centers for Disease Control, The National Renewable Energy Lab, the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster, and more), really works. Major corporations, including Detroit automakers, are paying attention. They like what they is produced in Fort Collins.
As others will look more closely at what Fort Collins has to offer, this process will attract more talent and more corporate interest.
And there is an additional advantage. Fort Collins is a small town with good living conditions. As locally produced marketing literature proudly proclaims, the city is listed as the 6th best place to live in America. It is featured by Forbes as the 5th best place for business and career, and as one of America’s 20 most economically vibrant college towns.
A success story
All this is good. The passion for research and economically viable innovation is luckily still alive in America. Fort Collins shows what can be done.
But, at the same time, one should be careful. A few success stories –for sure to be recognized and celebrated– do not indicate that this model can be replicated at will. Otherwise we would have hundreds of “Fort Collins-like” places in America. In a word: innovation hubs do not follow a Starbucks model, whereby you find a good formula, and then you scale it up.
In the end, whatever the efforts of well-meaning people, it is all about the creation of the right eco-system, the right blend between passionate academics with a feel for business applications, motivated students, proactive political leaders, appreciative local businesses, keen investors, and a good outreach effort that pitches the locality to relevant new players who can add something good.
How do you create the right environment?
And yet, having the right ingredients is only the beginning. With a bit of humor, a document from the City opens by asking: “What is Fort Collins special sauce“? Whatever they say it is, it is clearly a secret blend that worked well there.
Instead of trying to copy it, it would be good for other localities that already have some of the key ingredients, such as a good university with top-notch researchers, to see how they could create their own distinctive eco-system that will attract keen new players. The good news here is that obviously there is plenty of talent in America, home-grown, or imported.
The real trick is to figure out how you can nurture it. And this is more art than science.