By MIKE RAINONE, co-founder, PCDworks
In March, I spoke at the World's Best Technology (WBT) conference in Arlington, TX, addressing a large venue of venture capitalists and other parties interested in my company’s new wastewater treatment system, the Water Phoenix.
This national conference is part of the Arlington chamber leadership’s grand plan to bring high-tech innovative companies to the region. It is an attempt to create and nurture a culture of dynamic innovation — not unlike that created by Silicon Valley in CA, the Research Triangle in NC or Loop 128 around Boston.
Many jurisdictions across the country are attempting to do the same thing, and they each realize that domestic money has allowed China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan to become major powers. The cities realize that the only way to survive is to maintain and increase the single edge that we still have as a nation, our ability to create and develop cutting edge technology and lead the world in innovation. Our only salvation, in other words, is to out-innovate the rest of the world.
For that, we need to re-grow the infrastructure of innovation, which in my estimation comes from four major factors. It requires:
- Great educational institutions, from the primary to the university level.
- A willingness to take risk through a culture of entrepreneurship.
- A broad-based financial infrastructure which is not risk averse and which provides everything from seed capital to venture capital to a banking system.
- A culture of innovation.
As the people in North Carolina, Boston and Silicon Valley demonstrate quite well, if you build and nurture the culture, innovation will come.
Venture funds are drying up, and an increasing number of us would rather work for banks or brokerages than take the risks of entrepreneurship. Our educational system is increasingly preoccupied with politically- and religiously-correct doctrine, and we seem to have lost our focus on hardcore science and math. In short, our educational infrastructure is not up to the task of providing the educated manpower for a technological future. Nor has it been able to make science, engineering and math attractive enough to even keep a modicum of students interested. We continue on this path at our own peril.
How do we rebuild our societal infrastructure to nourish the creators, inventors and entrepreneurs willing to take risks and create new products? How do we prepare our children to battle for our economic future, for our very survival?
Recognize The Problem
We must first understand that this is not a regional or a state problem; it is a national concern, and we must recognize the importance of the federal government’s role in providing leadership and funding. Only the federal government has the resources, the bully pulpit and the media reach to get us all marching in the right direction. In 1941, the federal government rallied us all together. We need that same call to arms today.
Back in 1957, when Sputnik scared us out of complacency, our federal government embarked on a huge campaign to increase science and math education by funding many math and science enrichment programs in schools. Today, we have to re-emphasize these disciplines and demand that our schools do a much better job in not only teaching math and science, but also making it attractive and engaging for young minds. And we must provide the funding for this effort.
Entrepreneurship should be rewarded and encouraged through tax laws and mentorship. The Small Business Administration (SBA) should be strengthened and taken seriously. Instead of working through banks, the SBA should have its own funding source and be encouraged to fund innovative, high-tech startups. The Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas-Arlington is an example of an organization at the forefront of this movement. I have no doubt that such centers exist elsewhere around the country. These organizations should become hubs for entrepreneurial activity that is supported with funding, management assistance, new product development assistance and other resources.
Encourage New Product Development
Many small and medium-sized businesses in this country have the potential to develop new products and push technology forward; they should be encouraged to do so. Peter Drucker reminds us that there are only two functions in business: marketing and new product development.
Get Serious About Tech Transfer
Currently, a wide ranging movement is happening in this country to commercialize the research and innovation found in our universities. University leaders are being asked by legislators to help defray the burden on taxpayers by working to turn their research efforts into profitable endeavors. While we should never lose sight of a university’s primary function as an educational institution, commercializing our inventive national work should be encouraged, especially in light of current competitive shortcomings.
The Role of the Federal Government
Private money has become risk averse and extraordinarily scarce. Those who believe the private market will provide enough seed funding to create a high-tech infrastructure are deluding themselves.
The federal government has a huge role to play in making funds available to seed startup companies interested in high-tech development. Consider Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs, in which nearly every governmental agency, including the Department of Energy, NASA, the Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health and all branches of the military, participates. The availability of SBIR grants allows agencies to find the development assistance they need in order solve problems — it also allows small businesses to find problems that they are qualified to solve.
Unity of Purpose
In today's political climate, it is near political suicide for Democrats and Republicans to join forces on any issue. As a result, our Congress seems incapable of cooperation and collaboration.
We have created a national zero-sum game, and neither side seems to recognize that the real battle is between us and the Far East.
We are in an all out economic war and if we can’t work together on a national scale, we will continue to lose. What we need is a unity of purpose, a common goal to unite us and drive us forward. In the late 50s, our zeal was fueled, in part, by an intense national pride that caused us to rally to win the space race and put our citizens on the moon.
There was also a serious concern that without the heavy-lift rockets that could send us to the moon, or lift a nuclear warhead (coincidentally), we would be vulnerable to attack by the Soviet Union. We are now under attack in a far more insidious, subtle way, but the stakes are the same. Today, our place in the world economy, our standard of living, our freedom and our way of life are on the line.