How will North Carolina’s companies and communities innovate to compete in a future of rapidly accelerating challenges and opportunities?
On Feb. 9-10, leaders from across the state will gather at the Institute for Emerging Issues’ 30th annual forum to tackle this crucial question. Much as vision and action were needed to launch Research Triangle Park 60 years ago, we need a compelling plan for how North Carolina is going to thrive in the coming century through innovation and entrepreneurship. And as we create it, we can employ a collaborative strategy that leverages approaches that are already working while also addressing important gaps.
Some promising signs are apparent. For instance, a recent study commissioned by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development shows how the Triangle is competitive against five other major entrepreneurial hubs, including Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Chicago and Seattle.
Despite having the smallest population base (Atlanta is three times bigger and Chicago is five times larger), the Triangle ranked third in the number of early stage angel investors and fourth in the amount of money raised through initial public offerings over the last decade. At the same time, we have the fewest number of venture capital firms, and Triangle-based companies attracted the least amount of investment from the nation’s top-50 venture firms.
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This may be a chicken and egg problem. As the study’s author, UNC-Chapel Hill professor Randy Myers, asks: “Is our pipeline of quality ideas what is keeping other venture capital firms coming here (or) if we brought more venture capital here, would we do twice as many deals?”
Either way, we need to continue to develop a strong pipeline of entrepreneurial ventures that produce good jobs and have a positive impact in our communities.
This starts with our ability to develop, recruit and retain high quality entrepreneurial talent. There are promising efforts in our schools and universities to grow entrepreneurial talent. Innovative work is being done across the NC New Schools network (including four schools recently recognized for innovation and excellence), as well as across the UNC system, including UNC Charlotte’s Ventureprise and N.C. State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.
The challenge now is how we can scale these efforts so that every student in North Carolina is equipped with both the mindset and the skill sets to put bold, innovative ideas into action. We also need to do a better job of recruiting – and retaining – more entrepreneurial talent (a topic we have wrestled with in past columns).
With a strong pipeline of talent, we need a robust network of support organizations that can connect these emerging innovators with the resources and relationships they need to reach their full potential. This includes access to investment, mentorship, a community of like-minded entrepreneurs, flexible work spaces, strategic corporate partnerships, a well-trained workforce and more.
Fortunately, across North Carolina there are a growing number of very dynamic entrepreneurial communities and spaces, including the Asheville Climate Collider, the Durham Innovation District, Packard Place in Charlotte, American Underground, HQ Raleigh and the newly announced HQ Greensboro (both of which Christopher Gergen is involved with), the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, and the NC Innovation Crescent (a number of which are finalists for IEI’s Spaces for Innovation Challenge).
Telling N.C.’s story
In addition to a dynamic talent pipeline and strong enabling organizations, we also need reliable data to track the impact of innovation and entrepreneurship on our economy and our state. This is a current gap that needs addressing. With good data, we can then make better economic and community policy decisions at the state and local level to help accelerate our state’s innovation economy. There have been some efforts at this, including the NC Innovation Fund and public-private investment strategies in Charlotte and Raleigh. But to truly change our innovation landscape, we need better policy leadership with sustained political commitment.
To build public support and national visibility, we also need to do a better job of telling North Carolina’s entrepreneurial story. To quote author David Bornstein, “Problems scream while solutions whisper.” How can we do a better job of shining a light on what’s working and why?
Finally, our innovation economy will not be successful unless it is more inclusive. With growing rates of inequality nationally, taking an intentional approach to growing more locally owned businesses in underdeveloped communities and commercial corridors is going to be critical to the long-term health of our economy.
How to accelerate inclusive innovation in North Carolina is a timely conversation – and one of several themes in this column that we will explore in more depth this year.
In the meantime, the Institute for Emerging Issues forum will play a critical role for setting the tone for these efforts this year and well into the future.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.