Thursday, August 03, 2006

Becoming a More Inventive Region

The July 22 issue of the Wall St. Journal had a story called "The Most Inventive Towns in America," which identified and examined cities/regions around the country with a lot of inventors (as measured by the number of patents). Unfortunately, Pittsburgh wasn't in the top 20, nor was it in the list of "Up & Comers."

The article notes that inventors tend to be clustered near each other, partly because they often feed off each others' ideas, and partly because one inventor's entrepreneurial success may encourage others to pursue commercialization of their ideas, too.

The Pittsburgh Region desperately needs more entrepreneurs and inventors if it's going to increase the rate of job growth -- a lot more of them. In fact, some data suggest we have nowhere to go but up. So where will we find more inventors and entrepreneurs? Do we need to import them?

The fact is that they might already be lurking here in our midst, just needing a little encouragement and assistance to appear. Although we tend to stereotype new technologies and inventions as coming out of universities, there are a lot of inventive individuals working in other kinds of jobs, too.

Can these individual inventors make a significant difference to the region's economy? The answer is absolutely yes:

Look at Respironics, which is headquartered in Murrysville and now has over $1 billion in revenues. It was founded by Gerald McGinnis, who worked at Westinghouse, Allegheny General Hospital, and Presbyterian University Hospital before starting Respironics.

Look at Medrad, which employs over 1,000 workers locally. It recently announced a new headquarters facility and a new manufacturing operation in the Pittsburgh Region. It was founded by M. Stephen "Doc" Heilman, an emergency room physician in Pittsburgh who invented the first powered angiographic injector in the kitchen of his home.

The Wall St. Journal article notes how, in Detroit, people who had worked for or with the auto industry are now developing ideas for new products and turning them into their own businesses. Similarly, here in the the Pittsburgh Region, the many corporate R&D facilities at companies such as Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, Bayer, PPG, U.S. Steel, and others could be a rich source of potential inventors.

But we need to assist and encourage them to become entrepreneurs. How do we do that?

The universities have technology transfer offices set up specifically for helping their inventors commercialize new technologies. The inventors who don't work for universities need a similar place to go for help -- a "regional technology transfer office."

Luckily, we have variations of the "regional tech transfer office" already in existence at Innovation Works, Idea Foundry, The Technology Collaborative, the Life Sciences Greenhouse, and other organizations. They all offer great services, but they also have specific areas of focus and expertise that limit the types of entrepreneurs they can help. How does the inventor and budding entrepreneur, who is still keeping up with a day job, figure out which one to talk to?

The fact is that one of the most common complaints by entrepreneurs in the Pittsburgh Region is the difficulty of finding the right place to get assistance in growing their businesses. In most cases, the problem is not that the services don't exist; the problem is that the entrepreneur has to go from agency to agency to agency trying to sort through eligibility requirements and criteria until he or she finds an agency/service that matches their needs and is willing to help them. That wastes the inventor's time and energy which could be better put to use in actually building their business.

This problem occurs because there is no "front door" for entrepreneurs in the Pittsburgh Region. Good solutions have been proposed, but they need funding and they need the support and cooperation of the many entrepreneurial assistance organizations in the region. There also needs to be more angel investment capital in the region to help inventors with good ideas to develop prototypes and find their first customers. And the region as a whole needs to more proactively welcome and encourage entrepreneurship.

The Pittsburgh Region's high quality of life, low cost of living, and tradition of innovation should make it an ideal spot for inventors and entrepreneurs. But encouraging them needs to be a higher priority in the region's economic development strategy.


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