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Looking Back at SSTI's 9th Annual Conference Sound Strategies for Encouraging Regional Entrepreneurship

December 05, 2005

Note: This is the first in a series of articles SSTI will be running over the next several weeks to provide synopses of selected breakout sessions from SSTI's 9th Annual Conference, held Oct. 19-21, 2005, in Atlanta. Ideas for 2006 conference sessions can be forwarded to skinner@ssti.org. Look for more news on SSTI's 10th annual conference beginning in late winter.

The Oct. 21 morning conference session, Sound Strategies for Encouraging Regional Entrepreneurship, was presented by two dynamic speakers who offered an array of valuable lessons learned garnered through years of experience promoting growth through strategic science and technology strategies.

Michael Finney, former president and chief executive officer of Greater Rochester Enterprise (GRE), began the session with the story of how the public-private partnership became a success so quickly. A team of practitioners visited 24 regions in the U.S. to interview, learn and observe what was being done to encourage regional entrepreneurship, and what seemed to be working. The GRE team then created a top 10 best practices list from issues that kept surfacing in robust entrepreneurial environments.

To determine the industry specialty, the team looked at the business environment, corporate portfolio, and university research in the Rochester area, Finney said. They realized that the region already had a highly skilled workforce in the areas of optics, biotechnology, food and beverage science, and fuel cell technology. In addition, they were able to identify technology-driven companies in these areas and a good quality of life within the region.

The next step involved marketing the area to both new and existing businesses. According to Finney, GRE spent about 60 percent of their resources on existing industries looking for ways to innovate and focused on linking existing companies with new technologies as a way to promote innovation. GRE also embarked on a heavy advertising campaign to get their message out to the community, using direct mail advertisements to capture the attention of new and existing companies.

Following Finney's presentation, an audience member inquired about the strategies used to attract and encourage minorities. According to Finney, it takes much more than simply putting a sign up. GRE hosted events to lure minority entrepreneurs and incubate them. In addition, programs were designed specifically for that purpose, Finney said.

The second speaker, Bruce Gjovig, entrepreneur coach and chief executive officer of the University of North Dakota's Center for Innovation, elaborated on the challenge he faced in the beginning of his career at the center. At the time, not many entrepreneurs were on campus, Gjovig said. One must find them and they only come when they need something, he added. Gjovig suggested holding business plan contests, venture forums and entrepreneur classes to identify entrepreneurs on campus.

Gjovig stressed there is still a lot of work to be done in order to transform campuses into entrepreneurial-friendly environments. According to Gjovig, there is a fundamental conflict with the university-entrepreneurship culture. For the research scientist, entrepreneurship is a skill set unrelated to being a good scientist and failure rates are high, while financial returns can take years.

Also discussed were lessons learned in the areas of services for entrepreneurs, access to capital, and market innovation. Gjovig offered a list of success factors that include enabling innovation, market and economic assessments to focus on niche markets, entrepreneur networks, flexible deal structure, and the importance of shared passion over credentials and experience.