Sunday, February 27, 2005

Resistance to Innovation in Public Education

My dad worked for IBM, and in the early 1990s was frustrated as his net worth melted down along with IBM's stock price. He had a PC on his desk at home. "Your challenge," I observed, "is that you don't believe it is a computer; you think it is a typewriter. You can not believe that if it is not 18 inches off the ground, blue, air conditioned, and worshiped by an IBM priesthood that it is really a computer."

I have come to understand that the resistance to new paradigms is often more an emotional challenge that it is an intellectual one. Sometimes smart people just can not believe that what has worked in the past no longer will work in the future.

I believe strongly in the power of entrepreneurs. I am chairman of InnoVenture, an organization to foster a more innovative economy in our region. I am also a passionate advocate of school choice.

Recently I met with a friend who runs a research consulting firm. He lives his life surrounded by innovations, seeing first hand the power of entrepreneurship. We recently had a tense meeting about InnoVenture, which confused me. He followed-up with an e-mail, "I harbor some concerns about numerous letters to the editor you have published that appear to undermine support for public education, which is something that I am very passionate about."

We had not even talked about public education. Why is it that a smart person is so threatened by suggesting that entrepreneurial educators can run schools better than government managers that he becomes paralyzed?

I wouldn't worry if this was an isolated conversation. I recently had dinner with a friend who is a highly accomplished professional and has worked in many different countries in the work. She felt passionately that we needed to focus on the needs of children in poverty, and I suggested I would work with her to create charter schools of which she was the Chairman or CEO to channel her vision and passion into meeting the needs of children not well served by the current system.

She sent me an e-mail, "I do not disagree that capitalism works. I simply do not believe that the ultimate consumers of education are in any position to make informed choices. Until we live in Utopia, I suspect we'll have to ensure equality of education across our fair state. Nothing less."

So capitalism works, just not in education. Despite the unchallenged reality that traditional public education is failing many children in poverty, somehow it makes sense that the principals of economics are suspended when people walk in a school door.

Breaking the cycle of poverty is extraordinarily difficult and is going to take incredibly creative ideas to craft a new system that reaches these children. If released, the best and brightest educators will come up with ideas that challenge the current paradigms of how education is delivered. But if those who control the status quo control which of those ideas get tested and tried, almost none of them will ever see the light of day. That is the way most big organizations work. Until we change the dynamics of how public education is delivered, we will not fundamentally change the quality of education received to those least well served today.

I confess to being confused why so many smart people, who are so entrepreneurial in other aspects of their lives, resist the power of innovation to transform public education.

Friday, February 25, 2005

"Of Course" BMW gets it!

Vigilix sells a software product that monitors information technology resources, detecting changing conditions, initiating repair protocols, and alerting managers via telephone, email or pager. BMW Manufacturing Corporation was one of the initial users.

Vigilix CEO Andrew Kirtz is a neighbor of mine, and last year I asked him to present his company at InnoVenture 2004. "John, I don't know a venture capitalist or anyone that has raised venture capital." We worked on his presentation over coffee a couple of Saturday's. Andrew did good at the conference.

He did not raise any money, but he did think deeply about his company. He met several venture capitalists and learned about what they are interested in. He got actively involved in planning for this year's InnoVenture, and went with a group of us to Atlanta last fall to visit with venture capitalists and learn more.

I'm excited that Vigilix will be the one company from 2004 that will present at InnoVenture 2005, and I'm looking forward to seeing how much Andrew's thinking about his business has progressed in a year.

Recently on a visit with Bobby Hitt to ask that BMW participate in the InnoVenture Innovation Hall, I explained the Vigilix story. If BMW would participate in InnoVenture, that would attract venture capitalists, which would help Andrew attract resources to further develop the product, which would allow Vigilix to deliver greater functionality to BMW.

Bobby's answer ... "Of Course!" Tom Peters calls this a blinding flash of the obvious.

One way or another for two decades, I have been working on developing an entrepreneurial infrastructure in South Carolina. At InnoVenture 2005, we will have BMW, Vigilix, and venture capitalists together in one place making it happen. The stars are aligning. The conversation at BMW was one of the most rewarding I have had in a long time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

What is a high-impact company?

The objective of InnoVenture is to build networks among major companies, universities and government labs to make them more globally competitive and to help emerging, “high-impact” companies attract capital to grow. The goal of the Upstate Counsel for Entrepreneurial Development is to pro-actively facilitate the development of “high-impact” companies in the South Carolina Upstate.

I have been asked several times in the past week, what is a high-impact company?

A high-impact company has significant positive impacts on the community in many ways.

A high-impact company creates significant wealth that stays local and is ultimately recycled into the community. A preeminent example is John D. Hollingsworth on Wheels, that provided several hundred million dollars for Furman University and other community organizations upon Mr. Hollingsworth’s death.

A high-impact company is a very successful, high-growth business, that provides outstanding experience and training for a younger generation of managers, some of whom will subsequently create their own high-impact companies. Serial entrepreneurship is one of the most important elements of a highly innovative culture.

A high-impact company provides large financial returns to investors. Angel investors are an important source of risk capital for future generations of emerging, high-impact companies.

A high-impact company grows large and provides an important client for local professional servers and suppliers. These local vendors are an important foundation of the entrepreneurial infrastructure on which new high-impact companies can form.

A high-impact company creates high-wage jobs. For many companies that provide sponsorships and volunteers for organizations like InnoVenture and the UCED, these employees are affluent consumers of many of their products and services.

A high-impact company provides significant leadership and support to community organizations, such as the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, the Red Cross, and the Urban League. Independent companies with headquarters in a local community often provide more leadership and support to local organizations than branch offices do.

Special companies like these can have a disproportionate impact on the local community makes the effort and energy required to foster them worthwhile.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Tweel - "Once in a hundred years" innovation

Perhaps one of the most significant revolutions in mobility was invented in the past few years at the Michelin Americas Research and Development Center (MARC) in Greenville, SC. Recently Michelin announced the Tweel, which has the functionality of a pneumatic tire without the air pressure. Terry Gettys, president of the MARC, called the Tweel a "Once in a hundred years" innovation.

Very cool.

While Michelin is focused on commercializing mobility applications of the Tweel, Michelin may be willing to license Tweel technology for non-mobility applications.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

What an awesome time to be alive!

"Ours is a time of profound change that holds the seeds of almost unlimited opportunities for those with the vision, courage, and ability to seize them."

That is the opening sentence of the authors note for a book I plan to publish this Spring, Swamp Fox Insights, about how to create and manage high-impact organizations.

I have been working for several years to develop a network of knowledge professionals who can leverage the talent and technologies of the Southeastern Innovation Corridor.

I created an Angel Fund, called Capital Insights, in the 1990s that invested $14 million from 150 accredited individual partners in variety of companies with high-impact potential. We have made money on our investments overall, but by 2000 it was clear that more needed to be done to create an infrastructure to support the development of high-impact companies in our region.

A few years ago, I created Swamp Fox: News of the Knowledge Economy in South Carolina to document and promote sources of innovation and opportunity in South Carolina. I publish an e-mail update most weeks, and Swamp Fox has developed a loyal following.

I created the Carolina Crescent Coalition, which held six conferences to build relationships between knowledge professionals in industry and universities, and last year I created the venture capital conference, InnoVenture. This Spring, InnoVenture 2005 will combine those two initiatives, to help develop a greater capacity for innovation in our region, including wealth creating high-impact companies, around the major anchor tenants of our economy.

I am looking forward to using this blog to share my thoughts and observations with you. Most of all I look forward to your feedback, including how we might work together.