Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Dr. Kozmetski's Impact On Me

For twenty years, one way or another I have been involved in building an entrepreneurial infrastructure, and I've talked with hundreds of people about how to create a more innovative and productive economy.

On Memorial Day 2001, at Governor Hodges' invitation seven or so people flew to Austin, Texas to visit with Dr. George Kozmetski, the architect of the Austin knowledge-based economic development model. In the late 1970s, Austin had branch manufacturers, a state capital, a research university, and an oil industry in recession. I told Dr. Kozmetski I understood how to keep an innovative economy going once you had a critical mass, my question was how to get one started, which was where we were.

Dr. Kozmetski said to find out from industry where they needed world class talent, and then build partnerships with the research university to recruit and develop that talent. Knowledge would flow from the university to industry primarily through people. Once there was a critical mass of smart people, we needed to create an entrepreneurial infrastructure so some of these smart people could begin and grow high-impact companies. No economic development plan can envision a Dell Computer. That is what great entrepreneurs do. But it is no accident that Michael Dell lived in Austin, because fertile soil had been prepared for his company.

This meeting with Dr. Kozmetski was an epiphany for me. The conversations I had been having with people for several years now made sense, and I had a clear mental model of how we could move the state forward. We were buzzing on the plane ride home from Austin.

When I got back home, created a new organization, the Carolina Crescent Coalition. I invited people I knew from Clemson and major companies, like BMW, Michelin, and Fuji, to discuss planning a conference on how we could collaborate in our mutual self-interest. Each organization provided input on areas in which they needed to excel to be successful. We held our first conference in February 2002, with break-out sessions in focus areas where people had common interests. Ultimately we held six conferences attended by over 500 people.

In 2004, we held the first InnoVenture venture capital conference. 300 people attended, and nine companies from across the state presented their business plans to investors. We had a VIP dinner with key venture capitalists and the presidents of USC, Clemson, and Furman - Sorenson, Barker, and Shi. We had a panel discussion with all three research universities participating, and Governor Sanford was our keynote speaker. The grade we got from the venture capitalists who attended was an A+ for energy, enthusiasm, and collaboration, but a D at best for the quality of the companies. We had not been planting seeds in South Carolina for many years, so we didn't have a bumper crop of high-impact companies. But if venture capitalists were going to return to InnoVenture each year, we had to create a pipeline of high quality companies for them to see.

This year, InnoVenture 2005 combines the major organizations that participated in the Carolina Crescent Coalition with last year's venture capital conference. InnoVenture 2005 will have the Innovation Hall, where major anchor tenants in the economy, like SPAWAR, USC and Michelin, will have a table describing the talent and innovations they needed to be successful. In the Presentation Hall, emerging companies will present their business plans to venture capitalists. InnoVenture 2005 builds networks among major companies, universities and government labs in our region to make them more globally competitive and helps emerging, high-impact companies attract capital to grow.

That is getting very close to the vision Dr. Kozmetski gave me in Austin. He visited with us a few hours one Memorial Day, because that was the only day he had some time available. He never had any idea how impactful that visit was on me.

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