Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Greenville News Op/ed: We're sowing the seeds for a vibrant economy

Original published at The Greenville News
Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 - 6:00 am

By John Warner

Having worked to develop a more innovative economy for many years, I believe one of the best things that happened to the Greenville Chamber of Commerce was the creation of the Greenville Area Development Corp. (GADC). Balloons fell at the Chamber's 2001 annual meeting celebrating $1 billion in primarily manufacturing investments. There was no mention of several hundred million dollars of venture capital invested in telecommunications companies a few blocks down the street, or of the fortune left by John Hollingsworth to Furman and other local community organizations. Creating wealth was not a part of the community's economic development strategy.

Until very recently, we have relied on a "buffalo hunting" strategy of recruiting major manufacturing facilities through cheap land, cheap labor and incentives. Over four years in senior leadership at KEMET, I saw firsthand the weakness of a solo buffalo. With few customers or vendors here, when the global winds raged there was little to anchor KEMET production here, so it blew away. That's the past.

Contrast this with the Michelin Americas Research and Development Corp. (MARC), a 1,000-person corporate R&D facility. MARC scientists recently invented the Tweel, perhaps as revolutionary as the radial tire, also developed by Michelin. The MARC worked with the Clemson Spiro Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership to study commercializing the Tweel, and then hired the leader of the student team, retaining one of Upstate's brightest young talents. This is the future.

Industrial recruiting, now led by the GADC, remains important. Future recruiting must enhance clusters of specialized business, academic and government organizations that add more value together than the participants can alone. We can successfully build globally competitive communities of innovation; in fact, we already are.

BMW, Michelin, Clemson and others partnered to create the International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR), which attracted a pre-eminent scholar, Tom Kurfess, who attracted a company with whom he has a long-term research relationship, Timken. Greenville Hospital partnered with the research universities to create a University Medical Center. USC Upstate worked with Greenville Tech on a major expansion into Greenville. Furman is enhancing the skills of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of S.C. information technology professions.

Freed of its recruiting responsibilities, the Chamber has reinvented itself around fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. The Chamber helped GE recruit top scientists to Greenville. Attendance at small-business programs is up substantially. Greenville Forward was formed to implement the Vision 2025 plan, along with Next to support technology entrepreneurs. The Greenville County School Distinct recognized the Chamber's Carolina First Center of Excellence for enhancing the quality of our public schools.

The Chamber led highly successful intercommunity visits to innovation powerhouses Orlando, Fla., and Austin, Texas, and organized a successful Diversity Conference. A strong partnership of Upstate Chambers is promoting regionalism.

The Chamber helped launch InnoVenture, now in its third year, which will be held March 28 and 29 at the Palmetto Expo Center. The MARC, ICAR, the Savannah River and Oak Ridge National Labs, the Carolinas MicroOptics Triangle and the University of South Carolina will each describe how communities of innovation can be created around these major economic anchors. What kind of talent do they need? What innovative vendors can be recruited around them? What opportunities are there to create high-impact companies to support them?

In addition, over 25 major organizations will have innovation displays, high-impact companies will present to investors, and inventors will seek business partners to commercialize their ideas. The InnoVenture Prism Initiative will identify the best and brightest young talent reflecting the diversity of the community and introduce them to innovators to allow them to build their careers here.

Supporting high-impact companies is critical to a comprehensive economic development strategy. Dell Computer, which started in Austin, Texas, in 1984 and today is worth over $80 billion, changed the economic landscape of its community. Here, 23 emerging companies presented to investors at InnoVenture in 2004 and 2005, but almost none were able to subsequently raise the capital they sought. After this year's conference, InnoVenture will develop an ongoing infrastructure to support emerging high-impact companies that can retain our top talent and create wealth locally that is reinvested back into the community.

It's true that our lagging per capita income and unemployment reflect that we are late to the game of developing a more innovative economy. But we figured that out, and strong collaborations are being created among organizations leading distinctive pieces of the economic development puzzle, sowing the seeds of a vibrant Greenville economy for years to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Far too much of the Greenville economy is based on automotive. It needs to broaden.