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Hustling for Place-Based Innovation

President Barack Obama and his economic team demonstrated the depth of their engagement on innovation and place-based economic development strategies at the “Winning the Future Forum on Small Business” at Cleveland State University last month. The high-level presence at the event in Cleveland showed that the president’s Strategy for American Innovation is more than just rhetoric—top administration officials and the president himself are hustling to make it a reality.

At the forum, the president and his White House team engaged with small business owners and entrepreneurs to discuss how bottom-up, place-based innovation and small business development policies are helping to reinvent American industry. In particular, the president praised the Rust Belt for its emblematic endeavors to reinvent itself as the Tech Belt. “Each time I come here, you’ve done more to retool and reinvent yourself,” the president said. “And that is something [Cleveland] is doing right now. It’s reinventing itself.”

At the event, cabinet members hosted break-out sessions on the various building blocks of innovation-led economic growth, including entrepreneurship, access to capital, smart tax policy, workforce development, export assistance, and clean energy. The president also commented on how one of his new signature public-private partnerships, Startup America, is making job opportunities more accessible by helping bring together different types of public and private innovation participants to help cohere nascent networks of knowledge creation and technology commercialization. “[It] doesn’t cost the U.S. Treasury anything to set up but may make all the difference in terms of success,” the president said.

One of these innovation building blocks, as we’ve long argued at Science Progress, is a concerted federal investment in the formation of bottom-up, place-based innovation clusters. “We’re all familiar with clusters like Silicon Valley,” said the president.

When you get a group of people together, and industries together, and institutions like universities together around particular industries, then the synergies that develop from all those different facets coming together can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Last year, Science Progress and the Center for American Progress published an in-depth case study that showed the real impact that federal investments have on crystallizing regional innovation clusters comprised of small business incubators, universities, suppliers, manufacturers, and other innovation participants. The report talks about the important role that federal programs have in facilitating collaboration and leveraging investment from both the public and private sectors to create jobs in emerging industries.

President Obama spoke about the need to forge better connections between businesses and colleges, and the importance of workforce development in ensuring our businesses remain cutting-edge and competitive.

When it comes to workforce development, one of the most important things that we’ve all learned is how important it is to get businesses in early with the universities and the community collegesa hugely underutilized resourceto develop the actual training program so that young people have the confidence if they go through this training program, they’ve got a job; businesses have confidence that if they hire these young people who went through this training program, they are trained for those jobs.

The collaboration that takes place between researchers, manufacturers, and investors in these clusters, or “entrepreneurial ecosystems,” is a critical ingredient for technology development and commercialization. Using liquid crystal displays as an example, President Obama noted the importance of fostering collaboration between researchers in universities, and local investors and entrepreneurs who can help bring their research to market. The Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University was a critical source of basic and applied research which fed the creation of the Flex Matters cluster, a fast growing global epicenter for the research and manufacturing of flexible electronics.

But without help from a U.S. Small Business Administration contract, as well as assistance from a local innovation cluster development organization called NorTech, that research may never have made it into the hands of investors, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers who could use it to create new technologies, companies, and jobs. The president recognized Kent Displays, one of the first manufacturers to emerge from the nascent innovation cluster, as a pioneer in advanced manufacturing and as a kernel for the now growing technology cluster in the Midwestern Tech Belt.

At the core of the conference was a notion that intelligent investment will lead the United States out of the economic recession.  But the president made the distinction between vital investments in innovation that we need to win the future, and other spending that we must scale back.

We’ve also got to get our fiscal house in order,” the president said, “and that’s why I’ve put forth a budget that includes a five-year spending freeze that will help reduce the deficit by $400 billion and will get annual domestic spending down to the lowest levels since Dwight Eisenhower. I want to work with Democrats and Republicans to make even bigger dents in our deficitsfind new savings, cut excessive spending wherever it exists. At the same time, we can’t sacrifice investments in our future.

Indeed, Science Progress has done a lot to show how federal investments in research, development, and commercialization of new technologies are critical for sustaining long-term economic growth and competitiveness. It has been clear since his State of the Union address that the president agrees. Investments in cutting-edge research, workforce training, and next-generation transportation and communication infrastructure are key components of his Strategy for American Innovation.

I was just with a group of young people, and one young man who is in the sciences pointed out that he’s concerned that his professors are having more and more trouble getting grants because our R&D budgets in this country have been declining as a relative share of GDP. We’ve decided we’ve got to increase that back up. And that’s part of our budgetinvesting in innovation.

And there’s reason to hope that the president will put his money where his mouth is when the budget debates between House and Senate get tough. President Obama has shown he’s hustling to make the lofty goals in his Strategy for American Innovation into political reality. In his speech at Cleveland State, he even added a new word to his oft-repeated recipe for winning the future: “If we want to win the future, we’re going to have to out-innovate, out-educate, out-build, and yes, we are going to have to out-hustle the rest of the world.”

A version of this article is cross-posted at where Sean Pool is Assistant Editor for Science Progress. Elaine Sedenberg also contributed to this post.

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