“I’m an innovation junkie!” Innovation America president & CEO Richard Bendis told the SURA Bridge Commercialization and Innovation Forum held July 15 at the Southeastern Universities Research Assn.’s (SURA) Washington DC office.
Bendis’ new organization, Innovation America, a not-for-profit public/private partnership is focused on accelerating the growth of the entrepreneurial innovation economy in the US, and he brings a formidable arsenal of skills and experience to that task. He has worked for a wide variety of organizations including several major US companies (Quaker Oats, Polaroid, Texas Instruments and Marion Laboratories), helped create Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation (KTEC), a state-based economic development organization in the mid-1980s and was later recruited by Innovation Philadelphia to set up a regional technology-based entity. Bendis has also been active over the past 25 years on many national advisory boards and committees dealing with innovation and economic development issues.
“I’ve stayed connected,” Bendis told the forum. “I created Innovation America in 2004, but it sat on the shelf for about four years. We formally launched it in December 2008 and made a presentation to an [Obama] Transition Team meeting of the opportunity to create a National Innovation Framework for the federal government.” The Small Business Administration’s new administrator, Karen Mills, was one of those who attended the briefing.
“We launched Innovation America then because I felt the new Obama administration would [give] re-energized focus to entrepreneurship, technology, innovation and, hopefully, supporting entrepreneurial technology growth,” Bendis said. “I think some of those programs have yet to surface.”
Bendis believes a transformation has occurred in technology-based economic development (TBED), caused by the knowledge economy. “About three years ago I started referring to TBED as innovation- based economic development (IBED),” he said, “which I think relates more accurately to what we’re engaged in today. It’s more than just focusing on technologies, because innovation includes systems and processes, while technology mostly refers to products that might come out of that cycle.”
But Bendis realizes many definitions exist for the innovation economy. “We’re beyond the proof of concept and technological feasibility stage and, a term that I’m starting to use, is proof of relevance,” he said. “If you can’t prove you’re relevant, then you likely aren’t going to be able to get financing for those innovations or ideas that you have!”
He has heard many of the arguments about national innovation: What should the federal government be focused on? How do we make the smooth economic transition? How do we capture the benefits of national investments in r&d, knowledge and higher education? And he has thought carefully about potential solutions.
“We need to do a better job of building up our entrepreneurial culture because America is looked upon as an entrepreneurial leader by many other countries around the world,” said Bendis, who is worried about some signs. “I think we’ve a problem now in our economy and we might lose a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, based on some economic and financial challenges that are before us.”
Bendis admits that with Innovation America he is trying to advocate a more proactive role by the federal government in developing an innovation-based, integrated strategy. “If you’re going to implement a new paradigm around innovation, you’re going to have to deviate from the traditional ways of doing things, and there has to be public investment and risk-taking.”
“We have to move the pendulum from technology- to innovation-based economy building,” he said. “To knowledge rather than physical assets.”
Bendis thinks that innovation intermediaries will be the links connecting creators of innovation and technology and people who are trying to attract and build new businesses around regions, states or countries.
“I look at Innovation America as being a national innovation intermediary, KTEC as an innovation intermediary for a state, and Innovation Philadelphia as an innovation intermediary for a region,” he said. “An innovation intermediary looks at the technologies, assets and resources to work together ahead of innovation. I think that’s lacking. We don’t have someone classified as an innovation intermediary or champion at the federal-level at this time. I can point to examples in states and in regions. But there’s nowhere [in Washington DC] to bring all of this together and assemble it at a national level.”
What would a federal innovation intermediary do? “Basically, connect the key institutional players, help align and leverage resources, find ways to leverage and partner more effectively with others, and get our technology and commercialization into place,” answers Bendis. “And innovation intermediaries sometimes manage commercialization and tech-transfer, angel capital, and other investment programs.”
Bendis has done his homework. He knows the history of many earlier efforts to launch federal innovation and technology programs, and is conscious of the timescales involved. He has achieved credibility among state and local economic development professionals, university research officials, federal r&d managers, and venture capitalists. His activities are also being watched closely by foreign governments, some of whom in the past have engaged his services to advise them on innovation programs.
During last month’s SURA forum, Bendis was grilled about his current contacts with the Obama administration. While he hasn’t exactly been commuting to Washington DC from Philadelphia, he has been spending a couple of days a week in the nation’s capital building up Innovation America’s network. Some of those visits may have been for meetings with Obama officials, but Bendis is discreet about who he has met with and what they have intimated about the prospects for a National Innovation Framework. Last month he testified before a House Small Business Subcommittee on the federal r&d tax credit.