The New Tech Umbrella

The Post-Gazette continues to report on negotiations over the 2005 version of a Pittsburgh tech umbrella, but a lot of the sources are speaking anonymously. That suggests to me that at least some of the debate about whether or not this is a good idea boils down to personality, ego, and turf. Regardless of the outcome, tech umbrella or no tech umbrella, that's not a good thing.

Since a big part of this picture involves Pitt and CMU, I'll phrase the issue in a slightly different way: What's the "right" role for the region's leading research universities in a "regional economic development strategy"?

The tech umbrella proposal not-so-implicitly makes "regional strategy" a number-one priority, and it puts Pitt and CMU front and center as its leaders. In the abstract -- and personalities, ego, and turf aside -- is that a good thing?

If you look around the country at other regions that are known for academic/technology development combinations (the Silicon Valley; Route 128 in Boston; the Research Triangle in North Carolina; the "Golden Triangle" in San Diego, for example), the universities are engaged partners, but the private sector takes the lead. And by private sector I don't mean old banking money in private clubs; I mean technology lawyers, real estate developers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs. Research universities play a key role in developing technology and giving faculty a lot of leeway in moving that tech into private hands. But regional development may require that the universities set aside their selfish interests: holding out for top dollar in tech transfer negotiations -- which makes sense from a budgetary standpoint -- may prove short-sighted in regional terms. Sometimes you need to leave money on the table.

There is certainly room for regional strategy in these environments. Even the Silicon Valley, for example, has a regional industry consortium (Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network). But that effort was led by lawyers and venture capitalists, not university presidents and technology transfer offices, and the collaborative deliberately takes a back seat to the efforts of investors and entrepreneurs. If you're building a business, you raise your own money and make your own investment and funding decisions. JV:SV is there as an information broker and cheerleader.

Perhaps it's precisely because Pittsburgh is no Research Triangle or Silicon Valley, and because Downtown Pittsburgh has what seems to be an anachronistic, central-planning view of economic development, that the universities here need to step up to the plate. If that's true, then the critics of the new umbrella plan should come out of the shadows and debate the proposal on the merits, instead of sniping anonymously.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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