Heinz and Economic Development

I'm not on the mailing list for these press releases, so, no, I hadn't heard:

More on Heinz Endowments ... By now, you may know that CMU Vice Provost and Chief Technology Officer Christina Gabriel is set to join the foundation on Feb. 1 as director of its newly renamed Innovation Economy Program. This is a real coup for Heinz' economic development efforts as Dr. Gabriel is well-known and respected for revamping the university's technology transfer office to speed its ability to bring inventions to the marketplace.

It's also an indication that tech-focused economic development -- growing viable successful technology firms with the strength of Pittsburgh's research and medical institutions -- is going to be a top priority for the foundation.

Dr. Gabriel wasn't specific about her plans, but she did suggest that it could be time for the region to take a look at the direction and focus of some of its tech-oriented economic development organizations, including those funded by Heinz such as the Idea Foundry, the Technology Collaborative and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse. "All of them have been in operation long enough [to see] what's working really well and what should be changed."

Lastly, Dr. Gabriel said that Heinz's role as a convenor of ideas and strategies around the region to make the tech industry better will continue. "I want to broaden the conversation a bit ... It's really about our attitude. We're much more willing to think big and try new things."

Link: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06014/637843.stm

Here's a suggestion for all of the "economic development" folks around Pittsburgh: Think Small. Don't Think Big. Thinking Big feels like and sounds like the old-time top-down, CEO- and institution-driven Pittsburgh way. I hear echoes of one five-year-plan after another, as the local economy continues to sink slowly into the Ohio.

I've had a lot of conversations with local entrepreneurs, investors, technology transfer folks, and lawyers since the Post-Gazette published my piece last November about the shortcomings of the local technology community, and I've learned a lot.

The most important thing I've learned, and the most consistent message that I've heard across the board, is that Pittsburgh has a shortage of deals. "Deal flow," in business jargon, is thin. One remedy for the local economy, therefore, is to figure out ways to increase deal flow. Put more technology in play; find ways to get investors off the sidelines and back in the game. Stop using economic development plans to pick likely winners and likely losers among local firms; let the market loose. From my point of view, Thinking Small means lots of deals. Lots of companies. Technology licensing. Partnering. Joint ventures. Buyouts and spinoffs. In a word: Movement.

None of that can happen overnight, and I've heard different views expressed regarding whether the direction of the current economy is positive (more deal flow), negative (less), or neutral. I'm sure that the right answer depends on a number of things, and moving "deal flow" in the right direction involves a lot of variables. Maybe I'm wrong, and Thinking Big isn't old-style Pittsburgh strategizing, but instead involves thinking about those variables and about how to stimulate more deal flow. If so, then great, and then Heinz's move is a good one. Thinking Big is really Thinking Small in disguise. But if Thinking Big means another five-year plan for saving the city, then we're better off without it.

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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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