Creating an "Electric" Innovation Ecosystem

At TechCrunch, Mark Suster has a recipe for turning a good regional innovation ecosystem into a great one. Mark blogs regularly at Both Sides of the Table.

Here are the key excerpts. Mark is blogging from LA and speaking to a Seattle audience, so you'll need to substitute Pittsburgh people, concepts, and companies for his references below. And when you do that, you'll hit on some of the things that Pittsburgh has going for it -- and some things (some people?) that Pittsburgh is missing.

So entrepreneurs need to think the same way some VCs do – because markets change, competition changes, innovation & technology cycles move so fast that only by having a few truly outstanding leaders in your company can you sustain any sort of advantage.

And that is precisely my thoughts for Seattle and what I plan to deliver on Thursday night: Which few key community leaders are going to step up and get those neurons properly firing and connected?

My recipe for Seattle or your community:

1. Community Leaders + Organizers
You need a good mixture of both.

2. Passionate Entrepreneurs & Ambassadors
Stating the obvious but you can’t will a region into success. You need to have passionate tech entrepreneurs who want to build businesses locally.

3. Patron Companies
Seattle has something that many communities don’t have. It’s what I call “patron companies” and the local giants are Microsoft & Amazon. When you think about the success that is Silicon Valley, the unfair advantage is not just the huge amounts of available venture capital. When you start a company in the Bay Area you can often get your first biz dev deal done with Google, Facebook,, eBay, Yahoo! or the countless other successful startup firms.

4. Elder Statesmen
This is where I think the action on connecting neurons has to come from. Jeff Bezos (and executive team) have to recognize that it’s in their best interest to see the community thrive and the benefits to Amazon (not to mention Seattle) are far greater than any negatives of employee flow. Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates and other senior teams from Microsoft need to want to promote local startups. These kinds of connections seldom emerge from middle management who view the immediate threats more than the long-run benefits.

5. Playing to Your Advantages
Every region has its advantages and while not limiting innovation to local themes it seems to make sense to at least consider local advantages. It’s no big surprise that I spend a larger portion of my time in LA working on: disruption of television, performance-based marketing, games & mobile. We have unique skills, teams, experience and regional assets that give us a better chance of success than other regions.

6. Marketing Muscle
It’s great to see an initiative like Seattle 2.0 because every community needs its local tech press to report on companies and run conference. Consider just how much exposure the Austin community gets every year due to SXSW. It’s awesome.

7. Local Angel Community / Recycled Capital
Fred Wilson wrote an eloquent piece on his blog about “recycling capital,” which every regional community should read. The magic that is Silicon Valley is that every tech entrepreneur who has made a bit of money chooses to “recycle” it by investing back into the startup community. There is a long tradition of these and it’s what formed the original angel network groups.

8. Venture Capital
And of course you need a mature venture capital industry. There are several local firms in Seattle like Madrona, Maveron, Ignition and others. But the consistent message I heard was “there’s not enough.” That’s why more VCs ought to be spending time in Seattle. It’s similar to LA in that there are a highly motivated cadre of tech savvy entrepreneurs wanting to create companies and a lack of funding. I’d bet if one is disciplined about investing here you’d see significantly better pricing than chasing deals in the overly competitive Bay Area corridors.

9. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
The other message I delivered to the room of entrepreneurs & investors at dinner the other night was that you need to think about equity from outside the region the same way that countries think about foreign direct investment. The inflow of capital can be transformative.

But what is often not talked about is that those investments lead to 8-10 board meetings every year of which it would be hoped that the “outside the region” VC would attend 6-8 of them in person. I think a series of brand ambassadors should find out when these VCs will be in town and organize evening events for them the night before so they don’t do a fly-in, fly-out visit.

10. Time
And finally, it’s clear that to really build a regional community you need time. LA and Seattle are in the second (or third) major wave of technology innovation. We have all of the 2nd-time entrepreneurs from Overture, CitySearch, MySpace, etc. on to their next companies and that produced Demand Media, a public company who even with a slight recent reduction in share price is still trading at $1.3 billion.
His full post is here.


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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] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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