Monday, December 20, 2010

Tech Task Force a Non-Starter

Criticizing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's new tech task force before it has met twice might seem unfair.  Give it a chance, right?

The lede of the PG report about the task force says everything that you need to know:
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has formed a task force to nurture high-tech businesses, an initiative that grew out of his recent Asia trip and a decision to more forcefully inject himself into a critical economic sector.

Mr. Ravenstahl hopes that bringing representatives of education, business and the nonprofit community together will yield a more unified approach to attracting and growing high-tech ventures.

Mr. Ravenstahl convened the first meeting in his office Dec. 6. The 40-person group included Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council; Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon; and Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, who traveled with the mayor to Shanghai, China, and Seoul, South Korea, in October.
Bringing people together will lead to a unified approach?  Probably.  Will it lead to growth?  Who knows.  Actually, the headline is worse:  "Ravenstahl lures high-tech businesses."  But Ravenstahl hasn't done anything.  Zip!

Pittsburgh's struggle to attract and grow "high-tech ventures" has nothing to do with a lack of a "unified approach."  The PG didn't publish all 40 names on the task force, and I couldn't find a website that lists them.  But dollars to cupcakes, I'll bet you that these are 40 of the *same* people -- in many cases, smart and well-intentioned people, and probably some who I count as friends -- who have been associated with underachieving economic development efforts in Western PA for the last 10 years or so. 

Putting all of these separate C-level players on a single team won't change the fact that they're the wrong players for this effort.

Tech-based economic development is not something that can be conjured in  meetings of mayors and CEOs.   That's top-down, old-school, clear-the-skies, ACCD thinking.  In fact, I would guess that the more that the Downtown Duquesne Club crew gets in the middle of this process, the more the real entrepreneurs and innovators and risk-capital investors get turned off of Pittsburgh.  Someone starting a new company wants money, mentorship, management, customers -- and to be otherwise left alone. 

(It's a little unfair, I know, to label the group of 40 "the Downtown Duquesne Club crew."  But I would *love* to learn that the group is meeting somewhere other than Grant Street or Sixth Avenue.)

If the group of 40 really want to send a productive message to business and tech communities in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, that message should be this:  Un-coordinate yourselves.  Tech transfer offices and incubators and seed funds should stop picking winners before companies are out of the gate.  Blanket the landscape with small bets, encourage and reward risk-taking, and let the passions of entrepreneurs and the discipline of the market sort out who stays and grows and who leaves or fades.  Publicly encourage and financially reward entrepreneurs who help entrepreneurs.  Take something like Alpha Lab, for example, and multiply it across sectors and scale it -- and fund it via the tech-based entrepreneurial community itself, and the professional services community, rather than via Innovation Works.  Quick question:  Alpha Lab companies get access to legal services.  How much of those legal services are *donated* or supplied *below cost*?

In short, make Pittsburgh a place where entrepreneurs and professional services *want* to come and grow new businesses, and *want* to help others do the same.


Claude Penland said...

It's only since I launched in October that I really began to appreciate the quantity and depth of tech startup activity in the region.

The number of cities (Cleveland, Detroit, etc.) who envy the coordination and effort by the public sector and high-tech private here is a very long list.

Pittsburgh is already "a place where entrepreneurs *want* to come and grow new businesses."

Burgher Jon said...

Mike, what do you think about this kind of effort instead of these "traditional" task forces?

Mike Madison said...

I am a big Eve Picker and CityLab fan. The kind of small-scale experimentation that the Press Release describes is the kind of thing that Pittsburgh needs more of.

I'm not at all as certain as the Press Release seems to be that its neighborhood-based economic development effort will work -- populate 6% of a place with "creatives" and it will flourish as a destination? -- but on an ex ante basis the cost/benefit aspect of giving it a try pretty clearly favors going ahead.

As in the main post: Pursue lots of small efforts. Understand the outcomes. Build on successes; cast away failures. Rinse. Repeat.

Anonymous said...

I recently started a project to revitalize Kittanning Pa - ( Ironically I've approached many politicians and they don't want to help, unless they can take the credit. The other problem with some of these groups is they take lots of public $money, and no one holds them accountable if they don't bring in business.

By far the worst group in trying to promote the region is the Mainstream media - Pgh Post, Trib, and Bus Times, wouldn't give me the time of day, unless I wanted to by ads in their papers.

rich10e said...

Any chance to get Andrew Mason, Mt Lebanon born CEO of Groupon to move his operation to Pittsburgh? That would be a tech success!!!