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An Open E-mail to Gov. Patrick and Secretary Bialecki: Seven Innovation Questions to Focus On

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 8, 2009 01:20 PM

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itpic.jpgDear Governor Patrick and Secretary Bialecki:

I suspect that when you meet with business groups around the Commonwealth, they all spend their time trying to persuade you why their industry is the most important, whether they are cranberry growers, fishermen, builders, educators, or Fluff producers.

That's why Monday's IT industry pep rally in Watertown felt pointless to me. UMass produced a report detailing how vital IT is to the state's gross domestic product, and how many jobs it supplies (fewer today than in 2000, it turns out.) The morning's conversations were focused on the bone-headed question "How can Massachusetts seize the opportunity to become the premier technology hub?"

Here's a better question for you two, and everyone on the IT industry committee you created: can we all stop doing this silly dance to the tune of "our industry is so important, please pay more attention to us, Beacon Hill?"

What is important to all of us, policy-makers and private sector-ites alike, is creating more jobs, solving big problems, and growing important companies here -- keeping Massachusetts a hub of innovation. (Secretary Bialecki, as you candidly said on Monday, "The governor has told me that my top three priorities are jobs, jobs, and jobs.")

Rather than doing more studies, forming more blue-ribbon task forces, or putting on more panel discussions and meet-and-greets -- none of which actually create jobs -- I'd suggest that the IT industry, and every other innovation-oriented industry in Massachusetts, start developing initiatives (and expanding existing initiatives) to address seven questions.

    1. How can we break down boundaries that exist between the industries/trade associations/fields that flourish in Massachusetts? Collaborations between biologists and energy experts, wireless networking engineers and medical device makers, robotics designers and logistics gurus will represent the future of innovation in our state. Paying attention to the entrenched big companies and industries keeps us rooted in the past. The future is about discovering new industries by ignoring boundaries and exploring areas of convergence. After all, Alexander Graham Bell's investors thought he was supposed to be working on technologies that would improve the telegraph; instead, he came up with the telephone.

    2. How can we better collaborate with the other New England states, and work as a region rather than one small state? We're part of an exceptionally innovative six-state region, and in a vast global economy, we'll do much better if we're aligned with efforts taking place in the neighboring states.

    3. How can we ensure that every student in our schools is excited by learning about science, technology, engineering and math? We are already an epicenter of innovation when it comes to new approaches to getting kids jazzed about STEM education, but we can do much more.

    4. How can we more effectively communicate our innovation story to the rest of the world? Governor Patrick, you were dead-on when you observed that "we don't brag well... and if we don't, no one else will." We don't just need you two to be ambassadors for the Bay State. Whenever we get on a plane, Massachusetts executives and innovators need to share what happens here with everyone they meet. We may not need a single brand, logo, or "positioning statement," but we should all be able to talk about some of the companies and achievements that make Massachusetts such a fertile place for entrepreneurs and innovators.

    5. What can we do to persuade senior executives and successful entrepreneurs to do more mentoring? Secretary Bialecki, you and I talked a bit about this yesterday: one of the keys to helping small companies grow is good advice from people who've done it before. We offer a lot of support to start-ups, but some kind of organized, open mentorship program across every industry (or an office hours initiative) would be helpful to entrepreneurs trying to grow their five-person start-up into a 500-person business. How can we make it easy for experienced people to share what they've learned, in a low-commitment way? Answering that question can have a huge impact on our economy.

    6. How can we put out the welcome mat for immigrants? Our state was famously founded by a boat full of European immigrants, and now, everywhere you turn, you see vibrant businesses founded by enterprising people who came here from China, India, Israel, Russia and elsewhere. We ought to work with the Obama administration to reform visa policy so that entrepreneurs can stay here and start companies if they choose, and so that companies that need smart, specialized experts to grow can easily hire them from anywhere in the world. (Worth a read is this recent op-ed, 'Start-up Visas Can Jump-Start the Economy.')

    7. How can we retain more of the students we educate here? Our greatest renewable resource in Massachusetts is smart young people. They come here for four years or more, and then too often they go back from whence they came. (Even those born here often light out for other parts of the country.) The room yesterday was full of suits, not students. Every industry in Massachusetts ought to stop talking to itself so much, and start talking more to students. That means sending execs (and recent hires) out to college campuses to tell them about your company and your industry and the job opportunities within it, and inviting students to visit you and share what they're working on.

I think we should let others continue to tilt at windmills, producing reports on how we can improve the traffic on 128 or lower the cost of living here.

But instead of talking in vaporous generalities, what if we focused on specific answers, action items, and to-dos related to the seven questions above? Many of them are already under way. You can ask those in the innovation community what they're working on, and how they can use your support and resources -- and we can ask you for help when we need it.

I love a PowerPoint presentation every bit as much as the next guy. But let's leave the slides behind for a bit, forget about the traditional boundaries between all these industries, and instead focus on projects that will catapult our entire innovation economy forward.

Readers: What initiatives related to these questions would you spotlight? What other questions should we be focusing on? Post a comment if you would...

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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