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Nurturing Bay State's high-tech talent

THE POWER of Massachusetts as an incubator of new ideas is what is propelling us toward future prosperity. Whenever Massachusetts brings together human talent, innovation, and capital, it creates economic value that is world class. This is the aim of Governor Deval Patrick's $1.25 billion initiative for the biotech industry with its 500 companies and institutions already at work here.

By strengthening biotech and the other industries in which we excel, including medicine, research and development, specialized manufacturing, and advanced technology, we will sustain an economic foundation unparalleled in world markets for years to come.

This strategy requires, most of all, nurturing the talents of our high-end knowledge workers. In surveys, biotech companies say their growth is tied more to the availability of trained biomedical scientists than to the availability of investment capital.

By nurturing our knowledge workers, we accelerate the pace of innovation and job creation. Why? At its most basic, globalization means production and distribution can take place anywhere. Human talent, therefore, is the one unique resource to cultivate in the 21st-century economy. Knowledge, unlike most natural resources, continues to expand with use, as Alvin Toffler points out in "Revolutionary Wealth."

The people with ideas who work in our universities, research labs, and high-tech industries are the reason the venture capital industry thrives here, infusing money into start ups and creating new jobs. More than $40 billion in venture capital has been invested here over the past 35 years, creating 600,000 new jobs and totaling more than $560 million in 2005 alone. Investment in Massachusetts is second only to California and double the funding level going to New York. Massachusetts has the highest corporate R&D expenditure per $1,000 of sales in the United States.

High-tech companies such as IBM and Google locate research facilities here to tap into the extensive talent and vibrant environment for innovation. In surveys, two-thirds of area high-tech CEOs say they expect to add new jobs here this year.

Affordable housing, a balance in public policies and private incentives, and the presence of corporate headquarters are economic factors that deserve our attention; however, retaining and attracting knowledge workers trumps everything. Our best future lies in our ability to apply our brain power toward solving worldwide problems, such as disease, environmental changes, clean water, and energy.

Therefore, devising innovative education programs that provide students with top-notch math and science skills and encourage careers in science and technology is as important as investment in research or business development.

We also need creative new ways to speed the flow of information among people, institutions, and private industry since information is the lifeblood of innovation. Today most research and development spans disciplines, requiring greater degrees of cooperation to produce results than ever before. Work in nanotechnology, for example, is being applied in areas as diverse as medicine, clothing, and cars.

The Internet is helping to break down traditional barriers, but more needs to be done. Local universities and think tanks are well positioned to help create the bridges we need across the various sectors of our economy. Social networking, for example, is moving beyond the college campus and becoming an effective way to share information in the workplace. Research teams use these new technologies to collaborate when they work in different cities or continents, and this trend is likely to increase as the next generation moves into jobs.

We need to reexamine the instinct to protect intellectual property against the enormous benefits of sharing and building on existing knowledge. In information technology, for example, older proprietary systems are giving way to open, flexible systems that can exchange and reuse information.

The future opportunities opened to us in a global economy are greater than we can imagine. How well we develop these opportunities into future prosperity will depend on our ability to nurture the human talent and economic strengths in our own backyard.

Michael Rhodin is general manager of IBM Lotus Corp. and IBM's senior state executive in Massachusetts.