Why Regional Innovation Clusters Should Not be Demonized

April 3, 2012

By: G. Nagesh Rao
Via: TriplePundit

Igniting InnovationOver the past few years, the mere utterance of the term “Regional Innovation Clusters” (RICs) has either ginned up folks or struck a gut-wrenching chord within the startup and technology world. No fiercer critic has emerged than Vivek Wadhwa, who has been opining thoughtfully on his belief that government sponsored Regional Innovation Clusters, are doomed for failure. He believes the current strategy of constructing an incubator in an area with cheap real-estate and sprinkling a few smart folks in the area to “create magic” is insufficient.

As someone who has worked for the US government for seven years as a civil servant, on a variety of endeavors including matters related to RICs, I understand and concur with many of Vivek’s sentiments. But I do question his supposition that it has to be that way.

The truth is that governments at the federal, state or local level can partner with local stakeholders to create a fully functional RIC through a hybrid of pre-existing organic growth and pragmatic policy mechanisms. The role of democratic government is to develop viable and sustainable endeavors in the public’s best interests. If the right stakeholders are brought into place to make it happen the formula can work.

A great example of a successful RIC is the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) which has become the backbone of the budding cleantech initiatives in LA due to Mayor Villaraigosa’s cajoling of various public and private stakeholders. Recently, Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to dismantle the California Redevelopment Agency (CRA) system laid a serious blow to LACI, since it was spearheaded as a CRA project. Nonetheless the partners involved made sure to keep this initiative alive and well, making sure the public knew that it was going to sustain various political administrations for years to come.

Why? Because the initiative was created with the right players in mind, from top tier universities (Caltech, USC, and UCLA), to the massive manufacturing base in the valley to the creative minds emanating out of Hollywood. The public demanded that next wave of cleantech development be spearheaded right out of LA, they wished to be a “Neo-Mecca” for next generation innovation and sustainable technological development. That is why LACI survived, the public with the Mayor’s office willed this endeavor to stay the course because they truly believe in the vision.

Full disclosure: I spent the last year in the LA cleantech scene working and advising with a number of startup companies as well being the go-to “Government and IP-Policy and Procurement Guru,” and it was a positively enlightening experience.

[Image credit: Michael Bonnett Jr, Flickr]

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