- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In the 1950s, North Carolina had its back against the wall. The three industries that were propping up the state’s economy - tobacco, textiles and furniture - were crumbling. Recognizing that a vision for a new economic future was needed, a diverse group of business, government and university leaders began to map out strategies to attract new industry and talent to the region. By middecade, they had their vision.

A field of scrub brush - 5,800 acres bounded on three sides by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University - was purchased quietly and introduced in 1957 as Research Triangle Park, with the bold ambition of salvaging the state’s economy and advancing a national research agenda.

The Triangle stumbled early on as investors balked at the notion of turning pine brush into a cutting-edge research-and-development campus. With the whole project on the verge of collapse, a broad group of citizens stepped up with the necessary financial pledges.

Today, the Triangle is one of the oldest and largest science parks in North America, home to more than 170 companies that employ more than 42,000 full-time workers and 10,000 contractors. What’s more, it has proved to be a hub of innovation, spinning out several new companies annually, filing a steady stream of patents and garnering prestigious awards.

In today’s economic climate, similar bold and future-oriented initiatives are needed to shape our communities and harness their full potential. One corner of the Triangle - Durham - is again playing a pioneering role as it develops plans to establish the city as a national center of social innovation and entrepreneurship where the next generation of world-changing ideas will be cultivated, incubated and invested in through purposeful public-private support, an initiative that New Mountain Ventures is helping to facilitate.

Up for consideration are a social-innovation-and-entrepreneurship-themed high school, an executive talent recruitment and development effort, a network of social enterprise incubators clustered around a downtown park designed to facilitate the exchange of big ideas and deeper social networks, coordinated social investment funds, nonprofit and faith-based capacity-building efforts and more.

Pennsylvania is also trying to sharpen its competitive advantage through a series of economic- dev elopment activities. The state’s Department of Community and Economic Development, for example, has launched Ben Franklin Technology Partners, whose purpose is to “diversify and strengthen Pennsylvania’s economy by focusing on entrepreneurial development and technological innovation.” This includes providing hands-on technical and business expertise; access to customized solutions from universities, federal laboratories and research institutions; and early-stage investment in technology-based enterprises and established businesses. To date, more than $40 million has been invested in 116 start-up companies, which, in turn, have attracted another $600 million in follow-on investment - creating thousands of new jobs for the region.

The Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. has focused on “10 concrete action items to accelerate the pace of job growth.” Included on the list are helping small businesses gain access to capital, fostering new-company creation and entrepreneurship, and expanding the state’s renewable energy capabilities. To support the latter, the state has created a Renewable Energy Fund to help finance public and private initiatives designed to create green jobs and generate renewable energy.

Oklahoma, recognizing its dependence on oil and gas revenues, has launched the Oklahoma Creativity Project - “developing new initiatives that connect 21st-century learning to entrepreneurial efforts and cultural change … a grass-roots movement of all types of citizens, working together to recognize and act upon valuable creative ideas that will advance our schools, our communities and our state forward in the decades ahead.” Next year, the state will host the World Creativity Forum, a conference designed to showcase some of the world’s most creative ideas and forward-thinking pioneers.

These examples show that as America looks to rise from the recession’s ashes and create a brighter future, we must be willing to step up and see how the proverbial field of scrub brush can be transformed into the next hotbed of innovation.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development firm. They can be reached at au thors@lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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