Plan today for tomorrow’s prosperity

By Bill Taylor, EDPA

Sept. 26, 2011 – Apple’s Steve Jobs has been known to throw out an oft-quoted quip from Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

It makes sense for a company founded on, and known for innovation to follow this advice. Visionaries who can show results make leaders.

For those of us in economic development it’s a challenge. It’s easier to look at the puck at our feet and rally the team to address the current situation. But that won’t lead to a sustainable economy, and it certainly won’t prepare us for the future.

On Friday more than 200 people – economic developers, leaders from business and universities, and key State officials gathered at Alabama’s first statewide conference dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship, the Alabama Launchpad Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference. During the day, attendees heard from Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine; Sherwin Greenblatt, director of MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service and the retired president of Bose Corp.; resident innovators Tim Pickens of Dynetics and Marty Kress of the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation; and state leaders such as Alabama Development Office Director Greg Canfield and The University of Alabama System Chancellor, Dr. Malcom Portera.

This event officially kicked off the sixth season of the Alabama Launchpad Business Plan Competition – a cooperative program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama Foundation, the Alabama Research Alliance, and six of the state’s research universities: Alabama State University, Auburn University, The University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and the University of South Alabama.

But the purpose of the conference is much larger than kicking off a competition: Bringing together stakeholders from Alabama’s innovation economy for a collaborative look at Alabama’s successes, and more importantly, at its future.

The day opened with Governor Bentley issuing a proclamation declaring Sept. 23, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day” in the state of Alabama. But for many in the state, this is a passion that is lived out daily.

Alabama already has a thriving innovation economy.  It is thriving in three research parks, eight research universities, a leading contract research organization (Southern Research), and a world-class genomics research institute (Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology). It is thriving in a network of business incubators and other support networks, including Alabama’s angel and venture communities. And of course, it is thriving in Alabama’s existing industries who know that skating to where the puck is going to be is a matter of survival.

As a state, mere survival is not an option. To succeed in the future, we must plan today.

Governor Bentley’s Economic Development Alliance is working towards that goal with the development of Accelerate Alabama, a strategic plan for economic development in the State of Alabama. The plan is organized around a three-pronged approach to economic development focused on the recruitment of new industries and businesses, the retention of existing industry, and “renewal,” defined by innovation and entrepreneurship-driven activities.

For this plan to be successful, the right people have to not only contribute, but take action.

Through the Alabama Launchpad Business Plan Competition, a small difference is already being made. To date, the competition has already awarded $875,000 to Alabama start-ups and put a network of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and service providers to action by volunteering as mentors and judges.

I believe the Business Plan Competition is a microcosm of larger successes that can be achieved in the state. Even small steps make a difference if they are moving in the right direction.

A one-day conference is a small step, as is a proclamation, or even a business plan competition. But these successes can build momentum to something larger.

Together, we can reach the point when everyone is chasing Alabama’s puck. And that’s leadership.

This appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 25 edition of the Birmingham News as an opinion piece.