Creating an innovation ecosystem seems daunting. There are lots of places to start. Biotechnology has firm roots in the region. Computer-based advancements and ventures are gaining steam. However, what will the next areas of innovation be? How do we create a structure that allows us to explain our innovation choices to the next generation?
If you are a parent it is one of the most dreaded questions you will hear. It will continue to be a controversial topic in public education. Political platforms will be constructed and demolished around this very topic. Fast-forward 10 to 15 years and you will hear the tenderly inquisitive voice of a toddler ask, “Mommy, where does water come from?
We live in a region in which a magical phenomenon occurs – turn a knob and clean, refreshing water pours out. We have so much of it that we assist Mother Nature by running sprinklers during a rainstorm, washing our cars every week and turning our collective noses up at the thought of drinking water that does not come in a bottle. In short, we are spoiled by the supply and ignorant of the demand. I would tell the curious toddler that water comes from a region that isn’t afraid of F-words: focus, foster and finance.
Every good and healthy relationship begins with focused effort, and addressing our water issues is no different. The region needs to put water at the top of the priority list. This is not a commitment to using less water; it is a focus on using water more efficiently. It is a focus on water management innovation. It is a focused answer to the toddler’s question even though it is a little embarrassing. The more direct the answer, the more responsible the toddler will be with this limited resource. Responsibility is a telltale sign of focus.
This leads me to foster. A region needs to not only adopt innovative solutions but also foster new opportunities for adoption. If the desire to foster new possibilities is lacking, the answer to the toddler’s question is inaccurate. “Water comes from the faucet.” Not an acceptable answer. To truly address the water issue, the region needs to come up with more answers – hundreds or thousands of alternatives to “the faucet.” A good indicator of creative solutions being fostered is the presence of new patent filings. Money flows to where the patents grow.
This brings me to the final F, which is finance. Take out the region’s metaphorical bank statement and see where money is being spent. Where are the investments being made? If there is a true focus on fostering creative solutions, then these initiatives need to be funded – venture capital, government appropriations, language in legislation, etc. Why are the ideas we like the best the ones on which we spend the least amount of money? Last year one-half of 1% of all venture capital invested was invested in clean-water technology. Not much of a priority.
If we do not make changes soon, we will all face inquisitive toddlers asking, “Where does water come from?” The public schools will require all sophomores to take water education classes. Let us do everyone a favor. Let us focus on adopting new ways to address water issues. Let us build an environment that values innovation and fosters solutions. Let us put our money where our mouth is by financing water-related ventures. Let us keep the kids focused on asking where babies come from. It is a much simpler question to answer.
This was originally published as part of my monthly column in St. Louis Small Business Monthly.