Op-Ed: For Innovation Economy, Let’s Walk the Walk
by Patrick Hayakawa, VP of Innovation & Emerging Technologies, Chester County Economic Development Council
As originally published in Vista.Today
A report released this week by the Brookings Institution says Pennsylvania’s innovation economy—the part of our economy dealing with new technology, startups, entrepreneurship, and industry-changing innovation—has gone stagnant. The report blames a few factors, such as diminished investment by the state government in early-stage companies and below-average R&D expenditures by PA-based companies, and goes on to argue that to boost its innovation sector performance, Pennsylvania should borrow economic development strategies from competing states.
While we agree with the report’s emphasis that a robust innovation economy is an engine for broader economic growth and well-being, the authors might have done well to look at successful innovation efforts going on more locally. As the report says, not all areas of the state are lagging. As businesspeople, government leaders, and economic development professionals, we have found that being innovative in our action and policies, and not simply replicating what goes on elsewhere, is critical for supporting tech and entrepreneurial growth. Chester County has found success through a collaborative, multi-faceted approach that compounds our existing assets, addresses the unique needs of our communities, and lays the groundwork for sustainable innovation growth.
- In 2018 the County of Chester granted $100,000 to the Chester County Economic Development Council and its Ideas x Innovation Network (i2n), a private-public partnership founded in 2012 to help tech-driven ventures start, grow, and thrive—locally. i2n has grown to assist more than 100 companies per year accessing funding, workspace, and key connections. The county grant builds on the investment made by the state in the Keystone Innovation Zone tax credit program, which i2n administers for the region. The grant is matched 100% by contributions from the private sector.
- That same year saw the creation of VentureChesco, a $4 million fund—in partnership with the Chester County Retirement Board and the state-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania—to provide early-stage funding to tech and life sciences companies operating in the county.
- In 2019, with public and private support, we established the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, a peer group where startup company founders and first-time entrepreneurs come together to address the critical needs of their businesses, such as accessing startup funding and professional development resources.
- When formulating innovation strategy, we draw on the input and expertise of local tech industry leaders like Evolve IP’s Guy Fardone and iPipeline’s Tim Wallace, who also serve as mentors to the next generation of tech innovators. Their companies, and many others like them in Chester County, began as startups and have become anchors for the region, employing hundreds in well-paying jobs. Their expansion draws new waves of tech talent, and their successes (like iPipeline’s $1.6B acquisition last week) turn the attention of investors worldwide to southeastern PA.
- CCEDC and its partners invest in educating and inspiring our future tech workforce, with a special focus on ensuring that, as our tech economy grows, more people have an opportunity to lead and share in that growth, regardless of their gender, race, or economic background. This includes a variety of STEM education initiatives, like Girls Exploring Tomorrow’s Technology, a free, annual expo where nearly a thousand girls from grades 4-10 spend the day doing hands-on STEM activities and learning about related career opportunities. GETT is made possible with support from more than 60 companies and dozens of school districts. With this public and private collaboration, more than 4,500 students developed STEM skills and explored STEM careers through CCEDC’s youth programs last year.
None of these efforts happen by accident, or in a vacuum. CCEDC has a 60-year legacy of helping startups stand on their own feet. Today the county is home to industry-leading companies like Vanguard, Cerner (formerly Shared Medical) and QVC, and all of which started small and started here. More recently, VISTA 2025, the county’s comprehensive 10-year economic development strategy, identified supporting a culture of innovation as one of its five key pillars, along with quality of place, workforce, targeted industry clusters, and infrastructure.
Partly due to this strategy of long-term planning, coordination across the private sector and multiple levels of government, and creative problem-solving based on local challenges and resources, Chester County excels in several indicators of innovation success, such as number of invention patents per capita, numbers of tech and life sciences companies, and award levels of KIZ and R&D tax credits.
There is more work to be done, both here and across the state. And we agree with the Brookings report’s call for a refreshed statewide innovation strategy, as well deploying more private and public resources to maintain Pennsylvania’s competitive edge. But before we look to our out-of-state neighbors for policies that may or may not suit the Commonwealth, or reflexively recreate the strategies of 20-years past, let’s take a shot at not just talking innovation, but walking the walk: build on our strengths, enhance existing collaborations, and advance new ideas to bolster the innovation economy.