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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Brookings report: Pa.'s innovation policy lagging behind other states

By Steve Twedt, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh continues to be an incubator for innovation, but the city, as well as the rest of Pennsylvania, could be doing better, according to a new study by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.


As it is, the lack of a healthy statewide innovation policy puts Pennsylvania at risk of falling behind other states in this critical area, according to the report’s authors Robert Maxim and Mark Muro.


In their new 66-page report, “Ideas for Pennsylvania’s Innovation Policy,” the two note that Pennsylvania has historically been considered an innovation leader with such initiatives as Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the statewide network launched in 1983 to support technology-based startups.


Today the state — while home to innovative research universities such as Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh — scores below average nationally for industry research and development, and it has seen a decline in venture capital and state aid for startup companies, the Brookings report says.


“It seems adrift,” said Mr. Muro in a phone interview Tuesday.


Key indicators are “either sideways or slightly downward trending,” he said, and the state risks falling behind just as the competition for the top 10 to 20 innovation slots nationally — the “superstars” — is heating up.


Pennsylvania’s innovation economy, the authors conclude, “has gone flat at the wrong time.”


The report cited the State Science and Technology Institute in saying that spending on research and development, technology transfer and commercialization in Pennsylvania has declined 65 percent since 2009.


Michael Gerber, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, said Tuesday that officials are still reviewing the report’s findings but offered some historical perspective.


“In difficult budget years, it’s important to note that Gov. Wolf has fought to ensure the line items of funding channels like the Ben Franklin Technology Partners [which has four regional headquarters statewide and 10 satellite offices] were not cut.”


In addition, he said the governor has a primary goal of increasing education funding, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math education.


“The administration has also taken steps to ensure a vibrant business climate for startups through new initiatives like the PA Business One-Stop Shop, which removes barriers for entrepreneurs to start their own business.”


Stefani Pashman, CEO for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said she supports the report’s recommendation to establish a comprehensive statewide innovation strategy.


“The Pittsburgh region is pioneering self-driving cars, leading the way in artificial intelligence and robotics, developing lifesaving medical research and more. We’re inventive, we’re problem-solvers and we are pushing innovation beyond the imagination. We are experiencing success, and with an even more competitive operating environment, we can go further, faster.”


The Brookings report does note that Pittsburgh and Philadelphia “make the most significant contributions” to the state’s innovation efforts, accounting for 60.6 percent of employment in key industries linked to innovation — but the authors suggest that’s not necessarily a good thing.


With key economic growth concentrated in these two urban areas, “a significant number of people, places, and companies risk falling further behind,” the report said.


So while Pittsburgh may claim a stake as an innovative center, the most successful regions around the country also have regional, state and federal collaborations fueling the innovation engine.


Pittsburgh is still positioned to break into the upper echelon of top innovative regions, but the current trajectory statewide is not optimal, the authors say.


When it comes to innovation, Mr. Muro said, “If you’re not a star, you’re going sideways and you’re vulnerable.”


Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.

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