Ben Franklin 4 PA
Pittsburghers agree with a need for more state-level support for innovation.
Pittsburghers agree with a need for more state-level support for innovation. Here's what they think that looks like.
By Julia Mericle | Technology Reporter
Pittsburgh Business Times
Aug 15, 2019
When the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program published a report Tuesday making the point that Pennsylvania is not doing enough to support innovation, it led many to ask what does the state need to do to ensure it doesn't fall further behind at a time when investment in innovation is critical for economic development.
The leaders of Pittsburgh’s innovation ecosystem have some ideas.
Innovation Works President and CEO Rich Lunak knows the effects of the state’s decreased support first-hand. Innovation Works is part of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a program that provides funding, business assistance and networking opportunities to technology startups throughout the state.
A decade ago, Lunak said the Ben Franklin Technology Partners received funding at about $56 million annually. In 2018, that funding only hit $14.5 million.
And it’s not just the Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Lunak said that same decreased funding is happening to programs across the state that support commercialization out of universities, Keystone Innovation Zones and venture capital for startups.
“Now those programs are really a skeleton of what they once were,” Lunak said. “And some are completely inactive.”
Lunak said if Pennsylvania does not act quickly to step up its state support for innovation programs, it will see long-term economic ramifications.
“Ironically, most of the states modeled a lot of their programs after Pennsylvania,” Lunak said. “It was the foundation for some of the leading programs in the country. What it has not done is continued to support them and sustain it.”
Greg Coticchia, director of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Founder Institute, agreed, saying Pennsylvania’s framework for a health innovation sector is, for the most part, already in place.
“In a lot of ways if they would just fund the things they already started to a competitive level, it would be a positive move,” Coticchia said. “They cut back on things that people depend on.”
As far as new development goes, Coticchia said he thinks more targeted investments, micro-loans and statewide accelerator programs would work well for Pennsylvania.
Allegheny Conference of Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman released a statement supporting the report’s findings. The statement explained that increased state-level support is vital to Pittsburgh’s competitive global standing.
Brian Kennedy, senior vice president for operations and government affairs at the Pittsburgh Technology Council, also said he agrees with the report’s assessment that the state could provide additional support.
However, Kennedy said the Tech Council approaches TBED, or technology-based economic development, from a modern perspective that does not isolate its focus on innovation-focused programs like Innovation Works.
“Twenty years ago we might have looked at TBED as economic development programs alone,” Kennedy said. “Today, as we approach 2020, talent is the single most essential component to economic development in the tech space. Period. Hands down.”
To Kennedy, that means if the Commonwealth wants to support innovation, it needs to also focus on attracting and retaining talent by investing in improved public transit, K-12 schools, accessible higher education, parks, roads and air quality.
He said the talent pipeline in Pittsburgh explains why the city can continue to build up its tech ecosystem, despite lacking state support. It’s why large tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber and Amazon have opened R&D operations in Pittsburgh without incentive from the state in most cases. Yet, that can only last so long without support.
These are all things that need to be marketed as part of a statewide, comprehensive innovation strategy. If Pennsylvania does not do this, highly sought-after talent will go elsewhere, the leaders agreed.
“This time in history is not going to last forever,” Coticchia said. “So if the state doesn’t figure out how to allocate its funds in this area soon, we are going to lose a wonderful window of opportunity. We are not always going to be riding high.”