By Dean Whittaker

Innovation is everywhere.  From “Technology Lead Economic Development” to transitioning to the knowledge economy, everyone has a strategy to commercialize the intellectual property of universities and the federally funded R&D taking place in federal labs.  Why is innovation such a key driver for economic development?  Part of the reason is that all products and services become commodities over time.  Yesterday’s innovation is today’s “also ran.” Without continuous innovation, a business will fail in the long run.

Where does innovation come from, and how can it be used in an economic development strategy?  Innovation is “finding a better way.” It begins with asking a good question. One question that I like is, “What impossible thing, if made possible, would revolutionize your business?”  For me, that impossible thing has been identifying which companies were going to relocate or expand in the next 18 months, and where and when that might happen.  I have been working on the answer to these questions for twenty years. So far, I have a good understanding of who, a hint at where and no clue as to when.

So how does one commercialize a good idea?  First of all, ideas are a “dime a dozen.” Having a good idea is not the issue. Success is really about whether the idea meets a need people will pay to have met.  And they have to pay enough that a profitable business can be created around meeting that need.

Innovation matters because without it our local businesses are “out of business.”  Does the idea have to come from a federal laboratory or a university? Of course not–any business that has been around a few years has had to innovate to survive. Continuous innovation is critical to our local economies.

So how do we create a culture that supports innovation? First of all, we accept risk.  Is your area willing to support risk-takers? Are financial systems in place to support risk taking? Is there a free flow of ideas that integrate new ways of doing things into existing business practices? One approach I like is the TED conference (, where big thinkers present their ideas in front of a “make it so” audience.

For those engaged in the pursuit of the commercialization of intellectual property, an organization has formed, complete with annual conferences. SSTI ( is a comprehensive resource for those involved in technology-based economic development. Since its inception in 1996, SSTI has developed a nationwide network of practitioners and policymakers dedicated to improving the economy through science and technology.

A couple of interesting initiatives to take a look at are the Arizona Technology Council and the eastern Tennessee Innovation Valley Nano Alliance ( These and other initiatives like them are changing our economy.  If you are not already on the bus, you might want to think about getting there.  For those on the bus, more power to you!