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Fireside Chat Takeaways: 2016 National SBIR/STTR Conference

June 1st, 2016 by Rebecca Norman

This year’s National SBIR/STTR Conference kicked off with a Fireside Chat that addressed the role of liberal arts in innovative thinking, insights on working with the federal government, and opportunities to expand the nationwide spread of Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer program awardees.

Fireside Chat speakers included Stephen Gold of IBM, Jenny Lawton of littleBits, and Rebecca Bagley, Vice Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.

When the speakers were asked where they see gaps in higher education to generate innovative thinking, Lawton said that people learn by innovating, so there needs to be a change in higher education learning to allow for more hands-on learning and creativity. Bagley indicated that Pitt’s humanities programs involve co-projects across the disciplines.

Another example Bagley noted was outside classroom learning, such as internships. She said there needs to be a convergence of reinforcing skills, no matter what discipline. Gold said that a balance of art and science leads to better thinking, especially in creative innovation. He noted that IBM’s Research Labs includes coursework on creative thinking and discusses being adaptive in work styles.

Each speaker had different insights regarding working with the federal government.

Gold said that without the federal and local government, IBM wouldn’t be where it is today. The company’s research and development budget isn’t sufficient to perform on all available opportunities. He said that the federal government was both a funder and early adopter of one of the company’s technologies. Bagley said that university entrepreneurs work very quickly and there is a need to streamline procedures to allow them to maintain this entrepreneurial pace. She noted that the Regional Innovation Clusters program allows those on the ground to drive focus areas of research so an entrepreneur can define priorities for a given region. Lawton said that academia, federal government, and entrepreneurs are all needed. She said there would be an endless list of things we wouldn’t have if they didn’t all work together.

Most SBIR awards go to 25 ZIP codes, although there is an interest in distilling capital to others. Lawton said that there are other places where successful people are putting down roots, and she sees this more in the angels and other investors supporting them. Bagley has seen some conversation happening in Pittsburgh about whether or not to develop a venture fund or allow entrepreneurs to develop organically and then seek bigger funds. All of the speakers indicated that the talent gap also needs to be considered. Gold said that pockets of innovation in Silicon Valley exist largely because of talent there. Bagley noted that cultural differences been new and old economies and their perspectives on risk can present a challenge in welcoming a new environment.

The speakers shared “a-ha” moments that they experienced first-hand that spurred their passion for innovative entrepreneurship. Bagley was inspired when she saw how Nordec helped small and large businesses connect to bring new innovations to market. Gold said that in the digital age there’s better and more access to information that allows for informed decision making. Lawton found her a-ha moment in exploring the internet’s capabilities and potential.