Grunke column: Accelerating innovative growth

Hewlett-Packard started in a garage. Facebook in a dorm room. General Electric in a barn. Point is, innovative businesses almost always start small — tiny even, sometimes seemingly insignificant. Their business cases may initially seem mystifying or obscure to most people; innovation, after all, is about finding new ways of doing business.

But in the end, companies like these can and do become the engines that drive economies forward, incrementally adding jobs, creating hubs around new industries, keeping the area’s best and brightest at home, even becoming global leaders.

To fire those engines, thought leaders in the economic development community have increasingly focused on what is known as Innovation-based Economic Development (IBED) programs.

Such programs vary from community to community, but generally focus on three strategies: connect entrepreneurs to one another, help entrepreneurs make contacts with professional resources in the community and assist entrepreneurs in finding capital. The ultimate goal is to foster an environment that attracts and nurtures innovators, whose businesses tend to boast higher pay and grow regional exports.

This past spring, Missoula Economic Partnership launched two significant projects that together encompass a full-fledged Innovation-based Economic Development program.

The first is MEP Angel Network, which connects entrepreneurs with local venture capital. I covered that network in my April InBusiness article.

Equally important — and accessible to entrepreneurs at any stage — is the Innovation Initiative. This program was developed in conjunction with the UM Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program (now with UM-managed Montana Technology Enterprise Center) and Hellgate Venture Network. It was created to be a true hub for innovative entrepreneurs, a gathering place where startups can connect with one another, share ideas and help each other grow.

Toward that end, the Innovation Initiative maintains open hours each Wednesday evening and Thursday morning at MonTEC. The initiative also hosts area professionals who provide free consulting and present brown-bag and round-table sessions. Already, 21 sessions have taken place, with a growing list of future events on the calendar that cover business topics such as venture capital, brand development, search engine marketing, public relations, patent law, information technology, strategic planning and more. The sessions vary in style. Some facilitators conduct open forums, others one-on-one consultations. You can learn about these local experts and innovators through the Missoula Economic Partnership Facebook page or our events page at MissoulaPartnership.com.

To date, attendance at our IBED events has been stronger than we anticipated and the initial feedback speaks to the value being received. For example, an entrepreneur from a local dot-com company who attended a session on branding enthused, “The Innovation Initiative is such a great concept. Today we went in for a session and walked away with some great takeaways … and every Thursday morning blocked out for the foreseeable future.”

What’s most interesting about the Innovation Initiative is the diversity of businesses it is already attracting. One recent session included two dot-coms, a trade sales business, an organic pest control professional, a clothing line, a movie industry startup and a solar energy company. That kind of variety reflects the rich tapestry of business and economic potential our community continues to develop and grow.

Will one of them be the next HP or GE? I don’t know. But I’m glad the Partnership is playing a role in helping these innovative, passionate entrepreneurs find out.

This column by James Grunke, CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership, originally appeared in the June 24, 2012 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.


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