Small Team, Big Mission: American Innovation and Entrepreneurship

How does a country address and drive significant change on important subjects like workforce development, innovation and entrepreneurship?

Not surprisingly, there isn’t a simple solution for these complex topic areas but there are ways to identify discrete problems that organizations, universities, committees and councils can improve. And that’s exactly what the Department of Commerce is aiming to do with its National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE), which reports directly to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Established in 2010, NACIE operates as an independent entity managed through the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. NACIE is a group of passionate, committed and experienced leaders from across sectors who collectively offer recommendations for policies and programs to make U.S. communities, businesses and the workforce more globally competitive. Each member serves a two-year term and the council is now in its third cycle.

Earlier this fall, I was honored to be appointed to NACIE and had the opportunity to meet my fellow appointees in Washington at our inaugural convening. What an impressive group of people! The 30 council members (listed below) represent a wide array of organizations from universities to startups, nonprofits to entrepreneurial support organizations, and more. Each appointee brings unique insights and perspectives to the table and I’m proud to be one of two representatives from Massachusetts alongside Heather Boesch, Operations Director at IDEO in Cambridge, MA.

The council is identifying a few key challenges to focus on over the next two years with the goal to develop specific actions that can be taken by the Secretary of Commerce that are within his or her scope and possible via the levers of the federal government.

And despite any uncertainty in the path ahead due to the recent election, the Department of Commerce has already expressed its commitment to ensuring this council continues forward to achieve its mission. After all, workforce growth, innovation and entrepreneurship are critical to our great nation’s overall competitiveness and that’s something we can all support, regardless of political party!

I believe in this council and feel strongly that it can make a difference, and part of that belief is because of the impressive example set by the previous council. Among many recommendations shared with the Secretary of Commerce, they identified an area specifically related to entrepreneurship and developed a white paper addressing the challenge. The paper focused on the SBIR Grant Program and how it can be modified to better serve entrepreneurs and help them commercialize their technology; it ultimately made its way into a Senate Bill and committee, highlighting the council’s ability to drive important change.

Over the next two years I hope to help the council address three key areas Greentown Labs is already working on but realize a collective effort will drive greater results!

  1. Identifying new models to provide entrepreneurs access to capital:

Venture capital doesn’t exist in the cleantech industry so we’re constantly evaluating existing pathways and new channels to provide access to capital to our member companies. The long-term impact of developing these new models will help get game-changing technologies to market not just in the U.S., but around the world.

At Greentown Labs we’ve been addressing the problem by connecting with corporations that can pilot our startups’ technologies or perhaps invest in them to help bring them closer to commercialization. Other interesting models include the PRIME Coalition via philanthropic investments, and Cyclotron Road which offers the great resources of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to entrepreneurs who are deeply focused on energy R&D. These are just three models that help commercialize hard technologies faster and more cost effectively, but I’m confident there are many other channels available and I believe NACIE members can share insights from their experiences in parallel industries.

2. Establishing a platform to encourage more women to pursue entrepreneurship, particularly in the sciences and research areas:

Why aren’t more women pursuing these sectors? From what I’ve seen at Greentown Labs, startups with women on the founding team tend to move quickly through the early stages of startup acceleration and incubation; they move farther faster and I haven’t figured out why women are not highly represented. Could it be a lack of role models or mentors? Or perhaps the messaging they’re receiving at the time in their life when they would typically pursue entrepreneurship?

I’m deeply passionate about this topic and I want all female entrepreneurs to feel empowered and encouraged to pursue their visions and dreams. I want to ensure all entrepreneurs — no matter your gender, race or experience — understand that not all startups need a Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs-like personality. In fact, most don’t have them. I’m excited to work with the council on this subject and to develop a platform that addresses these challenges. A national mentorship program that matches new female entrepreneurs with experienced individuals seems like a good first step.

3. Developing a national program to address workforce development, specifically in regard to manufacturing talent.

Two years ago Greentown Labs partnered with the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) to launch a first-of-its-kind Manufacturing Initiative to connect startups and manufacturers across Massachusetts. Sponsored by MassDevelopment, the Commonwealth’s quasi-public economic development and finance agency, the Initiative was tasked with helping startups make products locally by connecting startups and local manufacturers and to understand what barriers existed to their working together.

The program has gained national attention and seen great success. We’ve helped create more than 200 connections between startups and manufacturers and were invited to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Maker-to-Manufacturer Stakeholder Event to present our program findings. We’ve met with manufacturers around Massachusetts and a constant theme we hear is: manufacturers could grow, except they have no one to hire. The current generation of manufacturing jobs and expertise is aging out faster than newcomers can be trained, and we need to ensure the next generation is ready, able and excited to take the controls. The manufacturing industry provides a wide variety of excellent, well-paying jobs and we must identify a way to connect current and future job seekers to this important field. Not only will it help with workforce and economic development, our manufacturing industry will be able to reclaim its title as the forefront of industrial innovation and production.

Greentown Labs will continue to work on these three challenges and I’m eager to see them scale across the country via the council’s collaborative approach to problem solving. To learn more about NACIE, I encourage you to visit www.eda.gov/oie/nacie or please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have ideas on how the Department of Commerce can improve our workforce, innovation and entrepreneurial competitiveness. Onward!

NACIE 2016–2018 members before our inaugural meeting in DC. Photo credit: NACIE.

My fellow NACIE 2016–2018 members include:

  • Rebecca O. Bagley — Vice Chancellor for Economic Partnerships, University of Pittsburgh
  • Esther M. Baldwin — Director of Innovation, Intel
  • Brian J. Bartholomeusz — Executive Director, TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, Stanford University
  • Heather Boesch — Director of Business Operations, IDEO
  • Trey Bowles — Cofounder of The Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA); and CEO, The Dallas Entrepreneur Center
  • Melissa L. Bradley (Co-chair) — Director, AU Center for Innovation in the Capital
  • Kathryn Finney — Founder and Managing Director, digitalundivided
  • Scott Frederick — Development Partner & Head of Federal, New Enterprise Associates
  • Kara Goldin — Founder & CEO, Hint Inc.
  • Julie K. Goonewardene* — Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Strategic Investment/Managing Director of the UT Horizon Fund, University of Texas System
  • Orin Herskowitz — Executive Director, Vice President of Intellectual Property and Tech Transfer, Columbia Technology Ventures, Columbia University
  • Richard A. Johnson — Associate Vice President, Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation
  • Joseph Kapp — Entrepreneur in Residence, Eastern WV Community & Technical College; and CEO, Behavioral Business, LLC
  • David S. Kenney* — President & Executive Director, Oregon BEST
  • Pradeep K. Khosla — Chancellor, University of California, San Diego
  • Marie Trzupek Lynch* — CEO, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future
  • Mike Nemeth — Founder & CEO, S3 Planning
  • Andrew D. Reamer — Research Professor, George Washington University
  • Joseph L. Schocken — President, Broadmark Capital, LLC
  • Sue Griffith Smith — Vice President of Technology and Applied Science, Ivy Tech Community College
  • Whitney S. Smith — Executive Director of Midwest, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase
  • Tiffany M. Stevenson — Vice President, Talent Management & Development, Sephora USA, Inc.
  • Stephen S. Tang* (Co-chair) — President & CEO, University City Science Center
  • Eric J. Toone — Vice Provost & Director, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Duke University
  • Howard A. Tullman — CEO, 1871; and General Managing Partner, Chicago High Tech Investment Partners, LLC
  • Maribel Perez Wadsworth — Senior Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer, Gannett Company Inc.
  • Tiffany J. Wilson* — Executive Director, Global Center for Medical Innovation
  • Chad Womack — Director of STEM Initiatives, United Negro College Fund
  • Andrew Yang — Founder and CEO, Venture for America

* reappointed member