In 2007, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, and the Institute of Medicine agreed in Rising Above the Gathering Storm: “….the biggest concern is that our competitive advantage, our success in the global markets, our economic growth, and our standard of living all depend on maintaining a leading position in science, technology and innovation. As that lead shrinks, we risk losing the advantages on which our economy depends.” Innovation has become only more important as a result of the economic downturn since that observation.
“I think more so than ever before, innovation itself is what’s driving economic impact,” says Ronald Pulliam, the third-generation owner of Pulliam Enterprises Inc. in Mishawaka, Ind. “In cities like ours throughout the United States, everybody’s trying to do startup or innovation endeavors, whether it’s a technology park, a business incubator or even chamber of commerce or economic development funds focusing on startups.”
Jan Fye, director of strategic initiatives at the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County, says the need for innovation is unquestioned in economic development circles. In her previous work at the Northern Indiana Small Business Development Center, Fye organized Pre-Seed Workshops that connected Notre Dame researchers with teams of experts in the community such as lawyers, accountants, and marketers.
“It keys the community into innovation at a very organic level,” she says. “It’s one thing to talk about research coming out of Notre Dame. It’s another thing to sit across from people who are doing it and talking with them about what happens next. Do the researchers really want to go into business? The researchers are doing research because that’s what they do. How do we turn that into something that stays here?”
Innovation also includes sometimes-overlooked non-tech startups, Fye says. Census data, for example lists non-employer individuals as “solopreneurs” – and there are 2.5 times as many of them in the county as all other business combined. The number jumped from 14,278 to 15,345 between 2006 and 2011. “People forget about those folks,” she says. “I think they’re involved in many ways in innovation, maybe not in the way that people typically think about it. Innovation is new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking. It isn’t limited to technology.”
Pulliam agrees that innovation is much broader than software apps, although even startups that aren’t about technology content still need technology for marketing and other operations. “People are realizing not only are startups the key driver to economic development but they also are becoming more and more tech-heavy, not only in the content of the startup but how startups get launched – how innovation gets driven to commercialization,” he says. “It’s sort of metatech – not just the content of the startup but producing startups in general. Social media is a big focus in marketing these days. That of course has a tech component to it. Just about every business operation has some level of technology.”
Pulliam’s grandfather launched the company in the 1970s when he invented a new towing mechanism, an automatic sliding hitch, and the firm continues to invest in innovation. “Innovation isn’t simply a startup ground,” he says. “We’re constantly trying to innovate here in our niche to come up with new products to bring to bring to the marketplace. That’s fueling our growing which impacts the community’s growth.”
The entrepreneurial skills gained in ESTEEM apply across this full spectrum of innovation, whether startup or intrapreneur, high-tech or low-tech. ESTEEM student, both in their startups and in their collaborations with local government and businesses through enFocus, have already made a significant economic impact on the South Bend community.
The Notre Dame Startup Weekend April 4-6, organized by ESTEEM students, will bring together campus and community, including Pulliam, who has attended before, in an intense focus on innovation. “That vitality has got to be here,” Fye says. “When innovation is happening, you can’t help but ride the waves. I think we’re trying to do that.”