Without knowing much about the full scope of work on the northwest side of downtown’s 16 Tech Innovation District, or how that work would impact Indianapolis’ economy, I jumped in and took on the role as 16 Tech’s director of community initiatives.
Prior to joining the team, I had been involved in both community engagement and community development and was a long-term advocate for the Near Westside. I had learned the buzz words and the broad concepts of what 16 Tech was aiming to do and I had a general idea of the purpose and larger economic impact. However, I had no real understanding of how all the parts would come together day–to–day, nor how to share that understanding with our neighboring communities. I immediately dove in to listening and learning about our neighbors and the district’s development history.
Part of the purpose of developing the 16 Tech Innovation District is to “advance the innovation ecosystem.” Advance, innovation and ecosystem. Three words. Three words that are specific yet ambiguous, familiar yet foreign and simple yet complex.
When learning something new, I oftentimes default to defining the terminology used first. Advance: move forward purposefully. Innovation: the creation of a new idea, method, product or service. And according to Merriam-Webster, an ecosystem: something (such as a network of businesses) considered to resemble an ecological ecosystem especially because of its complex interdependent parts. On their own, the words are easy to understand, but all together and within a business context, that understanding gets cloudy.
With a little internet surfing, reading articles, books, research reports and talking to stakeholders, I have been able to gain a better understanding of what these three words truly mean for 16 Tech and Indianapolis. The fancy jargon is more than definitions. The words describe a community of people that are focused on moving ahead the creation of new ideas, products, or processes. This type of entrepreneurial community exists in many industries — arts and culture, food, retail. For 16 Tech the focus is on supporting the advancement of innovation for individuals working in the life and health sciences, information technology, as well as advanced manufacturing and engineering. The aim is to create new therapies, cures, software, medical devices, manufacturing processes, and more which result in new businesses, more jobs, and an overall improvement of our economy.
Innovation ecosystems have several elements that must be present for them to be sustained and successful both in physical and human capital. The physical elements of our local ecosystem are coming together, especially with the development of 16 Tech Innovation District, but it will be the people that make the magic happen. Experienced innovators in high growth industries argue that there needs to be a good balance of people in different roles to move the ecosystem forward.
In his book, “Startup Communities – Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City,” Brad Feld describes the roles in what he calls an “entrepreneurial stack.” This stack is a diverse array of people including entrepreneurs, government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers, and large companies. He argues that a thriving ecosystem needs to be led by entrepreneurs and supported by representatives from all the other areas. He further describes what he calls, “The Boulder Thesis,” the four components that need to exist for a solid ecosystem to be created. Those components include: 1) Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community. 2) The leaders must have a long-term commitment. 3) The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it. 4) The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
Advancing an innovation ecosystem means that a whole cast of local people and resources are aligned to support the development and growth of new businesses. In 16 Tech’s case, the businesses are focused on improving high-growth industries like life sciences, manufacturing, and tech. This ecosystem is critical to the health of our local economy because it helps to create “winning ideas” that result in the creation of new businesses and jobs. Without new jobs and businesses, our economy becomes stagnant.
Understanding our local innovation ecosystem and how it can help move our economy forward is important for us all to know as we make decisions about continuing our education, choosing viable careers, and starting new businesses. We can focus time, money, and effort on gaining knowledge and skills that align with the highest areas of potential growth locally.
Advance. Innovation. Ecosystem. Three words that carry a lot of weight and signify plenty of potential. The beauty of advancing an innovation ecosystem is that we can all learn and grow together to provide meaning to the words.
Starla Hart is the director of community initiatives at 16 Tech Community Corporation and contributor for the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.