Elizabeth Goreham | Innovation, entrepreneurship and the future of State College

March 9, 2014 

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    What: Shaping the Future Summit: The Impact of Innovation

    When: 8 p.m. April 1

    Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, Penn State campus

    Featuring: Space pioneer, entrepreneur and author Peter H. Diamandis will deliver the keynote address, “The Impact of Innovation.” The address is free and open to the public, and culminates a yearlong series of programs examining innovation in technology, health care, energy and sustainability, and entrepreneurship.

    On the Web: futuresummit.psu.edu.

Editor’s note: This is the second column in a series running every Monday in March.

State College can fulfill its potential by fully utilizing the entrepreneurial talents of students, faculty, local citizens, everyone.

The borough has always benefitted from students’ ideas and energy. We especially welcome graduates who decide to stay and build their lives here.

Now more than ever, we need the energy of new as well as seasoned professionals to help our town become part of the global economy. The time is ripe: Elements are coming together to create opportunities that work to the advantage of our entire community.

Entrepreneurs, when considering new directions, start with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. The following is my perspective of State College’s innovation potential:

Strengths: Within the greater State College area is a highly educated population with increasing cultural diversity, a leading-edge research university, and an exceptional natural and human environment.

New Leaf, an organization less than 5 years old dedicated to innovative, socially responsible entrepreneurship, is renting space in the State College Municipal Building and hosting opportunities for people with ideas to interact with business and financial professionals.

Weaknesses: A strong traditional economy of real estate and retail has served us well, but our economic model needs to be expanded into new and emerging sectors. A limited industrial and tech business base, a local banking system and investor base not highly active in funding startups, and a lack of a strong entrepreneurial mindset in the community could curb our growth.

Traditional approaches are no longer a guarantee for success. In an increasingly integrated and connected world, with a billion cellphones in use every day, the global economy is more accessible and more competitive.

Opportunities: The business community, Penn State and State College are vitally interested in kick-starting local innovation and entrepreneurship programs.

Todd Erdley, a native son and successful entrepreneur, has personally embraced the challenge of innovation and is focused on building a $3 billion local economy by 2033, in concert with Vern Squier, the CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County.

What is extremely exciting at this time is that the business community, the Centre Foundation and enterprises like New Leaf are all coming together with a common purpose to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.

Aligning with those efforts are several positive signs and initiatives. State College has its first co-space for business development. A growing number of Penn State graduates with talent aspire to be entrepreneurs, and viable connections throughout the world abound through international visitors, faculty, students and new residents.

Threats: Complacency and inertia, entrepreneurs competing rather than collaborating, less than a critical mass of entrepreneurial infrastructure and entrepreneurial brain drain contribute to a business climate that could fall short of its great potential.

Entrepreneurial success is always against great odds. We can be inspired by the great success of local entrepreneurial efforts from the past, most notably: AccuWeather, founded in 1962 by Joel Myers; Restek, founded in 1985 by Paul Silvis; SilcoTek, founded in 2009 by Paul Silvis; and Minitab, founded in 1972 by Barbara Ryan, Thomas Ryan Jr. and Brian Joiner.

Turning new ideas into reality takes not only enormous talent, but an almost frontier attitude to make it happen.

As Kit Carson said when describing pioneers going west in wagon trains, “The cowards never start and the weak die along the way.”

We are not cowards, and we are certainly not weak. The effort to reach our innovation potential will take all we think we have and even more. But for the few who can — and will — succeed, challenges are part of what strengthens their determination.

The Shaping the Future Summit, being sponsored by the Penn State Schreyer Honors College on April 1, is a signature event and may yield some radical ideas we can capitalize on to make State College a destination for entrepreneurs to help shape our innovation destiny. See you there.

Elizabeth Goreham is mayor of State College. She was elected to a second term in November. Before being elected as the borough’s first female mayor in 2009, she served on the State College Borough Council from 1997 to 2009.

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