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Venture Madness: technology changing economic development

At the IEDC annual conference in Philadelphia, USA, last October, I participated in a panel entitled, “Transforming Economies: Economic Development 21.0”. The premise of the debate was based on how technology is transforming economic development in the 21st century, with global competition being oblivious to boundaries. A lively discussion was held on how the ubiquity of technology and global hyperconnectivity have created new opportunities for people and business by redefining the way business is done, generating new products and services, and accelerating innovation and time-to-market.

In particular, fellow panellist Sandra Watson highlighted something that I wasn’t aware of: that the state of Arizona, USA, is a major player in the semiconductor industry, representing six percent of the USA’s total market and some 23,000 jobs, and has a significant technology and innovation base. That is of course Sandra’s job to promote that state – she is president & CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority. But then just a month later, in November 2013, the development agency announced that Apple had chosen Mesa, Arizona as the location of its newest US manufacturing facility. The new plant will rely on renewable energy, working with Salt River Project to create additional advanced renewable energy sources that will power next-generation manufacturing.

So when I caught up with Sandra Watson in the New Year, to understand more about Arizona’s initiatives, I wasn’t surprised to be greeted with her enthusiasm for their latest program, Venture Madness, which is run in partnership with Invest Southwest. It fits very well into the topic of the panel discussion last October, using technology to transform economic development.

The competition is designed to both attract startup companies as well as pick those with the best opportunities for growth, but what’s different is that they have set it up as a head-to-head knockout competition with voting done online for the first round of 64 companies (by the public). This was formerly the Invest Southwest Capital Conference, and is the main capital conference in the Southwest of the USA. This year the fact that they have opened it up online means it exposes the companies to an audience of hundreds of investors, entrepreneurs and service professionals from all over the world.

The competition drew applications from six Southwestern states including Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Arizona.  Applicants represent a wide range of industries including software, cleantech, nanotechnology, health care services, electronics/instrumentation, industrial/energy, semiconductors, telecommunications, and biotechnology.

The full list of 64 companies and their video pitches is online and anyone can vote. Once the online voting is complete, the final 16 will pitch against each other live in front of judges during 6-7 March 2014.

The Arizona Commerce Authority says it is committed to programs like Venture Madness because supporting the most promising early stage entrepreneurs drives the state’s future wealth and job creation.  This is of course what many cities and states around the world are aiming for – today’s big idea could grow into a Fortune 500 company of tomorrow, delivering the wealth and job creation which is an attractive part of today’s economic development agenda.

As Venture Madness in Arizona demonstrates, technology platforms can indeed be used effectively to filter and attract good quality startups into the region and to local innovation ecosystems; with the online voting, it also has a chance of showing those that have potential traction in the local as well as global market (to some extent, as you don’t necessarily know who is voting online).

One of challenges for economic development agencies is in fact how to embrace technology to enhance their local offer. But as the panel debated last October in Philadelphia – it is not just your local story that will count in the future. The story will also be around how the region plugs into the distributed talent networks and global innovation and technology ecosystems that now exist.

There are already global initiatives like General Assembly, creating a global community of courses, training and educating innovative entrepreneurs and startups. Initiatives like Venture Madness take this to the next stage, and offer a solution for growth, exposure and market access for those entrepreneurs who have the conviction to make their idea a reality.

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