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Innovation Now: State task force suggests new cabinet roles, innovation fund

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Missouri is on a mission to become the next leader in innovation.

Gov. Eric Greitens’ Innovation Task Force on Sept. 5 presented its report at a meeting in a St. Louis innovation hub, called the Center for Emerging Technologies, less than 75 days after its inception.

The first of its kind, Greitens announced the task force June 19, and tabbed Missouri’s Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann as its leader. With the help of the nonpartisan Hawthorn Foundation – a working partnership with the state of Missouri – Erdmann set out with the rest of the 33-person steering committee.

They were tasked with assessing the current state of innovation in Missouri and analyzing best practices by other states. Locally, Ozarks Technical Community College executive Matthew Simpson was involved.

“Personally, I was really proud of the fact that so many people from across the state were willing to step up and volunteer to help us think through this challenge to make Missouri the top in innovation between the coasts,” Erdmann told Springfield Business Journal.

The steering committee gathered recommendations through a variety of avenues, including workshops held in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield and Cape Girardeau, as well as through surveys created with the Waggl feedback platform. Surveys were shared through the committee’s personal contacts.

“Over 2,000 people were engaged in the process in some way,” Erdmann said.

Now, the summary report is available to the public, and the task force has identified five key options for creating and fostering a leading innovative community in Missouri.

Options ahead
The governor’s task force identified options in improving the environment, the spread of ideas, the state’s talent base and its branding. It also reviewed Missouri’s capital and credit availability.

Perhaps the strongest idea, Erdmann said, was a new Missouri innovation fund.

“Missouri is ready to lead, but we’re going to have to embrace more bold ideas to build a thriving, prosperous economy,” Greitens said in a news release. “The task force’s option of a new Missouri innovation fund is the sort of bold thinking we need.”

The report, posted to HawthornFoundation.org, states having a professionally managed fund would attract more risk-sensitive investors and give the state the reporting and return on investment focus it needs to sustain support.

The state could capitalize the fund, either via the budget process or bonds, but a big chunk of the money could come from the private sector.

“It would not be under government management,” Erdmann said.

Citing successful examples of a $1 billion fund in Ohio and the $6 billion Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, task force members suggested Missouri hire a professional manager or contract with a venture capital firm. According to the report, the state would receive an unidentified percentage of the profit that goes to the fund manager, and those monies could be reinvested into the fund. The task force also suggested state pension funds and other state institutions, such as university endowments, could be investors.

“I’m excited that my team will be working with private sector leaders and legislative leaders to make ideas like this a reality,” Greitens said.

Other ideas for improvement include creating an entrepreneurship mentor network and establishing an incubator association.

“You need the training and the mentors that will help catapult tech businesses forward,” said Heather Fisher, executive director for the Ozarks Small Business Incubator in West Plains. “There’s a lot of know-how in the state, and we want to tap into that better.”

Fisher was another member of the steering committee. She also emphasized the need for broadband infrastructure in rural areas if state officials want to level the technology playing field across Missouri.

“We have witnessed first-hand the challenges facing rural businesses,” Fisher said in her summary remarks in conclusion of the task force. “One area often overlooked is the provision of basic infrastructure, i.e. broadband, to attract rural technology.”

Another idea in the report is to institutionalize innovation in state government by creating high-level cabinet roles, such as a chief innovation officer. The report also suggested setting a “moonshot” goal, such as the building of a transportation hyperloop – yes, the idea that innovation guru Elon Musk introduced a few years ago – between Kansas City and St. Louis to attract national and, perhaps, global attention.

In addition, the task force suggested transforming Missouri into a research base and establishing rural technology incubators for the generation of new knowledge, according to the report.

“I was a big advocate for the incubator association and rural broadband,” Fisher added. “That obviously needs to be overcome for tech innovation.”

Show-Me participants
Erdmann said Fisher played a strong role in ensuring everyone’s minds stayed on Missouri as a whole.

“One thing that’s been exciting is working with different silos, whether its venture capitalists or entrepreneurs or universities,” Fisher said. “Silos are beginning to break down. Collaboration is happening.”

It’s the first step on the path to innovation, Erdmann said. His expectation is that the dialogue created by the effort will continue and help inform the state government’s priorities.

“Some of these ideas will eventually move forward,” he said. “There’s more to come.”

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