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Opinion: Regional innovation clusters can help small businesses grow

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Successful entrepreneurs know that networking is critical to expanding their customer base, accessing suppliers and growing their small businesses.

A newly expanded initiative is helping more entrepreneurs network with each other and get greater access to the resources they need.

The Great Plains Technology & Manufacturing Cluster at Kansas State University is one of seven new regional innovation clusters supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration. It has been awarded a $500,000 grant that will be used to help entrepreneurs make connections to each other and to the resources necessary to develop new products and businesses in the technology and manufacturing sectors in Kansas and western Missouri. The award has a four-year renewal option, so there is the potential for a total award of up to $2.5 million over five years.

The announcement of these seven new clusters is more demonstrable evidence of a strong commitment to rural America.

Regional innovation clusters connect businesses, suppliers, service providers and related institutions in a particular industry in a geographically concentrated area. The goal is to spur economic activity, create jobs and grow the economy, especially in rural areas.

While the industry focus of the clusters varies, their core activities are similar: They act as networking hubs to convene resources to help small businesses navigate funding, procurement and supply-chain opportunities, which allow them to compete on a larger scale. Through technical and legal assistance, these cluster networks also work to help innovators commercialize promising technologies needed by government and industry buyers. Great Plains TMC, for instance, brings together K-State’s Technology Development Institute, the Kansas Department of Commerce, Network Kansas, the Kansas Small Business Development Centers and the SBA.

The SBA now powers 14 regional innovation clusters nationwide. In this region, Great Plains TMC joins BioSTL, a cluster designed to support the medical and plant biosciences and related agricultural technology industries around St. Louis. [Editor’s note: Closer to Springfield is The Ozarks Cluster in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a focus on retail, supply chain/logistics and food processing.]

Tom Salisbury is the regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration Region VII, which covers Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. He previously worked as the small-business liaison for U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and in lending for UMB Bank. Salisbury can be reached at thomas.salisbury@sba.gov.

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