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We Need More Launching Pad Politics

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This country is stuck in disingenuous debate fueled by superpac superficiality. Thoughtful commentators agree (as noted in June) that the innovation economy requires two things:

  • Growth oriented policies - low tax rates, transparent and efficient government - and
  • An opportunity platform that includes effective education and health services and efficient energy and transportation infrastructure.

You could probably add culture of confidence to round out the innovation formula: opportunity, incentive, and culture. It's certainly not a simple question of more or less government - that's what the campaign seems to suggest. The challenge is to create high functioning public services that create opportunity and fuel growth. When combining attractive conditions and equitable opportunity you get what Tom Friedman called the launching pad:

Obama should aspire to make America the launching pad where everyone, everywhere should want to come to launch their own moon shot, their own startup, their own social movement. We can't stimulate or tax cut our way to growth. We have to invent our way there. The majority of new jobs every year are created by start-ups. The days when Ford or G.E. came to town with 10,000 jobs are over. Their factories are much more automated today, and their products are made in global supply chains. Instead, we need 2,000 people in every town each starting something that employs five people.

Friedman suggests the launching pad requires public leadership and investment:

We need everyone starting something! Therefore, we should aspire to be the world's best launching pad because our workforce is so productive; our markets the freest and most trusted; our infrastructure and Internet bandwidth the most advanced; our openness to foreign talent second to none; our funding for basic research the most generous; our rule of law, patent protection and investment-friendly tax code the envy of the world; our education system unrivaled; our currency and interest rates the most stable; our environment the most pristine; our health care system the most efficient; and our energy supplies the most secure, clean, and cost-effective.

Monday, I visited a brownstone in Washington D.C. that is an edupreneur launchpad. Sponsored byNew Schools Venture Fund and the city, the incubator includes professional development companyLearnZillion, a Common Core State Standards content provider;Charter Board Partners, which helps new schools find great board members; blended learning platform EdElements; and The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a nonprofit focused around ending educational inequalities. This little D.C. hotbed is an example of what Deborah Quazzo and Michael Moe called the "Near spontaneous explosion of entrepreneurial activity in education." It's the confluence of forward-leaning city leadership, venture capital, philanthropy, and a maturing charter school sector.

Friedman's suggestion that we need 2,000 startups like these four in every city would take a series of public private partnerships focus on impact as well as return. These partnerships would get a boost from a big venture investment perhaps through the Small Business Administration. More incubators would also help. It's good to see colleges create their own launch pads. "New data from the National Business Incubation Association show that about one-third of the 1,250 business incubators in the United States are at universities, up from one-fifth in 2006," noted Laura Pappano in The New York Times.

In addition to funding and talent development, federal and national groups can help create the infrastructure for innovation. The Common Core is a platform for innovation, a new opportunity to share content and services across much larger populations. Data standards - the plumbing for the new digital learning system - will also become a platform for innovation. The Department of of Education is promoting MyData, encouragement for schools and vendors to allow parents and students to download useful data into a learner profile.

The Department also developed Learning Registry, an way to share information about content. The Gates Foundation and Dell Foundation also have significant data initiatives. The combination is likely to create a launching pad for edupreneurs.

Launching pads take a mixture of incentives, support, and culture. They usually result from public private partnerships - including dedicated folks thinking about mundane stuff like talent pipelines and like data standards.

The Bay Area, New York, D.C., and Boston are all becoming pretty good examples of edtech launching pads. Mind Trust has singlehandedly made Indianapolis the most improved edurepreneurial city. Matt Chandler at 4.0 Schools in New Orleans is doing great work incubating edupreneurs in NOLA. Any city with an R1 university, a venture fund, a foundation, and some vision has the potential to be an edtech hotspot serving a global learning market. There are great examples of launching pads around the country. It would be great if, rather than mudslinging, we saw more launch pad politics.

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