The Small Business Administration (SBA) hosted its second annual Innovation Ecosystem Summit last week - and based on the flurry of ecosystem building initiatives happening across federal agencies, industry leaders, and local champions - it certainly seems like it is here to stay.
Over 1,500 people signed up for the two-day virtual event that featured a variety of engaging panel discussions, keynote speeches, and networking opportunities - providing attendees with valuable insights and information about players all across of the innovation ecosystem.
As Jennifer Shieh (SBA’s Director of Ecosystem Development) noted in the Summit’s opening remarks, the fact that her unique job title even exists is another proof point of the agency’s dedication towards developing equitable access and opportunity for innovators across the country by lowering the barrier to participation.
Inclusive, collaborative efforts were certainly a central theme throughout the Summit. Many of the sessions focused on panels or speakers who had notable experience in building mutually-beneficial partnerships across regions, industries, and demographics.
Members of the EcoMap team were in attendance to learn about the latest developments in the innovation ecosystem from the jam-packed lineup of leaders across federal, local, non-profit, and startup organizations.
While it will be impossible to recap all of the knowledge dropped over the two-day Summit, post is meant to take some of the insights that we gained from the sessions and turn them into themes & takeaways that will resonate with our fellow ecosystem builders.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Building trust is essential in the field of ecosystem building. Trust is the foundation on which effective collaborations and partnerships are built, and it is essential for creating a sense of community and shared purpose among stakeholders.
However, trust doesn’t develop overnight.
There were many fantastic examples of how Summit speakers were able to lay the foundation for successful partnerships between organizations, but perhaps none best illustrates this example than the relationship between Village Capital (VilCap) and Black Innovation Alliance (BIA).
Allie Burns (CEO of VilCap) and Kelly Burton (CEO of BIA) are both leaders of organizations who have been doing ecosystem building work before it was even labeled as such. Over time, they saw an apparent need in this space to “train the trainers” by equipping local entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) that focus on founders of color with the resources they need to be more effective.
After many thoughtful conversations between Allie and Kelly about how they could provide a resource that scales, they came up with Resource: an “ESO Accelerator” that equips ecosystem builders of color with training, community, and connections to capital needed to be sustainable. Additionally, Resource has plans to coalesce a national community of practice among ESO leaders of color and their funders to share best practices and “develop stronger capital and mentorship pathways” for Black, Latinx and Indigenous founders across the country.
By leveraging their organization’s unique strengths - and by bringing in other key financial and mission-aligned partners - Allie and Kelly were able to build off their previous trust in order to develop a shared Resource (quite literally) that can do more than any individual effort.
Another key pillar of the SBA Innovation Ecosystem Summit is the renewed commitment by various federal agencies to support ecosystem builders as well as the entrepreneurs they serve with one of the most precious resources - bundles of grant funding.
Representatives from the SBA, Economic Development Administration (EDA), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Health (NIH) among others were able to share details and success stories from their respective agencies’ recent funding mechanisms.
Amanda Kosty, a Program Analyst within the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the EDA, described herself as being “in the business of building ecosystems”. The EDA’s ethos involves funding a variety of tech-based entrepreneurship development strategies for regions, primarily the Stem Talent Challenge and Build 2 Scale. Each of these programs are all about funding intermediary organizations by giving them a boost to develop capacity programs or funding geared towards early-stage companies de-risking their technologies.
Victor Krane (DOE) noted that when people typically think about his agency, they think about basic R&D funding. But because historically much of that funding hadn’t made its way to market, his office - the Office of Technology Transitions - is focused on broadening the public impact of DOE-funded research. A big mechanism the DOE uses is prizes that encourages regional collaborative innovation, such as the case with the Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC Prize).
And despite all of the new funding initiatives being rolled out, you can’t forget about one of the largest sources of early-stage grant funding - the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, otherwise affectionately known as “America’s Seed Fund”. Eleven agencies have their own agency SBIR/STTR which distribute billions of dollars to innovative young companies each year. Matt McMahon, Director of SEED NIH, oversees a $1.2 billion dollar SBIR/STTR fund within his agency. But more than just providing this funding, Matt emphasized the importance of plugging the awardees into the ecosystem so they can access the resources & funding needed to reach the next stage of their entrepreneurial journey.
One of those additional resource partners is Amy Beaird, the Program Director for Florida High Tech Corridor’s (FHTC) Cenfluence program. It focuses on leveraging local partnerships in Central Florida to build equitable and prosperous economic clusters, one of those being the Energy + Environmental Sciences. They utilize federal resources like the Federal and State Technology (FAST) program that are geared towards making sure SBIR/STTR-focused ESOs that work with underserved populations can help close the divide in who receives these awards.
Through all of these initiatives and more, the federal government is demonstrating a cohesive approach towards providing funding and initiatives that create a more equitable innovation ecosystem.
Academia has long been a key cog in innovation, with university-based spin-offs making up some of the most impactful inventions in the history of the nation. Even the internet itself has its digital roots at Cal Berkeley.
Academic centers often have access to a wealth of research and expertise that can be valuable to entrepreneurship support organizations. By building stronger connections, these organizations can tap into this knowledge base and use it to support entrepreneurs and their businesses.
The SBA convened a panel of experts in this space, moderated by Megan Aanstoos who is a Licensing & New Venture Manager and Kentucky Commercialization Ventures. One of those panelists was a familiar face to us in Maryland’s innovation ecosystem.
Lindsay Ryan, the Interim Executive Director of Economic Development for the University System of Maryland (USM), is also one of the customers of EcoMap’s Maryland Entrepreneur Hub - our state-wide resource to support all entrepreneurs. Lindsay touched on the importance of providing resources at a various stage of an entrepreneurs' journey. A student entrepreneur who just had an idea for a startup two days ago needs a vastly different array of resources than a growth-stage startup looking to scale up operations. That's exactly the area our Maryland Entrepreneur Hub supports.
Other panelists spoke on the importance of connecting ecosystem building efforts within university or learning-centric environments. Christiana Russell - Partner & CEO of the San Diego-based We Tha Plug - mentioned one of the most effective ways she found to develop an ecosystem is to form an alliance with universities, local government, and other ESOs. To that end they have an EDA grant at UCSD that was set up to both draw the community into their local innovation center as well as make sure the university as access to the rest of the community.
Stephanie Santoso - Co-Founder and President of MakerUSA - focuses on partnering with underserved communities outside of major economic hubs by using maker spaces as a focal point. She has helped to develop the Learning Network, a national community of practice comprised of 34 leading institutions and organizations across 20 states. The Learning Network provides no-cost programming, technical assistance, and resources involving maker education and career pathways to maker industries among its members. Similar to VilCap/BIA Resource initiative, the Learning Network serves as a model to unite a community of practice and ensure the rising tide of knowledge can lift all boats.
The last session of the first day featured Beth Zimmer, the Program Manager for the Ecosystem Building Leadership Project (EBLP). This was a session close to EcoMap’s own heart as our Co-Founder/CEO Pava LaPere is a member of the inaugural Provisional Council.
Jennifer Shieh moderated a fireside chat with Beth that centered on the purpose and outlook for the EBLP, which follows a co-designed and co-leadership model from its members.
So … what exactly makes someone an ecosystem builder? According to Beth, it’s someone who approaches their work from a systems perspective and works to understand how activate different actors & relationships to maximize impact.
She came into this field almost by accident, jokingly referring to herself as a “recovering aerospace industry recruitment executive” who always had ecosystem building tendencies at heart. Now she is one of the leading voices behind the EBLP, which aims to further professionalize the field and provide a structure that fellow ecosystem builders can use to be that connective tissue within their respective communities.
The EBLP members came together in Indianapolis this past September in order to meet face-to-face for a series of Strategic Doing workshops. These workshops were primarily geared around three framing topics:
Members then broke into advisory groups to put the co-designing and co-leadership ethos to the test. The EBLP team has been meeting regularly since that initial session in Indy and is working towards accelerating wider understanding and adoption of ecosystem building as a practice in economic, community, workforce and entrepreneurship development. The Provisional Council is expected to lay out and deploy a plan no later than October 2023.
Time will tell the impact that EBLP can have on the nascent field of ecosystem building - but judging by the members who make up this superstar coalition - it has the potential to make a substantial difference on how it is defined and resourced.
Learn more about the Ecosystem Building Leadership Project
Learn about the Higher Ed Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Toolkit initiative by University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Center for Customized Research and Services and Venn Collaborative (members of EBLP)
As an organization, EcoMap is thrilled to see the federal government’s conscious efforts to develop community around ecosystem builders and back up its language with myriad programs to create onramp for historically underrepresented groups all over the country. Those that came to this Summit with the intention of developing connections or uncovering methods to further ecosystem building efforts surely did not leave empty-handed.
The focus on traditionally underserved founders/communities was especially apparent, as many panels featured all-female or all-underrepresented members.
In her opening remarks, SBA’s Director of Ecosystem Development Jennifer Shieh half-jokingly stated that she eventually “wants to work herself out of a job because I doesn’t want anyone to be underrepresented anymore”.
While Jennifer might not be working herself out of a job anytime soon, it is apparent that the federal government is demonstrating a level of financial and programmatic commitment to equitable ecosystem building that has never been seen before.
We look forward to hearing these updates and more at what is sure to be the third annual SBA Innovation Ecosystem Summit next year.
EcoMap was founded based on a simple premise: it should be easy to access information about what's happening in the ecosystems all around us. Whether we're dealing with a local business community or an entire industry, we think that everyone should be able to easily navigate every ecosystem, everywhere.
At EcoMap, we're on a mission to build more equitable & accessible ecosystems through technology. We developed powerful technology that lets us digitize them at scale, so that any ecosystem building organization can use our products to understand, showcase, and engage their ecosystems.