Holiday Season Merrimack Making

On December 8th, along with Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Shikhar Ghosh, I hosted my second “Entrepreneurs’ Town Hall” to hear first hand about the challenges and opportunities confronting founders on “Main Street” (read about the first Town Hall here, or check out the video).  Nearly 100 entrepreneurs from the Merrimack Valley area in northern Massachusetts participated as we gathered to celebrate the launch of an exciting new philanthropic initiative—the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, an effort designed to foster an innovation ecosystem through the region’s leading universities and community colleges.

Endowed with a $5M grant from famed entrepreneur Desh Deshpande (who also serves as Co-Chair of the National Council for Innovation & Entrepreneurship), the Sandbox will provide leadership training, seed funding and capacity-building support to organizations and individuals in the region.

We will post video from the town hall soon, but here are a few highlights:

Clean Tech Entrepreneurs Commercialize Federal Research:  I heard from Peter Vandermeulen, CEO of the local startup 7AC Technologies, who shared his favorable experience working with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab. Although it took nearly a year to finalize, Peter was pleased to have had the opportunity to commercialize technology that he posits could cut in half the use of energy for heating and cooling of buildings. His advice on how we might improve our commercialization efforts was to evaluate the process of determining when an exclusive license might be granted to “kick-start” an entrepreneurial venture. I’ve taken that message back to our team for consideration.

Open Government Fuels Entrepreneurship:  One of the highlights of my trip was hearing from Conor White-Sullivan, CEO of Localocracy. A graduate of UMass-Amherst, this charismatic entrepreneur talked about his startup’s recent partnership with the Boston Globe to link open government platforms with local media. His idea is a new model of civic engagement—one in which identified members of the community express their views and invite public participation on key issues facing the neighborhood, came to him during a 1-credit course in school, he said.  His approach was, of course, music to my ears, as it has been a high Obama Administration priority to step up efforts to leverage technology for citizen participation. His request was to simplify access to voter registration data, as that is the “fuel” for his identity system. I’ve tasked our open government team to conduct due diligence on this matter.

Importance of SBIR as a Vehicle for Early Stage Capital:  Several entrepreneurs at the forum spoke of the advantages of the Small Business Investment Research program as a source of capital at the stage of business maturation when it is difficult to gain access to capital. Thaddeus Fulford-Jones, CEO of Locately, spoke of the ease with which he won a National Science Foundation SBIR grant within 5-6 months of applying. But it was a story told by Robert Goldberg—a Partner at Neumitra—that commanded my most immediate attention.

Robert expressed concern that his primary information source on SBIR grant opportunities, SBIR.gov, was down for maintenance with a message alerting visitors that it would be months before the site could be re-launched. This was unfortunate as it meant he had to sift through each Federal agency’s solicitations page to learn of opportunities.

Thanks to the leadership of NSF’s new Director, Dr. Subra Suresh, and his terrific team, including Tom Peterson, Kesh Narayanan, and Cheryl Albus, the site went live last week.

I was encouraged by the degree to which our Nation’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Merrimack Valley—a great reminder that innovation flourishes in all corners of our country if we nurture the right components of the ecosystem—and I am keen to address the myriad concerns that emerged throughout the discussion. In that spirit, I wish to extend my deepest thanks to the Deshpande Foundation, which helped arrange for our town hall, and to the entrepreneurs and ecosystem partners who participated. Happy holidays to all, and here is to an innovative and entrepreneurial New Year!

Aneesh Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer

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