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Examining innovation’s role in economic development

In business, government and even sports, the word innovate is continually being bandied about.

On Monday, the Maryland Economic Development Association’s annual conference in Cambridge will host a panel that will examine what that term means in the context of economic development.

“In a government setting, the opportunity to innovate — and that’s an over-the-top buzzword these days, I don’t think you can find a more ‘buzzy’ word than innovate, or innovation — but it really does, I think for us those of us that have it as a formal part of their job or title, there is a definition that we adhere to,” Dan Hoffman, Montgomery County’s chief innovation officer, said. “It’s when you can find ideas that … meet three criteria.”

According to Webster’s Dictionary, innovate means “to start or introduce something new: be creative.” But Hoffman, who will be on the panel, said the definition is a little more detailed from a governmental standpoint. His idea of innovation includes that an idea be tested in a lean, entrepreneurial fashion; the concept must have the potential to scale up quickly; and most importantly, it  needs to be experimental or risky in nature.

“That’s how innovation gets started. It doesn’t start with a multimillion-dollar request for proposal. It starts with small ideas and small projects that grow from there,” Hoffman said.

An example of the way that Montgomery County has embraced innovation is the Thingstitute, which serves as a “test bed” and incubator for companies in the county.

“We feel that we have to offer to startup companies, to big companies, medium-sized companies, academic institutions, really anybody that has an idea — we have access to things like fire trucks, and libraries, and senior living facilities, and correctional facilities, we have access to all these resources that can become that real world test bed so companies, startups and researchers can deploy their technology in a real world setting,” he said.

Patrick Doughtery, chief market analyst at the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, will also be on the panel. He said an example of innovation his organization is working on is a “biohealth innovation index.” It’s essentially research on 50 to 60 indicators of innovation and commercialization that will help compare Baltimore to other areas of the country in terms of categories such as talent and research and development.

“We’d like to see it being used in a couple of different ways. One, as a marketing tool so that we can say kind of definitively see where we stand and say that Baltimore is a great place for a bioheath company to locate, and to live, learn and invest,” Doughtery said.

Panelist Phil Malone, founder of Garrett Engineering and Robotics Society, said he will focus on instilling the importance of innovation in kids from a very young age.

“There’s couple different ways you can get economic development into an area,” he said. “One of the key ways to bring economic development and innovation to an area is to start young and get the whole community to kind of see that coming up with new ideas and new solutions and starting new businesses at the grass-roots level can have a very good long-term impact.”


About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.