10 Trends Shaping West Virginia’s Tech Future
Column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, January 5, 2014
by Anne Barth, Executive Director of TechConnectWV
As we start a new year, it is a good time to reflect on the progress that has been made and where our opportunities may lie in the future. On behalf of TechConnect West Virginia and all our partners, I am pleased to report that during 2013 West Virginia continued to make good progress toward a broader, more robust innovation economy. Even better, several important signs across the state are pointing to increased interest and opportunities that will drive innovation-based economic development.
Among the positive trends to watch in 2014 are:
1. Growing interest in entrepreneurship – Across the state there is a growing interest in entrepreneurship. Business plan competitions are attracting record-setting numbers of applications, groups are exploring ways to bring entrepreneurship education into the K-12 system, and Vision Shared’s Entrepreneur Cafés are springing up in towns and cities throughout the state. Create West Virginia is also shining a bright light on entrepreneurs who are changing the future of the state. Meanwhile, federally supported programs such as the Third District Accelerator and the Value Cluster Chain Initiative provide yet another avenue of support for would-be entrepreneurs. This trend is here to stay.
2. Improved access to capital – Like many states, West Virginia struggles with a dearth of funds available for startups and expansion of existing businesses. Three new programs are helping to mitigate this deficiency. The West Virginia Capital Access Program, designed to help startups and small businesses expand and create jobs, is providing a tremendous boost to the economy. The West Virginia Growth Investment LLC is a private fund backed by local investors who will provide financing for new small businesses, product innovation and expansion of existing businesses. Appalachian Community Capital was created by the Appalachian Regional Commission and 12 partner Community Development Financial Institutions to improve access to capital for entrepreneurs in the Appalachian region.
3. Increasing crowdsourcing – Provisions of the 2012 JOBS Act haven taken effect, democratizing access to capital by letting startups and small businesses raise up to $1 million annually from many small-dollar investors through web-based platforms. West Virginia has seen increased use of crowdsourcing in the last year or two, including to produce “Hollow,” the documentary about McDowell County, and to fund events hosted by the Charleston Area Alliance.
4. Heightened campus activity – From the WVU College of Law Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic to the EDA University Center program led by Marshall and Concord universities, higher education is stepping up its game in the area of innovation, technology transfer, and commercialization. West Liberty University has made entrepreneurship a major emphasis on its campus and the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research is focused on advancing economic development through commercialization of scientific discoveries. The private sector is stepping in, too, as seen in the BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at WVU.
5. New high-tech tools – 3-D printing is ushering in what many call the “Third Industrial Revolution.” Marshall University’s Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) has several 3-D printers available to businesses and entrepreneurs and is a leader in the nation’s first National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. RCBI also offers rapid prototyping, which shortens the time and reduces the cost of product development. And, today’s web-based marketing and sales offer small businesses new avenues to reach customers, unhindered by geography.
6. Innovations in manufacturing – TechConnect’s Innovation Adoption Program is pairing small manufacturers in the state with centers of excellence, such as RCBI and the WVU Manufacturing Extension Partnership, to develop new products and processes to improve their bottom line.
7. Strategically located tech parks – West Virginia is fortunate to have two major technology parks. The I-79 Technology Park in Fairmont has a long tradition as an engine of economic change in the statewide, regional, and national high-tech business sectors. In addition, the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston offers enormous potential to help capitalize on the Marcellus shale boom and reinvigorate the once-thriving chemical industry in the state. Anchors like the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation and MATRIC provide the intellectual capital and expertise needed to drive innovation.
8. Bustling incubators – The Charleston Area Alliance small business incubator offers amenities to startups and Digiso, a joint initiative of West Virginia State University and Create West Virginia, opened in Charleston in 2012 as a hub for digital entrepreneurs. The Chemical Alliance Zone is revamping its incubator at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park and the West Virginia High Tech Foundation operates the North Central West Virginia Innovator in the I-79 Technology Park. A number of other incubators throughout the state also offer business startups a launch pad.
9.Expanded business services – The West Virginia Small Business Development Center has revamped its operations to provide more one-on-one entrepreneur coaching and offers specialized assistance for tech startups. The INNOVA Commercialization Group also offers assistance to tech entrepreneurs and startups.
10. Growing economy – Governor Tomblin made a number of major business growth announcements in 2013, including those of Odebrecht, Carbonyx, and Sogefi. These and other expansions provide increased opportunities for small firms in the state. And as the global economy continues to grow, West Virginia firms can tap into potential new markets overseas. State and federal assistance programs offer advice and tips to small businesses, and the WVU Manufacturing Extension Partnership has added an export/manufacturing manager, as well.
These trends offer encouragement for economic development and diversification in the Mountain State. Stay tuned!