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June 24, 2018 | Tom Ballard

GAP holds forum spotlighting three evolving innovation hubs

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“This is an animal of a different breed,” Dennis Lower, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Cortex Innovation Community, told about 50 or so individuals who attended a late Thursday afternoon forum on innovation hubs in Nashville.

The event, which spotlighted Cortex and two other similar initiatives, was coordinated by the Global Action Platform, a program we spotlighted in a two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2) last week on It was appropriately held at oneC1TY, an emerging innovation hub in Music City.

Cortex in St. Louis was described as the “granddaddy of innovation hubs,” having been created in 2002. The other hubs spotlighted represented different stages of evolution. The newest was the Hampton Roads Innovation Collaborative in Virginia, while the one at mid-stage was Innovation Park, an initiative of the University of Notre Dame.

During a lively Q&A facilitated by Sean Sheppard, Founding Partner of GrowthX, representatives of the three hubs generally agreed on both the opportunities and challenges in launching, growing, and sustaining broad scale innovation initiatives.

One key factor is leadership. All agreed that having state and local government involvement was important, but the effort should be led from elsewhere, most likely the private or non-profit sector. The most important trait in choosing the lead organization is being a neutral convener.

“Cortex has been a convener for honest discussions,” Lower said. “You have to get people to listen to each other and find common solutions.”

Having a key driver for the innovation hub is also critical. In the case of Hampton Roads, Tom Chamberlain, Founder and CEO of EdLogics LLC located in Virginia Beach, said the impetus for the regional initiative was job losses during the economic downturn that started in 2008.

“The government and hospitality sectors lost 10,000 jobs,” he said. Today, the community has several new entrepreneurial and innovation initiatives with health literacy being a major emphasis.

For Notre Dame, Bryan Ritchie, Vice President of Innovation and Associate Provost, cited two complementary drivers. One was to build a bridge between the university and the community that was mutually beneficial. Up to that point, it did not exist. Closely tied to the bridge building was the second: to have an economic impact on the region.

“If we (the university) can put 20 to 30 good start-ups in the community, we will change the ecosystem,” Ritchie said in describing what Notre Dame’s Innovation Park which is anchored by a 55,000 square foot facility currently being expanded. Nearly 125 students are employed by companies in the building.

Ritchie came to Notre Dame about 18 months ago after a career that included consulting, private equity investing, and technology commercialization. Last year, the university helped create 27 start-ups.

Higher education involvement was also a key factor in the success of Cortex. In fact, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Missouri – St. Louis, and St. Louis University were three of the four founders of Cortex, all being major contributors to the initial $30 million raised to seed the initiative.

The results of their initial investments are impressive. Since its inception, Cortex has completed or has under construction 1.7 million square feet of new and rehabilitated space representing more than $550 million of investment and generating 4,200 technology-related jobs. When fully implemented, the Cortex master plan projects $2.3 billion of construction, more than 4.5 million square feet of mixed-use development (research, office, clinical, residential, hotel, and retail), and 15,000 permanent technology-related jobs. Currently, there are 250 companies that call the Cortex Innovation Community their home.

Initial involvement is not enough, Lower told the attendees. The founders have to remain engaged and willing to take chances.

“Our stakeholders have to continue to be as entrepreneurial and risk taking (about the innovation hub) as they expect start-ups to be,” he explained, noting that Cortex “is not yet sustainable, but people are still investing in us.”

For attendees thinking about Nashville’s innovation initiatives, Lower offered some very succinct advice through two questions: “What is your value proposition? What is the compelling business reason for companies to be here?”

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