More than 60 leaders from business, government, academia, media and the arts convened at the University of Virginia on 11-12 October for the Jefferson Innovation Summit, a gathering to spur a constructive conversation on how to create and sustain entrepreneurship and innovation in the United States.
“The goal, which we achieved, was to generate purposeful conversation among a group of people who could conceivably have enormous impact on the policies and programs – in both the public and private sectors – that could generate the entrepreneurial opportunities that will drive the economic growth engine of this country,” says Sean D. Carr of the Darden School’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which organized the event.
The event kicked off with a role-playing session, similar to a business school case study discussion, featuring 13 of the Summit’s delegates. The session, held in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, was moderated by Tyler Mathisen, coanchor of CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” and was simulcast on CNBC.
Mathisen played the role of “Alex,” an engineering student who wants to start a business with his potentially breakthrough product: a house paint that collects solar energy. Summit delegates, including representatives from the White House, General Electric, Boston Scientific, Edison2 and the Darden School, none of whom had been briefed on the scenario, played business students and professors looking to partner with Alex, university administrators, venture capitalists, representatives from all levels of government, regulators and corporate executives.
In working through the decisions Alex and his fellow entrepreneurs faced, the delegates explored many of the obstacles to entrepreneurship and innovation in the United States.
Education emerged as a key concern. Particular challenges include teaching students to think broadly and creatively and attracting students at all grade levels to the STEM subject areas (science, technology, engineering, and math). “We have to make it cool to do these things,” said John Abele, cofounder of Boston Scientific.
The role-playing session was developed by Fred Friendly Seminars, a nonprofit organization that creates “relevant, spontaneous and compelling” conversations through Socratic dialogues.
During an interview with Mathisen, Peter Kiernan, CEO of Kiernan Ventures and chair of the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees, discussed the legacy of the late Steve Jobs and the mark he left on the entrepreneurial landscape.
“Everybody loved Steve Jobs for the products he designed,” said Kiernan. “He created market ecosystems underneath these products. He was the guy who could see around the corner and say this is a market opportunity we don’t know exists. We don’t have enough people on the sentinel looking around the corner and trying to find those untapped reservoirs.”
After a working dinner at Monticello, delegates reconvened for a morning session at Montalto, during which they participated in a small-group exercise to generate ideas related to broad areas of opportunity and concern for entrepreneurship and innovation in the United States: education, financing, regulation, culture, intellectual property, tax policy and immigration.
The idea generation exercise, which Darden professors have been introducing in the classroom, draws on techniques long used by designers. In the exercise, participants jot down ideas on Post-it Notes, cluster the ideas into themes, and then tease out broad principles and issues. Delegates were instructed to focus not on constraints and obstacles but on possibilities.
The delegates’ involvement does not end with the close of the Summit. The group plans to incorporate the ideas and issues raised during the event in a statement of principles, a “Declaration of Innovation,” that can guide national efforts to create an environment in which entrepreneurship and innovation can flourish.
The Summit also turned the spotlight on several local entrepreneurs, who spoke of their experiences and the entrepreneurial community in Charlottesville in a public event following the screening of Something Ventured, a documentary about the rise of the venture capital industry in the 1960s and 1970s.
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