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Rainforest Thinking Will Help Innovate ABQ Grow

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – NOVEMBER 25, 2014 The Rainforest model for creating innovation ecosystems in places that generate extraordinary creativity and economic output advocates systemic innovation as the underlying producer of innovation economies. See STC CEO Lisa Kuuttila’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, November 23, 2014, edition of the Albuquerque Journal, reprinted below.

ABQ’s Rainforest in the Desert model will get us there

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

In Win Quigley’s recent UpFront column, “Looking for Ways to Help Innovate ABQ Grow,” on the front page of the Nov. 9 Sunday edition of the Albuquerque Journal, he continues to be pessimistic about Albuquerque’s future and UNM’s reputation.

Let’s look further south from Silicon Valley to San Diego to see Albuquerque’s future.

Early on, San Diego looked a lot like Albuquerque. It was a city heavily reliant on government money and defense contracts to sustain its economy.

In the late ’90s, San Diego committed to transforming itself. Today, its mostly small to mid-sized high-technology companies (about 94 percent of companies in San Diego are small and fewer than 1 percent have more than 250 workers) have added tens of thousands of jobs in many sectors from telecommunications to bio and energy technologies.

The city is one of the nation’s most productive for creating new technologies and the companies they sprout – and attracting the investment that helps them grow.

We think Win would be more optimistic about the prospects for our region if he were more familiar with just some of the small companies that have been created, for instance, from University of New Mexico technologies.

We know the entrepreneurs that run them well. Intellicyt, nanoMR, Agilvax, Respira, Biophagy, EcoPesticides, Zocere, Avisa, SKINfrared, Eta Diagnostics and Pajarito Powder are developing products that span many sectors, including energy, medical devices, new materials, nanotechnology, nanomanufacturing and biotechnology.

New Mexico has the added advantage of attracting talent.

Over 40 percent of the experienced entrepreneurs who are CEOs of UNM startups are transplants from other parts of the country.

Rainforest thinking is aspirational and doesn’t advocate cloning Silicon Valley. What it asks is this: What is the process that creates systemic innovation? Why is the Rainforest way, its recipe, for putting the elements together that lead to systemic innovation so important?

In San Diego, the ingredients were combined in the right way. The University of California at San Diego created a program called CONNECT and hired successful entrepreneur Bill Otterman to run it. It was based on the idea that, if you do a better job of connecting academia and business, you will help entrepreneurs and spur innovation.

Otterman brought the people with ideas, talent (skills) and capital (money) together. Only a few places do that effectively to create economic wealth. The right environment is more important to fostering innovation than trying to force a particular innovation into existence.

The University of New Mexico is fostering this ecosystem through STC.UNM and in partnership with many other community members through Innovate ABQ.

Quigley’s 1980s history of Silicon Valley is not the complete story. Stanford may have produced some of the entrepreneurs who created great companies, but it wasn’t primarily training chip-making engineers for the semiconductor industry.

Beginning in the 1970s, Stanford was off doing the research that created the biotechnology and Internet industries. In the same way, UNM is creating the technologies and industries of the future now.

By the way, in 2013, University of New Mexico technologies spun out the same number of startup companies as Stanford University: 9.

But we did it with one quarter of Stanford’s research dollars.

Public institutions have a big role to play in creating innovation ecosystems. As institutional innovators, they plant the seeds in the Rainforest. Our raw materials are the educated workforce and the technology we transfer to the community.

The University of New Mexico is producing the educated workforce that will sustain Innovate ABQ, and STC.UNM and its partners are moving new technologies and companies now through the pipeline. But, as San Diego did, we want to take it to the next level.

And that is why the Rainforest in the Desert model, Albuquerque’s way of nurturing an innovation ecosystem, will get us there.



Denise Bissell
(505) 272-7310