Would it surprise you to learn that Fast Company magazine just ranked Maryland the third-most innovative state in the nation? Or that Maryland took the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's No. 1 spot for both innovation and entrepreneurship? It's a fact: In our state's dynamic mix of world-class universities and professional schools, institutes for advanced research, teaching hospitals, think tanks, hubs for start-up businesses and more, there exists this mysterious, economically essential activity known as innovation.
So if we are as innovative as Fast Company and the leaders of free enterprise say we are — and I believe it's true — we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions: How did it happen? And how can we keep it going?
It might help if more Marylanders had a thorough understanding of what innovation means. For starters, innovation is all around us, in our cars, our homes, and our workplaces — but it's an elusive thing to describe. Recently, I was in a discussion with a group of young, driven and inspiring businesspeople, talking about the state's next generation of innovators. Here's what I learned:
•Talent is the watchword. It's up to teachers and families to recognize and encourage it in young people, from their earliest days all the way into their career paths. Talent is forever.
•Basic knowledge in something as sophisticated as software development can be learned on YouTube. But after that, it's all about how you enhance those baseline skills. Creative problem solving is a process that can lead to (guess what?) innovation.
•Education must emphasize the core components that let talent and problem solving thrive. Communication skills, critical thinking, imagination and initiative, all of which can be developed in school, are the real fundamentals of life in the 21st century.
•A tolerance for risk is a requirement in this new landscape. Our education systems tend to instill risk aversion and compliance in students, in contrast with the risk-taking and failure needed for learning. Innovation requires trial and error.
As a university professor and dean of a business school, I came away from this meeting with a belief that our state is poised for long-term greatness in this thing called innovation. But it's up to each of us — not just lawmakers and CEOs, but everyday Marylanders — to contribute.
The first thing we must do is define innovation and make it real for all citizens. That could take the form of additional centers for entrepreneurship and innovation, like we have at the University of Baltimore, supported by both the public and private sectors. New companies, or even untested ideas for products and services, could launch in the Free State more frequently. When the best of these ventures take off, we should celebrate them as our innovators. That seal of approval — "Created in Maryland" — could be a real differentiator.
Our state's colleges and universities have much to contribute to this process. At the University of Baltimore, for example, we're committed to the teaching of entrepreneurship and the commercialization of innovation through our academic programs and specializations. We're teaching the fundamentals of small business, and creating partnerships between our self-starting students and seasoned entrepreneurs. New synergies are building from this groundwork — and not just with young people. Folks in their 50s and 60s who are seeking new horizons and new dreams are in on it, too. We like to say that entrepreneurship is the "new mid-life crisis." For every baby boomer in the midst of life-changing experiences, there are fantastic opportunities.
Every university in Maryland is witnessing these changes. Many are committing resources to bring technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. Others are focusing on the fundamentals. But we are all contributing to an economic ecosystem that fosters innovation all across Maryland.
Over the past decade, in Maryland and around the globe, we've seen remarkable economic upheaval. We must become more self-reliant, more entrepreneurial, more focused on what each of us brings to the economy and the culture of innovation.
This new thinking shows in the unparalleled growth in our state's capacity for creative ventures. Companies like Under Armour, Millennial Media, Ciena, Advertising.com, 180's, Bill Me Later, and a host of firms focused on digital simulation, software development, biotechnology and other scalable industries have started here. According to the Maryland Department of Planning, in 2010 there were 14,853 high-technology establishments in the state, representing 11 percent of all Maryland businesses. From 2006-2010, this sector grew by 2.7 percent — not bad, considering the recession during much of that period.
Obviously, we are doing a lot of things right. The issue is how to build on that success. Other states are learning what innovation can do for their economies. To stay ahead, it's up to us — public or private sector, just starting out in business or well-established, young or not so young — to keep Maryland moving forward. It involves education, personal and professional empowerment, and, of course, investment. Just like a first-grader needs a good breakfast to do well in school, new ideas can't get going without funding. We need to develop an array of funding models, and apply them in each and every community in the state.
Innovation is like oxygen — it's essential to life, it's all around us, but we can't take it for granted. Not only must we innovate and encourage new business development, we also need to position our state as a positive place in which to start and retain companies of all kinds. At the same time that we're doing great in Fast Company, we're also coming up short in Chief Executive magazine: Its recent ranking by CEOs has Maryland at No. 41 nationally for best states for business. We have to bring these things closer together; innovation and business climate go hand in hand. That's how Maryland can be competitive, and stay competitive, in some mighty fast company.
Darlene Brannigan Smith is dean of the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.