WIRED funding ends soon

January 9, 2009
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At the end of the month, West Michigan's Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, or WIRED, grant comes to a close.

The West Michigan region applied for and was granted one of 13 First Generation WIRED grants, in the amount of $15 million, launched by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration in 2005. The grant is good for three years.

WIRED West Michigan has used the federal money to help launch region-wide initiatives or "innovations." Some were successes, while others failed. But Phillip Rios, the program's project manager, has no concerns about the end date.

"The premise of developing these organizations is (that) some have become organizations, some haven't. Some have taken on a natural course and they've evolved," said Rios.

"Adding to the spirit of cooperation on a regional level — I think that's what's going to carry us forward. The innovations are going to have their own success stories, but what's good for West Michigan is getting people working together and talking together — even at a leadership level. I think that's the ultimate goal."

In the coming weeks or months, Rios said, WIRED West Michigan will publish a community report on the activities of the organization and the various innovations that were spurred from the grant money.

"One of our big goals was not necessarily the sustainability of WIRED, but the sustainability of the innovations," said Rios. "(Another goal) was to continue the idea of building regional-to-regional cooperation. Talking about regional cooperation and doing it are two different things. I often tell people that 95 percent of the time we worry about home, but if we can find that 5 percent of the time we're working cooperatively for the good of the region, that's when you become a powerful economy."

Rios mentioned Silicon Valley as a region that has a national profile as a cooperative business area that spreads beyond city lines. In order to create such a regional economy, there must be an infrastructure of innovation and entrepreneurship, he said.

"We can't sit around waiting for someone to do it for us; we have to do it ourselves," said Rios, paraphrasing a speech by Richard DeVos. "That's that innovation we're trying to promote. If you create an environment that promotes innovation … then whatever approach takes hold, you can use that to move the region forward."

Part of the challenge for the innovations launched through the WIRED grant is that they were based on a hypothesis, said Rios. So some of the ideas had to continually adapt as the innovation took root, and some were unable to make the necessary changes and fizzled out.

"Some of them — the idea just didn't work," said Rios. "Part of innovation is understanding that sometimes not everything is a success."

Rios said in most cases the people behind the failing innovations agreed they weren't working and supported ending them. Others blended with other innovations to create successes. Staying open-minded was key, and so was leadership, he said.

"Strong leadership of the projects and their ability to get people from all over the region excited about their innovations; having a logical story that explains what they're doing and why they're doing it; and then execution," Rios said of the characteristics that made projects successful.

One that demonstrated those characteristics is part of the original 12 innovations: InnovationWorks, a region-wide commitment to providing access to resources capable of accelerating the development of intellectual property in West Michigan. InnovationWorks was formally launched in February 2008 to support innovation, but also to track intellectual property fostered in West Michigan: the number of ideas it helps bring to commercialization and the revenue created by those ideas.

Jim Ross leads InnovationWorks as vice president of innovation and technical services at The Right Place Inc.

"Fundamentally, we're an infrastructure to support innovation as it relates to new products or processes in the economy," he said.

Though InnovationWorks has a five-year plan to report tangible results, it has already been tracking the numbers. Ross has been pleased with the outcome. Currently, InnovationWorks has held 13 technical events, having set a goal of 12; helped launch seven collaborative networks, with a goal of eight; and helped create and retain 14 jobs. The products that InnovationWorks has helped bring to market are projected to total $5 million in revenue.

InnovationWorks is not sure what its target numbers at the five-year mark should be, but wants to "create some baseline information," he said. One piece of baseline information is the number of regional patents being awarded in the seven-county WIRED West Michigan area. So far, 640 have been reported. A higher success of awarded patents makes the region more attractive to companies and talent. The number of patents also has a direct link to venture capital.

"If we look at innovation capacity, one of the things consultants or experts generally look at is patents granted in the region," said Ross. "We want to keep that number moving forward."

Regional patents are just one statistic that falls under the first of three metrics used by InnovationWorks: intellectual property; clients touched (Web site hits, memberships and others); and clients impacted (jobs created, revenue created and others).

With WIRED funding ending Jan. 31, Ross said The Right Place Inc. will assume responsibility for InnovationWorks on Feb. 1. InnovationWorks has received two grants to help sustain it beyond the WIRED funding. One is a $500,000 grant spread over two years from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The other came from the Fremont Area Community Foundation, which is contributing $150,000 over three years. The Right Place will also be contributing, said Ross.

InnovationWorks will also begin charging for some of the services it provides starting Feb. 1. There will be an annual membership fee of $300. If individuals sign up within the first six months, the fee will be $150. InnovationWorks costs roughly $700,000 a year to operate.

Rios said the WIRED West Michigan office plans to fade out sometime in late summer, but noted that many of the innovations already started have begun collaborating with each other; further pursuing the spirit of cooperation.

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