U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Delivers Keynote Address at the Future of Urban Innovation Summit at Columbia University


Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Today, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker delivered remarks at the Future of Urban Innovation Summit in New York City. The event, co-hosted by the Commerce Department and Columbia University, gathered business leaders, investors, students, and local, state, and federal government officials to learn how the Commerce Department serves as “America’s Innovation Agency” and how leaders in the public, private, educational, and non-profit sectors can work together to cultivate, inspire, and empower start-ups and entrepreneurs.
During her remarks, Secretary Pritzker discussed the advantages cities offer entrepreneurs looking to start a business, including leading research universities; start-up incubators; financial institutions; advertising and marketing firms; the talent pool to develop new products; and a concentrated customer base.
To utilize these resources, Secretary Pritzker emphasized the importance of strong, cross-sector partnerships to support businesses as they move out of the research and development phase to tackling the challenges of starting and growing a company. She also outlined the wide variety of ways that the Department of Commerce invests in urban centers across America, facilitates groundbreaking research in diverse fields, and collaborates with various partners to take new ideas from the lab to market.
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Lee Bollinger and Columbia University, for co-hosting with the Department of Commerce this summit on the future of urban innovation. It should be no surprise that we are here at Columbia. Invention; research; the cultivation of creativity and new ideas; and a strong connection to the city around you – are all central to your leadership as one of the world’s premier universities. This institution, along with all of the great minds in the audience today, stands at the crossroads of discovery and commercialization.
Innovation and discovery have sustained and spurred economic growth in the United States since its inception. Our Founders recognized that discovery would be essential to our existence and to our ability to remain a free and independent nation. Therefore, in Article I of the Constitution, they insisted on a bold statement to “promote the progress of science” and to secure for “authors and inventors the exclusive right to their writings and discoveries.
Decades later, Abraham Lincoln would become our only President to hold a patent: for a device to lift riverboats over shoals. You can see a model of his invention at the Smithsonian in Washington – but it was never actually manufactured. He would be a great President, but he was also a failed inventor – like so many before and after him. Yet his experience instilled in him a firm faith in the importance of innovation, as he once stated – and I quote: “the patent system…added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”
Whether it was Lincoln developing a riverboat device, or Ben Franklin harnessing the power of electricity, or Steve Jobs revolutionizing the personal computer, American inventors have had amazing insights. But that is not enough. Translating those discoveries into viable, thriving businesses is essential and has been central to the strength of our economy. This task of taking an idea to market has always required strong partnerships among businesses, investors, educational institutions, and every level of government.
Urban areas are ideal hubs for these partnerships, thanks to the proximity and concentration of essential resources. Whether in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, or elsewhere, the ingredients of innovation are all present, including research universities; start-up incubators; financial institutions; advertising and marketing firms; the talent pool to develop new products; and a concentrated customer base.
Urban areas also boast large immigrant populations, diverse communities, and an ability to attract talent from anywhere in the world. We know that immigration is key to innovation. Many household technology brands – from Google to eBay to IBM and more – were started by first or second-generation Americans.
Many newcomers arrive on our shores to be educated in our great universities, and others arrive already possessing strong backgrounds in scientific research, engineering, high-tech, and computer science. Many immigrants flock to our cities in hopes of finding a partner at a local research institution; gaining financing to move their inventions from the lab to market; or testing their innovations in a dense population center. Immigrants refresh and renew our nation’s tradition of innovation. We must ensure more talented students, skilled workers, and inventors from abroad can come to the United States and remain here by enacting comprehensive immigration reform. The built-in advantages of urban centers have led to strong partnerships in a wide range of American cities. Let me highlight two.
First is Philadelphia, where the University City Science Center operates the largest and oldest urban research park in the United States. Since 1963, this dynamic hub has hosted colleges, universities, hospitals, and research institutions from across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The center has provided lab and office space for start-ups; offered business incubation, support services, and programming for entrepreneurs; and moved technology out of the discovery phase and into the marketplace.
Since its founding, more than 350 companies have graduated from the center and generated 40,000 jobs; of those graduates, 93 firms have set up shop in Greater Philadelphia, creating more than 15,000 jobs in that region. The center’s success is not only a product of the ingenuity of local leaders, but also the support of the federal government.
For example, in 2011, the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration invested $1 million in a proof-of concept center, which brings life-sciences research to the market. For example: scientists at Drexel University, working with the center, developed a hand-held, wireless breast cancer scanner, called the “iBreast Exam.” This device will enable any doctor or health care worker to conduct an exam within five minutes, and then access the results on a smartphone or tablet. We expect this product to be available for commercial use in the United States and India starting next month – a tangible result of strong collaboration between an urban hub, academic innovators, and public funding.
There is a similar story in Atlanta, where Georgia Tech’s VentureLab assists early-stage companies with business model development and connects start-ups to financing. Since VentureLab began in 2001, with a $1.4 million grant from EDA, it has launched more than 150 technology firms that have attracted over $750 million in outside funding. Georgia Tech was so pleased with these results that it did not stop with this single successful enterprise. The school launched a second collaborative effort with Emory’s medical school and the Centers for Disease Control, creating the Global Center for Medical Innovation – again with the assistance of EDA. When I visited this center, I witnessed up-close how this hub accelerates the development and commercialization of next-generation medical technology.
Atlanta and Philadelphia are only two examples of great urban centers of innovation across our country. They demonstrate what’s possible when the private, public, educational, and non-profit sectors collaborate to bring innovation to life. In both cases, the Commerce Department played a key role – one of the many ways that we serve as “America’s Innovation Agency.” Our job is to stand at the crossroads of discovery and commercialization – not only at this summit, but each and every day. Our goal is to create the environment for innovation to thrive – in cities or, frankly, in any community across our country. Our aim across the Obama Administration, our aim is to provide the tools for researchers and entrepreneurs to turn their inventions into commercially-viable products.
At our Department, we also promote discovery and research by issuing patents that protect intellectual property. As you will hear later today from Director Michelle Lee, our Patent and Trademark Office is developing a national presence in urban centers beyond their headquarters – for the first time, establishing satellite offices in Detroit, Dallas, Denver, and Silicon Valley.
Here in the New York region, our patent office has provided education and commercialization assistance to Cornell University’s applied sciences and technology campus on Roosevelt Island. And in our nation’s capital, we are now working to advance targeted, balanced, and bipartisan legislation to address abusive patent litigation practices, level the playing field for innovators, and increase transparency in the patent system.
At our Department, we also facilitate and spur commercialization through the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. One of our initiatives is the Centers of Excellence Program, launched in 2012, where researchers from a variety of fields collaborate on topics such as advanced materials, community resilience, and forensic science. These centers provide the resources needed for researchers to realize the commercial potential of their work. Our first center is located in Chicago and has already seen progress in the development of high-performance materials like lightweight composites for aerospace and energy efficient electronics.
At our Department, we build creative ecosystems through our Regional Innovation Strategy grants, which advance invention and capacity-building activities in communities across the country. This program provides funding for feasibility and planning studies for science and research parks. This program Invests in centers that help entrepreneurs move early-stage ideas from the garage and lab to production and sales. This program expands access to capital by increasing the flow of seed funding to promising startups. In March, I traveled to the University of Central Florida to announce the first of these grants. I saw university researchers, students, and local businesses working together to develop and bring to market devices like prosthetic arms for children.
At our Department, we support entrepreneurs as they move out of the research environment and confront the day-to-day challenges of starting, financing, running, and growing a business. In recent months, we initiated the Startup Global program in Washington, D.C., Nashville, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Denver. This initiative empowers early-stage companies to think global from day one. Experts from across our Department in those communities provide the technical assistance and know-how needed by companies to export their goods and services.
Our first Startup Global event was a success. As one participant said, “The event really changed my perspective on how the government can be a resource, not a barrier. I definitely underestimated the resources that Commerce has available for new companies.”
At our Department, we also ensure that urban innovation creates opportunities for all Americans – for men and women of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. The recent events in Baltimore, in Ferguson, right here in New York City, and nationwide are stark reminders of the vital importance of building a strong, inclusive economic base that offers everyone a chance to succeed.
I firmly believe that our economy and country are stronger when we use 100 percent of our talent. To advance this cause, our Minority Business Development Agency works each day to ensure minority-owned businesses fully participate in our economy, including right here in New York, through our business centers in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Williamsburg. Last year, these three sites secured over $200 million in financing and contracting for local minority businesses that created more than 300 jobs.
Today, America boasts nearly 6 million of these minority-owned firms, which support millions of jobs and contribute more than $1 trillion to our economy. These enterprises are now the fastest-growing segment of our country’s business community. But we must do more to build on their progress and replicate broad-based success in communities throughout our nation. Our Department wants to be your partner. We want you to use our resources.
We want you to use the U.S. Cluster Mapping Tool, where you will find an extraordinary amount of current data about your local and regional business environments and where you can locate appropriate partners. We want your cities to apply for the next round of Regional Innovation Strategy grants, to gain the tools that your entrepreneurs need to turn early-stage ideas into thriving businesses.
We want your feedback and engagement. Please work with key members of my team, who are here today Michelle Lee, Director of PTO; Alejandra Castillo, Director of the Minority Business Development Agency; Josh Mandell, my Senior Adviser for Innovation; and Julie Kirk, Director of our Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Our partnerships – between the federal government, academic institutions, business leaders, and entrepreneurs – have been essential to our nation’s economic success since its founding. Our partnerships will remain absolutely vital to the process of discovery, to the commercialization of new products, and to growth in cities and communities across our country. Our partnerships are necessary to yield the inventions that could re-shape our economy, our society, and our way of life. Together, in the years and decades to come, we will keep America open for innovation and open for business.
Thank you. I wish you luck for a productive and constructive summit throughout the rest of the day.

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