Friday, April 11, 2008

Waddey: Nashville needs a research park

Yesterday, during an unscheduled phone conversation, Jack Waddey rose to the question with gusto. We asked his opinion on building Nashville's high-tech economy, and quickly learned that the Nashville aerospace engineer-cum-patent mediator and Waddey & Patterson attorney -- the guy who founded the Tennessee Intellectual Property Law Association (TIPLA) -- had plenty to offer. First of all, Waddey warned -- as have others -- that Nashville's HCA-ignited success in privatizing services has come with a hidden cost: Service-oriented ventures involve scant IP or technology, and are thus hard to protect from competitors. Yet, largely because of the wealth culture created by the HCA Big Boom, Waddey believes that while most Nashville entrepreneurs are hungry for "business opportunities," they have little or no interest in being part of the "heavy lifting" of research that would produce new ideas and products. In addition, he said, past political and institutional leadership has not been adequate to galvanize all stakeholders. Today, he said, there's real opportunity for progress, with Governor Bredesen and Mayor Dean in place. Among their highest economic priorities, he said, should be the creation of a research center for Nashville, a community that would leverage and augment Vanderbilt. He cited Huntsville's Cummings Research Park as a prime example of what a city can do. Thanks in part to momentum provided by government and industry, Cummings is second only to the 7,000-acre Research Triangle Park in scope and activity (RTI has 157 companies and more than 40,000 employees and contractors). The Association of University Research Parks (AURP) says there are nearly 200 such parks in the nation, most of them relatively small. There's no AURP park in Nashville. A recent Battelle report provides a virtual blueprint for what any community could attempt in fostering high-knowledge, high-paying ventures. The reports stresses growing indigenous innovative companies, rather than relying on recruiting industry from elsewhere. There's no mystery in the process, Waddey stresses, but it requires sustained effort. After all, RTI was founded 49 years ago. Waddey said Nashville civic and business leaders must come to understand that if they're not willing to "get behind" the local tech economy, "then no matter how much we talk about it, it isn't going to happen." Clearly frustrated, Waddey said, "Nashville is a fabulous city. It ought to blow the socks off North Carolina in terms of attractiveness." Instead, he observed, Nashville is assembling computers for Dell, rather than "designing the next wave." The problem, he contends, is that Nashville technology has long been "the red-headed stepchild at a church picnic." He likens it to the way the Music industry was treated, until fairly recently. Plenty of folks want to jump onboard after someone hits a homerun, but few will take the risks associated creating a knowledge foundation for Nashville. Consequently, Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, RTI and Huntsville are among the exemplars. Asked Waddey, "What's the next big one that's coming along? Why couldn't it be Nashville?" (P.S.- Do you realize Boston is claiming to be the nation's "Hidden Hub of Music and Technology"? Nashville's Digital Music Summit is April 22. Use it or lose it, Nashville.)


Venture Nashville Connections said...

Whew! strong response this morning. One conversation led to this RTI strategy document.

Ed Dodds said...

Milt: Hope it's o.k. to post a pointer to the newly minted "Technology Nashville" networking group on Promoting a technology economy in Nashville and Tennessee. Networking tech professionals, angels, venture capitalists, public and private institutions, start ups, etc. The invite link is:
Thanks for all you do to boost the BNA MSA.