Our region’s business community has a self-esteem problem. We nod shamefully when we are told we depend on government dollars for success.
We don’t need to “lessen our dependence on government” as much as we need to adapt our economy to what it will need going forward, and to take advantage of our proximity to the federal government to grow new businesses that benefit from this accessibility. The greater Washington region has long track record of producing large and lasting businesses off our regional strengths. Yes, we will always be a “government town” because federal dollars are a primary source of capital for entrepreneurial activity, both directly and indirectly. We shouldn’t run from this fact.
We are told to diversify away from federal spending in order to become entrepreneurial and push our regional economy forward. Yes, we should look for new industries and opportunities to grow 21st century jobs. However, in order to truly move forward we must open our eyes and see that we are not dependent upon the federal government — we are sitting in one of the best places in the country for emerging technologies.
Entrepreneurs follow the money. Every successful entrepreneurial cluster in the world has at its center a source of predictable funding. At some point an entrepreneur needs capital in excess of his or her individual resources. This capital might come from larger incumbent companies, customers, services or risk capital from venture capitalists. But, without capital, it is impossible to rapidly scale to a soaring success.
Entrepreneurial businesses are like sunflowers bending to follow the sun; they formulate business and expansion plans to attract funding from available sources. In Silicon Valley, there is an abundance of risk capital, and an established ecosystem of consumer software giants, so entrepreneurs start businesses attractive to these capital sources. Silicon Valley doesn’t have a self-esteem problem — it’s a great place to start a consumer Internet business.
Entrepreneurs in the greater Washington region are adept at shaping businesses and attracting capital from regional sources. They are not “dependent” upon the federal government, they follow the money and take advantage of our proximity to a primary capital source.
Pioneers like BTG, SAIC and Network Solutions started by serving the federal government and then branching out into the commercial sector. Companies such as AOL, Medimmune, Blackboard and Sourcefire were started by smart people who took advantage of proximity to the technology infrastructure of our region — in many instances seeded by government funding — to grow commercial businesses. And then, over time, companies like HonestTea, Living Social and Cvent were born and became successful here — and they have nothing to do with the federal government.
Without question, changes in the level of federal funding have rippled through our regional economy. They have caused us to ask where our economy will find opportunities to nurture new businesses and create jobs. These are valid questions and I believe that there are answers.
But before we ask these questions, we cannot forget that we have a strong and deep entrepreneurial culture here — and this is our chance to shine.
Emerging industries with specific opportunities for our region such as personalized medicine, life sciences, artificial intelligence, data analytics and cybersecurity prove that we are uniquely positioned to take a national leadership role.
Our universities and federal labs offer applied research that will drive opportunities in 2020 and beyond. In each case, seed capital and infrastructure to grow these industries will be derived from the federal government. This does not make us dependent – it makes us entrepreneurial.